Of the global and the local

2021-10-08

Dinesh Kafle

Kathmandu is like an old patriarch, benevolent and courtly, who has lived in so many houses and been blessed with so many wives and children that he no longer knows which or what he likes best,” wrote the British colonel PT Etherton in 1934. As suggested by the mistaken—yet quite acceptable-spelling itself, Kathmandu has, over the ages, lived on the ironies and metaphors of extremity. For an average Nepali, Kathmandu is an urban centre full of opportunities. For some, it is a metaphor of a hill Brahmin, the pahade bahun, who monopolises stately privileges through maintenance of his Brahminism. And for others, it is an exotic capital city of a least developed country, a city of more temples than buildings and more gods than people, a city of the royal massacre. Street protests, 14 hours-a-day of load-shedding, frequent shut-downs, traffic irregularities, dust and filth coexisting with newly built shopping centres, eateries, dance bars and English teaching centres— Kathmandu is so diverse and in-your-face that it escapes definition. There have been attempts to study the city through many different perspectives, well before and after 1950 when the country ‘opened’ its doors to the outer world and ‘modernity’ found its legitimate passage. The decades following the 80s, however, saw a significant decrease in investigation from foreign scholars. From Pico Iyer to Pankaj Mishra, many travel writers engaged with the city, with their personal sensibilities and pre-conceived notions, yet failed to count the pulse of Kathmandu. But there are a few serious scholars like John Whelpton and Michael Hutt who have made significant contributions to the fields of political history, society and literature.

And there is Mark Liechty. 

At the outset, Liechty has rescued Kathmandu from the confines of Lonely Planet’s touristic mappings and travel writers’ narratives. In his recent book Out Here in Kathmandu: Modernity in the Global Periphery, he presents the city as an ontology for a discourse on the overarching binaries of the global and the local, modernity and tradition. His book is an anthropological dissection of Kathmandu in which he studies various components—class, caste, global/local, tradition/modernity, fashion and media culture—individually and in relation with one another. By constantly drawing references from contemporary cultural and consumer practices, Liechty engages readers in theoretical debates on media culture, class formation, consumer subjectivity and the logic of global capitalism.

To put Liechty’s study in the language of cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, Kathmandu, in coming to terms with modernity, has become a “glocalised” space, where the global and the local mutually exist. “Glocal”, thus, is the term that can be used to define modern Kathmandu. Liechty uses the term “translocality” to signal the foreign-but-local space, a performative space where dramatic Nepali lives are enacted.  Liechty scans modern Nepali history, at times going back to the pre-modern era, to study the history of consumerism in Kathmandu. He shows how, by discouraging popular communication with the international sphere, usurping the right to consume European luxury goods, education, and means of transportation inside the confines of their court, ruling elites monopolised modernity until 1950 when the country finally opened up.

An important intervention of Liechty’s in the study of Kathmandu’s story of modernity is the cinema-viewing culture that saw its golden age in the 1970s. Considered the ‘it’ thing of the time, cinema was more than a means of entertainment—it was a social activity which, for the first time, brought people of different classes together under the same roof. This collective practice had a significant effect on the class consciousness of Kathmandu’s middle class which imagined itself in terms of the cinematic realism. The cinema house as a shared social space was later replaced in the early 1980s when the middle class found an alternative through technology that enabled them to view movies in their own living rooms. Consequently, mushrooming video parlours offered more distinctive spaces for the youth—screening English, Hindi as well as pornographic films. Through Liechty’s tracing of this trajectory of cinema from communal theatres to private living rooms and then to dingy, dark rooms, it becomes clear how Kathmandu’s middle class has negotiated the currents of modernity.  

Another of Liechty’s significant interventions is his analysis of the shifting conceptions of gender in the context of “commercialization of culinary and sexual services” with the mushrooming of dance restaurants in the Valley and its periphery. He observes that, as food and sex move from the domestic sphere to the public commercial sphere, the female gender becomes linguistically loaded with terms connoting sexual promiscuity. While “doing fashion” is an indicator of “modernity” the middle class maintains its middle-class image on the basis of the “suitability” of the fashion it carries. In trying to maintain its izzat or prestige, the middle class presents itself as a moderately fashionable, “suitably modern” class. The normative “suitability” undergoes a definitional crisis in the middle-class household itself, where the woman contests her sexuality against the pornographic images of the “insuitably modern” Western woman, brought into the household by her husband who expects his wife to adapt to the “modern” sexual gratifications as represented in porn videos. This follows from Liechty’s previous work, Suitably Modern: Making Middle Class Culture in Kathmandu. Expectedly, issues overlap.

The methodology of research and writing that Liechty uses addresses a wide range of readership. In each of the nine chapters, he discusses his research findings in simple, straightforward statements, and gradually weaves them into wider theoretical postulations on media, culture, modernity and globalisation. This method makes the book a suitable read for lay readers as well as for those who want to engage in a theoretically informed academic discourse. Replete with case studies and person-to-person interviews, footnotes and references, it makes for an authentic and informed study of Kathmandu. Notwithstanding the book’s minor flaws, Out Here in Kathmandu can rightly be considered as one of the most brilliant chronicles of Kathmandu’s modernity.

The Kathmandu Post 12 March 2011, p. 7.


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