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Kathmandu Diary

Our man in Kathmandu saw much through the window in his hotel room, and, when out on the streets, through the cracks in the palace doors; he met a revolutionary inventor, and then joined in the celebrations by drinking home brewed alcohol...

Kathmandu Diary
Kathmandu Diary

Figure this one out: In ten years 12,000 Nepali lives were lost in the battle for people’s power. Yet in nineteen days of protests, the king capitulated after barely 16 lives were lost. People in Kathmandu say this is because a critical mass has been attained, and people realise that change doesn’t happen because you put fancy words into the constitution. It happens because the people spontaneously will it through protests. On the first day of protests, April 6, Nepal’s two top comedians Madan Krishna Shresta and Hari Dhansa Acharya went on air to say they were going to raise funds to treat the injured. Between them they deposited Rs 1,00,000/- The very next day the account had become Rs 3,00,000/-. On day nineteen it stood at Rs 1.4 crore. And this was only in one fund, at the Model Hospital Kathmandu.

There were other signs that the king was losing grip on his people: In the fourteen months of direct rule the king had switched off the mobile telephone services four times. This he did to deny Nepal’s six lakh mobile telephone subscribers the luxury of co-ordinating their action real time. Finally the telecom authorities told the king that mobile services were essential services and the king would be taken to court for denying the country this essential service. Further, the telecom authority would seek compensation for every day of revenue loss. One week into the revolution, as people from outside Kathmandu began to add to the numbers in the streets, the residents of Balaju and Gangobou decided that they would not accept rent from those who were protesting, till such time as the protests continued. The doctors went on strike, to protest the way the police were handling the crowds after the injured (of which there were around 5,000) began to stream into the hospitals with head injuries. On the thirteenth day of protests, fourteen staff members of the Rastra Bank were arrested after they refused to cash a cheque made out by the home minister. Under the local laws, the home minister can apparently withdraw five lakh rupees a day to hire vigilantes and launch a dirty war on the protesters. The bank employees were thwarting this. Even the personal secretary to the home minister was arrested.

On the morning after the king called it quits, through the window of my hotel room I saw that the armoured personnel carrier, usually parked at the head of the road, was no longer there. Neither were the blue camouflage uniformed police who would take up positions before the daily curfew began. Across the road, where the brick wall of the Palace compound rose some nine feet high, there were no troops save those in the sentry posts built behind the wall. Out on the road, I could see people in track suits, some walking, some jogging. I decided to take a walk around the outer perimeter wall of the palace, obscured from view by thick bamboo foliage. Through a crack in one of the massive doors to the palace compound, I could see bunkers had been dug, and sandbags had been piled high. Soldiers jogged by my line of vision. As the road curved, I could hear the sound of a gong. A Buddhist monk sat, eyes closed, beating the gong under a cement canopy next to a temple. Two girls sat by him listening. Nearby was a park. A young boy was shadow-boxing vigorously. Around him were a handful of youth stretching their limbs. The sun glinted dully from the temple tank with its green water where some women were washing clothes. It was all so normal. No indication at all that an upheaval had occurred. As I sipped tea, I asked shop-owner whether he intended to celebrate the transition. He said: Sure, we will celebrate later in the day and in the evening. But I am telling you in three years we will be back to the same spot where we were when all this began."

In some time, Kathmandu is going to have a Peace Secretariat. It is going to be located in the Delhi Bazaar where Bhojan Griha restauraunt caters to a largely foreign clientele serving local cuisine on floor level Japanese-style tables. You sit on cushions and eat organic food and drink off a low table. The restaurant is on two floors of a building that used to belong to the head priest of Kathmandu’s Royal Palace. One half of the building is falling to an utter state of disrepair. Apparently the South Africans were looking for a building where they could bring the seven sides of the conflict in Nepal together to talk together. Their requirement was simple: They needed a building where they could have meals together as well. Anil Chitrakar, a tireless social entrepreneur who wears many hats – giving new life to Kathmandu’s ancient heritage is only one of them - showed them the Bhojan Griha and the South Africans did not want to look any further. One half of the building will now have offices and the other half the restaurants. Between the two, they will pay for the renovation and upkeep of the building.

One of the many things Anil, an engineer by training, did was to design something called the solar tuki. Tuki in Nepali means a wicker lamp fashioned out of an inkbottle that works with kerosene. Picked from about 2600 entries from more than 130 countries, it got the World Bank Global Development Marketplace Award last May. The solar tuki is a simple device that runs on a nickel cadmium battery that gets charged through a small solar panel and has two white light LED light points and a radio as well. The new models will also have a mobile charger. When World Bank boss asked Anil why the tuki should get the award, Anil told him: "You have defined poverty as one dollar a day. Here you have two clean white lights and radio at ten cents a day. If you see anything cheaper, please give them the prize". Wolfensen responded: "This is the first good news I have heard from Nepal." Anil had worked out the priceline: The Nepali in the target audience spends rupees seven a day on kerosene. The solar tuki, assembled in Nepal, costs Rs 3500 in microcredit. It is guaranteed for five years and paid for in small installments in two years. A potential 2.4 million people can use the tuki and in India the figure that Anil gave me is 78 million. Globally, it is 2 billion people. Talk about thinking globally and acting locally.

Food economics in Nepal is remarkable. It is the steepest country in the world, that rises up from 80 metres above the sea level in Jhapa on the east to 8848 metres (Everest) in a span of 150 kms. Ninety per cent of Nepalis live in the hill where sometimes it can rain between 300-400 mm in 48 hrs. In the villages, you know if it has been a good year or a bad year by what they serve their guests. You can tell a bad year if there are no men in the villages. If there is just enough food they mix all the cereals into a porridge they call dheno. If the cereals are not enough, they will stretch it by making a semi-liquid food they call kholay. If the rain is good, the Nepali eats rice. Otherwise it is corn. If there is both rice and corn, the Nepali will also make alcohol at home from one of them.

This year is definitely a good year for the Nepali. I also partook of the celebrations by drinking home brewed alcohol called Yela or Raksi. It is clear and potent, like tequila. For those who like to experiment here is how it is done: When it is time to harvest rice in a good year, the old stock is taken out of the storage bins and fermented in batches in clay pots with yeast. Four days later you get very sweet white beer which you drink by dunking in your glass into the ferment. Then the brew starts to go sour. At this point you heat the broth by placing it in a big covered copper vessel. You condense the steam using cold water in conical shaped vessel and and catch the condensation in a clay pot placed just inside the mouth of the copper vessel. You can get, I am told, upto 44 per cent proof alcohol, depending upon the coldness of the water. I recommend it. Drink up, enjoy.

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