Sunday, 14 April, 2024

Kathmandu’s Hippie Days In Diary


Aashish Mishra


Diaries are not usually written for a reader. They are personal notes kept by the writer for his/her own reference, to be revisited some years or decades later and recount the interesting and not-so-interesting events that happened in their life. However, when a diary is written by someone who has lived as intriguing a life as Prakash A Raj, it becomes a de facto account of history and an encapsulation of an era long gone - an encapsulation that Raj generously made public in the form of the book ‘Legendary Country for Young People of the West.’
Raj grew up in a Kathmandu that was stirringly dichotomous. The city was both a deeply cultural and inward-looking community and a free welcoming haven at the same time. People vigorously held on to their beliefs while catering to tourists who wanted to break the shackles of societal norms and achieve liberation, often through stimulants. It was a time when many contrasting values met and merged with each other in the Nepali capital and turned the traditional Newa town into a flavourful ‘hippie paradise’ that many visitors dubbed ‘the Shangri-la of the Himalayas.’
Raj’s life, too, was as contrasting and conflicting as the city. Born to Brahmin nobles in a western-tinged sphere, Raj had to manoeuvre opposing morals from a very young age. His grandfather was the Bidwat Siromani (Jewel among scholars) Hem Raj Pandey whose works in Nepali language and grammar are still followed extensively today. His father Kesari Raj Pandey worked for UNESCO in Paris for a long time before becoming the chief royal preceptor Bada Gurujyu. Raj himself was educated in India, the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Norway and the Netherlands and was fluent in several European languages. He had to reconcile this background with the quintessential strict Brahmin lineage that he was undoubtedly expected to uphold. At the same time, he was also trying to explore and establish personal relationships with the visitors he encountered around Hanumandhoka while being a shy, hesitant young man. All these are reflected in the book and makes it interesting to read.
This diary only covers a period of nearly 11 months – February 2, 1975 to December 29, 1975 but is still able to give a comprehensive picture of the ‘hippie era’ which was by this time nearing its end. There are also titbits about his connection with the powerful and the elite including King Birendra. He was also once told that the then prince Gyanendra knew him quite well and that the government of the time depended on him for many things. Alas, these breadcrumbs remain just that – breadcrumbs. Raj does not elaborate on these interactions and the reader never gets to learn the true extent of his connections with the royal palace and the high and mighty of the government.
‘Legendary Country for Young People of the West’ is not the author’s first book. He has been actively writing guidebooks and travelogues since the early 70s. Raj has penned dozens of books presenting Nepal as an attractive destination for international travellers, with his most famous ones being ‘Nepal on Two Dollars a Day’ (1973), ‘Nepal on Four Dollars a Day’ (1975) and a guidebook he wrote for the world-famous travel publisher Lonely Planet in 1975. But what sets this book apart from his past works is that this is not a book. ‘Legendary Country’ is a journal where the writer has jotted down the things he saw and did on a daily basis. It has no literary ambitions and perhaps, was not written to be published. One does get a sense of that by the way the book is structured. There are no elaborations, no follow-ups, no context because a diary does not need them. It is merely a crude account of daily occurrences. You do not need to contextualise or describe something in detail in a diary because you are often the only one who is going to read it. The book does, however, distinguish Raj as a man aware of the world. Through his positions at the National Planning Commission at the United Nations and his stint as a journalist, he made sure to keep up with the things that were happening in the wider world.
As it is a personal diary, the book expectedly tells the reader more about the author than the subject matter. It is not a strength or a flaw, it is just the inherent nature of the medium. However, because of this, the content of the volume does not do justice to the title. ‘Legendary Country for Young People of the West’ talks about not the country, but the tourists visiting it and the writer’s interactions with the people leading it. The content, by no means, fails to deliver on painting a picture of the 1970s Kathmandu but it does not go in the direction the title sets out for it. Perhaps, it is a case of the title being chosen before the book took a final shape.