For overland travelers forty years ago, Kathmandu was the climax: the most remote, exotic, cheap, picturesque place on earth. To many it seemed an enlightened zone with its colorful mix of Hinduism and Buddhism (not to mention its cannabis). Virtually no outsiders had visited there until the nineteen-fifties, but today, the visitor will find little unchanged except the mountains, and even these have disappeared behind smog. A few years ago Kathmandu, against stiff competition, was named “the most polluted city in Asia. The visitor to the tourist-oriented Thamel district will see hundreds of sex businesses, and human trafficking transports Nepalese women to India. After years of armed insurrection, communists displaced the monarchy in an election judged fair by observers, but few on the streets seem to expect much from those who took power in the name of the people.
Early this year I read my poetry there to the Kathmandu Writers’ Roundtable. My wife and I had found it difficult to engage a rickshaw to go to the reading. The drivers, ordinarily the most shameless of hustlers, were reluctant to take us “due to some politics." As we approached the venue, we heard a great roar in the distance, gradually increasing block by block. By the time that we had come within a half-mile or so of the venue, we could see a large political rally in progress, and the street was so thick with pedestrians our driver was all but stalled. Groups of tribal dancers in costume marched in formation to take their places at the demonstration in the nearby parade grounds. Hundreds of red flags and hammer and sickle banners blew in the breeze. Somewhere a loudspeaker was exhorting the populace, but most people in our vicinity had fixed their gazes more close at hand. I assumed that the ruling faction, the Communist Party (Maoist), was holding a pep rally, but the newspaper the next morning revealed that it was a protest by the Communist Party (United Marxist-Leninist). United they may be today, but no one knows tomorrow. I was told that Nepal has fifteen different communist parties.
When we had made our way through the crowds, as we approached the hall where the reading was to be held, I was met not only by our friend Yuyutsu Sharma (who writes in English and whose work I recommend to all), but also by the press. It seems that half a dozen reporters and photographers had been dispatched to cover the readings. I was sequestered with them where they were serious as could be and took voluminous notes. The next day the story covered an entire page in the English language paper and was featured in smaller features in the Nepalese. I met an extraordinary range of literati including a man who wrote in classical Sanskrit slokas (just as some European poets persisted in writing learned Latin verses centuries after the language had ceased to be spoken by ordinary people). Another poet was a revolutionary who had laid down his arms after years of fighting in the insurgency. The lyrics of another, I was told, had been set to music and were sung by illiterate peasants as they planted paddy. There were professors and established authors, people from the Ministry of Culture, archaeologists and young novelists, traditionalists and innovators, an “energy healer” and a film actor, people who would very likely be attending ten different events in Manhattan -- here all were gathered in one hall.
After the reading a group of us wandered from café to bar to restaurant talking poetry into the night over wine (the Brahmins here are more casual than their Indian cousins about alcohol and meat-eating). Literary life seemed vigorous indeed for a country in which still more than half the people are illiterate, but perhaps it is only natural that the small educated class will form a tighter group than in our America where everyone goes to college. The marginalization of poetry about which so many complain in the United States is not an issue here where culture has a secure, though not necessarily a lucrative, place in the social structure. Even working class Nepalese are fiercely proud of their writers whether they read them or not.
I am not sure whether I have quite recovered yet from a sort of bemused dizziness at the fuss made over my appearance. I was called “renowned” and “distinguished,” adjectives which would never be applied to me by an American critic and which I can only relate in self-satire and appreciation for the politeness of my hosts. Surely a good deal of this, though, is what we called in the sixties “white-skin privilege.” It expresses a sort of internalized colonialism like the pride of the Nigerian school where I taught which gloried in being the only place for miles around with a white teacher. Isolation hardly exists today. Yuyutsu was educated in English and writes in English. He was mentored in university by an American poet and was likely thinking of Whitman among others when he launched a literary movement, Kathya Kayakalpa (Content Metamorphosis), to free Nepalese poetry from rigid adherence to traditional style and meter. Such interchange of ideas, of course, has existed since the Stone Age, and all culture lives and grows in such reaction and counter-reaction, understanding and misunderstanding each other. Yuyutsu told some fine tales from the Indian point of view about Allen Ginsberg’s pilgrimage to South Asia during which he seems to have sorely tried their conventional respect for poets, and yet much was learned surely on both sides.
He is coming in a few weeks to read and I am not only pleased that I can return his hospitality so soon, I am also confident that his interaction with local writers can only be productive. May the poets of the world mix it up and hear each other and challenge each other and read another poem and toss ideas and images about and in this manner we will make our way to the new writing of the future.