Although Nepal’s earthquake last April visited our television screens with images of seismic devastation, the disaster has probably had little impact upon the prevailing western impression of this country. For many the mountain state remains steadfastly exotic and remote.
This is not just a consequence of those sublimely unattainable Himalayan peaks. For generations Nepal was a source of western fantasy that bordered on the obsessive and carried an undercurrent of late-imperial eroticism. What had so stirred European appetites was the long-standing Nepalese policy of playing hard to get. A short, bitter conflict in 1814–1816 with the East India Company inspired its militant Gurkha elite to pursue the rigorous exclusion of all foreigners.
It was not until the 1950s that the country relented on its self-imposed purdah, by which time Nepal beckoned the modern world as a last frontier for high-octane mountain adventure and fresh, often drug-fuelled spiritual fulfilment. While something of this misty Shangri-La-like fiction still clings to Nepal, it should truly be blown away by Thomas Bell’s wide-ranging, deep-delving, clear-headed exposition of all things Kathmandu.
Technically this is a travel book, in the sense that its heterogeneous contents on a foreign country are bound together by a free-roaming first-person narrator. Mercifully, however, Bell intrudes little of his personal story into his major historical, political and ethnographic themes; and, like many of the best works of travel, it is really a book of foreign residence.
Bell was the Daily Telegraph’s regional correspondent for more than a decade and has now settled permanently in the country. He thus has the necessary linguistic skills and personal connections to produce something beyond the superficialities of many standard travel books. He also takes his time: this is a long text of 500-odd pages.
Yet Kathmandu requires space. Its ancient origins are embedded in contradictory creation myths.