Thursday, September 24, 2009

A David Lynch character in Kathmandu

The second law of thermodynamics tells us that without an injection of energy, all order decays. Now imagine this being beaten to death in the most turgid prose possible and you have Karna Sakya’s Paradise In Our Backyard. Right in the introduction, Sakya asks the reader not to expect ornate writing but when a book falls short in every aspect, including the book’s subtitle that claims “A Blueprint for Nepal”, the reader could do with some good language.

Sakya is a hotelier whose Kathmandu Guest House (KGH) in Thamel has achieved iconic status in the country. Prior to being an entrepreneur, Sakya was with the forest department of the Nepal government and this is where the book’s strength lies. The reader can feel the adrenaline rush when Sakya describes how a woman saved herself from rhino or how Sakya waded through the vast wetlands of Shuklapanta. Expunge the book of these parts and Sakya comes across as a David Lynch countryside character — one who has never said a single profound sentence in his life.

Here’s why. In a country where governments change as frequently as Judd Apatow makes movies, Sakya mentions politics in the most apolitical manner. One would have liked to know how he ran the business during the 1990 revolution and how he withstood the test of time when the tumultuous political scenario meant not many foreign tourists — Sakya’s bread and butter. Instead of expending precious ink on showing his self-effacing side (“hefty income and a good profit have never been my sole ambition”), Sakya could have thrown some light on what Nepal felt on being the first democracy in the entire world to have a communist prime minister.

In the latter part of his life, Sakya was involved with a news magazine and there’s no mention of the iron curtain that ensured that Nepal was the most repressive state against the media what with more than 100 journalists jailed during the state of emergency (according to Reporters Sans Frontiers). The book takes a brief Sophoclean turn when Sakya compares the urban-rural chasm in developed and underdeveloped countries and concludes that the chasm is a universal phenomenon. However, the turn is just that — brief. After an eventful stint at the forest department, Sakya set up the KGH for the non-hippie foreign tourist.

For the uninitiated, this part would be illuminating as Sakya talks about his business techniques and no wonder then that KGH was one among the top thirty travel highlights of the world in the thirtieth anniversary special of Lonely Planet. In a country where the bar of progress seems to be set so low that a baby could backflip over it, this is no mean achievement. Sakya comes across as a man who can theorise without oxygen at any height. Case in point: the 101 suggestions to improve Kathmandu city and this comes closest to the purported “A Blueprint For Nepal”. One chapter titled “Hope and Despair”, however, tugs at the reader’s heart, Sakya’s affected prose notwithstanding. Sakya lost his first wife and daughter to cancer and how he followed up his personal losses with a cancer hospital in Bharatpur is commendable.

Sakya is that amphibious creature, a high-society intellectual, and this comes across tellingly when he mentions how the hospital was built with one paisa tax on every cigarette consumed, or when he expatiates how the Visit Nepal Year 1998 came about. After passing on the family business, Sakya is back to square one — nature. This time, through, niche tourism and his is an unqualified success.

At the end of Paradise In Our Backyard, the reader’s state of mind would be exactly like that of Alice after hearing “Jabberwocky” — “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don’t exactly know what they are.”