As the 1960s fast-tracked to its natural end, I had more rapid exposures to the changing ways and means of the Kathmandu Valley, with my base in Kathmandu City where I lived in seven houses and apartments – Fasikew, Dilli Bazaar, Chikamugal, Pode Tole, Chhetrapati, Kuria Gaon, and Kamal Pokhari – then in two more dera-s in Kupondole in Patan (Lalitpur) before moving into my own family home, a half-done ground-floor abode, a slightly better affair than a shack, in the same area in 1975. Kupondole has been my home since then, after being tossed and turned in ten “tole”-s of Kathmandu and Patan in ten years.
In retrospection, the journey’s many trails from 1966 to 1976 – the decade of my happenings in this series – were ones of rapid kaleidoscopes and chiaroscuros. The old charivari was gradually muted, and sanity and cold calculations were taking over. I ceased to be the oldest pretending teenager in Kathmandu and acted my age and heeded the callings as times fleeted by. The moments of the earlier druggy weekend days and drunken nights were lived one day at a time, like Huckleberry Finn; as the years rolled by, I envisioned my graphs that were dreamt one season at a time; all the while gathering the dusts and moss of my yesterdays, and then sketching faint lines for my future in Kathmandu. Buying a piece of land to one day build a house, raising a family, with the first child on the way, and reaching the end of my MA programs were some of the items on my life chart of those days. In Casino Nepal, I was promoted from a Blackjack croupier to Pit Inspector, having to keep watchful eyes over many gaming tables throughout the night, also curating the music in the principal gaming hall, as well as frequently acting as public relations officer (PRO) to VIP guests.
Illustration: Sworup Nhasiju
The spool tapes and LP records played on an Akai tape deck and a Kenwood automatic record-changer turntable combo with Sansui preamps and amps and two huge Pioneer hi-fi stereo speakers in the music library at Casino Nepal were quite a collection for a western gambling den between Beirut and Macao in those days.
But music was a big No-No in the Nepali “juwa khaal” of sixteen cowries, the milk-white shiny seashell tossing game. Who cared for Sacha Distel, Francoise Hardy, Bobbie Gentry, Joan Baez, the Allman Brothers, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Lovin’ Spoonful, and the Beach Boys, or Al Caiola, Al Hirt, and Wes Montgomery, for that matter, when the “bahra masey” (12-month) “juwades” – those inveterate 365-days cowry tossers – shouted hoarse with “Mara! Mara!” (Kill! Kill!) and untranslatable “Chher! Chher!” whenever the king-size 16 cowries were violently thrown, resulting in “ghopto” face-downs or “uttano” upturns on the blue Chinese khaki blazer gone crazy gray with wildly flickered cigarette ash to determine who won or lost – “chowka” (four upturned cowry shells against “chhakka” (six shells facedown), and so on.
No county for modern music
I soon found out that the capital city Kathmandu, as the only metropolitan county in the kingdom, was not a music-promoting city in the modern sense; it was basically a music-listening place of mostly stratified Nepali Hindu high castes, entrenched ruling cliques, old moneyed mercantile class and new upstarts, faux intelligentsia, and media men (no women) bought and brought to heel by the System spread like lichen in the labyrinths of the Narayanhiti Royal Palace. These top-end Nepalis rubbed shoulders with foreign residents of diverse nationalities and capacities and stations in life who were busy seeking out every shade of nobility and roseate royalese in Kathmandu. The city’s various enclaves had modern bungalows and medieval durbars, and the drawing rooms of these opulent residences were replacing their old Bush and Murphy radio sets and replacing them with Grundig and Telefunken radios and Phillips automatic record players or radiograms. There was also the new Japanese invasion of Aiwa, Sanyo, JVC and Hitachi audio equipment: Sony was yet to appear on the scene. The Benz couple of USAID had a grand set of the only Bang & Olufsen music system in the Valley in their Thapathali sitting room; His Royal Highness Prince Basundhara Bir Bikram Shah’s durbar at Tahachal had an elaborate Fisher sound system; Dasho Lendup “Lenny” Dorje, the prince of Bhutan and Casino Nepal partner and our boss, had an enviable array of Akai and Sansui audio system in his Ravi Bhawan house which also boasted the largest personal record and tape collection in the city.
We played live band music at The Park Restaurant of Ratna Park, owned by His Royal Highness Prince Himalaya Bir Bikran Shah who was also a major partner at Casino Nepal. (Decades later, the large building by the Rani Pokhari would be leveled to the ground by Kathmandu’s Federal Democratic Republican Demolition Mayor Keshav Sthapit). We also played a few times at the American Club at Ravi Bhawan.
But our initiatives at commercial musical entertainment were not successful. How could it be a success when drunken Nepali patrons at The Park wanted us to play Kumar Basnet’s Tamang Selo, Dharmaraj Thapa’s Jhyaurey Lok Geet, and Yudhir Thapa’s modern lyrics sung by some obscure damsels? We wanted to play the Motown Sound, Bossa Nova and British Invasion Rock n’ Roll, but it was all Greek to the Nepali dunderheads. The culture chasm in Kathmandu was deeper than the Kali Gandaki Gorge.
The expatriate scene at the American Club was no better, either. Drunken Scots wanted to hear “Danny Boy” while Australian soldiers on exchange visits demanded Frank Ifield’s “Mule Train.” The lonely Midwesterner woman wanted Tammy Lynette and Loretta Lynn while some Bay Area guys wanted to hear The Byrds. One WHO expert from South India wished us to play “Perfidia” (good!) and a couple of New Yorkers were nostalgic about “In the Mood” (fine!). These clubbers and partygoers were at best as unruly as the Nepali crowds at The Park. We missed the quiet and dignified members and their evening guests at the Gymkhana and Planters’ Club in Darjeeling, or the top brasses at the Indian Army bashes held at the Norkhil Hotel in Gangtok, or the Indian Air Force squadrons and their guests at their parties in Bag Dogra, or the rules-by-the-book loyal jam session weekenders at Trinca’s of Calcutta.
The club scenes had so suddenly changed, almost overnight. In the old days of protocol just recently past, club and restaurant bands played their repertory and patrons listened and danced to their tunes; now the decorum and aplomb of the old British Raj in South Asia had vanished almost at the snap of the fingers. Thus, in the new age, Kathmandu was not a very welcoming mecca for performing musicians and live bands.
So I tried to play with Mr. Louis Banks and his quintet at the prestigious Soaltee Hotel. For old times’ sake, if not for anything else! But the property had rules against “guest” musicians: Either I must be a contractually signed-in player, or there was the door. I slouched back to Casino Nepal in the basement right beneath the hotel’s spacious and clubby restaurant, and that was the end of my aspirations to be a five-star tuxedoed band musician in Kathmandu. I was back inside the same old grimy Radio Nepal and its musty studios in my street clothes!
To be continued in the next edition of The Week.
The writer is the copy chief at The Week and can be contacted at email@example.com