Out Here in Kathmandu: Modernity on the Global Periphery

2021-10-08

Text by : Mark Liechty

Reviewed by : Don Messerschmidt

ut Here in Kathmandu is a collection of essays that demonstrate how cities like Kathmandu locally engage, produce and reproduce global cultural processes. The essays in the book showcase Kathmandu as a site where modernity expresses itself through the discourses of fashion, food, sex, love, mass media, caste, gender and class. These discourses, as the essays suggest, broadly constitute the core of the project of ‘Nepali’ modernity. Through ethnographic finesse and historic-anthropological flair, Mark Liechty also traces the career of middle-class culture and its intimate links with modernity in Nepal’s history. (Cover blurb)

To foreign tourists, residents and anthropologists who think of Nepal as essentially rural, traditional and ethnic, even ‘exotic’ (compared with the more ‘modern’ globalized world beyond its borders out of sight of the romantic Himalayas), Out Here in Kathmandu is a startling book. It describes a cultural transformation far more ‘exotic’ in its way than at first imagined. This is a book about contemporary youth-oriented urban Nepali society, seemingly far removed from older ethnographic and romantic notions of Nepal; yet, they, too, play a part in these essays.

The book is so rich in subject matter that no short review can do it justice. So, for a glimpse of its content, I turned to the Index to sample a few of the topics covered.

The first Index entry is ‘Aerial ropeway’, which leads to a piece of history revealing evidence of Nepal’s first tryst with urban consumerism and material culture. In a fascinating but brief encounter, we see how the Rana rulers of the early 1900s secured all the Western (mostly European) consumer goods that they craved, given their sumptuous lifestyles as the elite, rich, feudal masters of the realm. Back then, before roads and airplanes intruded, they build an aerial ropeway from the Terai over which to import their various materialistic desires.

In order to keep themselves well-supplied with imported “comforts” the Rana regime instituted a variety of new means for acquiring foreign consumer goods, including the aerial ropeway that, by the late 1920s, was able to deliver up to eight tons of freight per hour... To keep his ropeway busy Chandra [Prime Minister Chandra S.J.B. Rana] established a “foreign goods department attached to the Jinsi Adda” [the government Procurement Office] in Kathmandu, and a “buying agency” in Calcutta, that imported European goods for “certain of the Prime Minister’s domestic requirements”... [T]he Ranas mail ordered countless tons of goods from the West―from pressed-tin ceiling panels and decorative statuary, to bath tubs and marble floor tiles. The Jinsi Adda dealt mostly with British supply houses but on at least one occasion ordered goods from the great French department store Au Bon Marché...” They even imported “huge Packards, Rolls Royces, and other luxury vehicles..., each “carried” over the mountain trails on bamboo cross-poles by teams of 64 porters. [Liechty sites several sources for these descriptions.]

Who says that the consumerism so evident today on Kathmandu’s glitzy Durbar Marg is “new”? It’s just more evident nowadays, and available to the relatively “new” and numerous middle- and upper middle-classes, compared to the minority elites of yesteryear.

Under another Index entry, ‘Arnold Schwartzenegger’, we read of the author’s amazement upon entering the room of Mahesh, a 17-year civil servants son living in a modern house in one of Kathmandu’s new suburbs:

My first glimpse of Mahesh’s room left me speechless. Essentially every wall surface, plus some of the ceiling, was covered with pictures, posters, magazine cutouts, or hand-made drawings and signs―all of the images foreign, and/or in English. There were four or five types of commercially produced images. First were the large posters of foreign, usually American film/pop stars: James Dean, Elvis, Schwartzenegger, and Rambo along with other “tough guy” pictures of Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson. Also in this category were various martial artists like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan and nameless body builder photos featuring white men with bulging muscles. Competing in number with these macho images was a collection of “Heavy Metal” posters. These included Kiss and Bon Jovi posters full of bizarre clothing and suggestive poses, plus an assortment of Heavy Metal motifs, particularly skulls: skulls with blood dripping knives sticking out of them, skulls with flowers in their mouths, skulls and cross-bones, etc. A third, smaller category of image was the sports hero, here represented by the soccer stars Pelé and Diego Maradona.

These assorted hyper male images were contrasted with a fourth group of images: what might be called “girly pictures.”

While the “girly” images “seem to stand in contrast with the room’s more ubiquitous macho male images...,” Liechty tells us, “both sets represent fantasy bodies... But more important is the fact that practically all of these print images are tied in some way to electronic entertainment media (music, cinema, or televised sport)...”

In these two examples, one historical and one very current, we taste a little of Liechty’s post-modernist style of describing and analyzing some of Nepal’s extreme globalization.

The book has three parts and nine chapters. Part I: Frames, deals with class experience, mass media and consumerism, foreigners, foreign goods and foreignness in modern Nepali history. Part II: Middle Class Practice: Media and Consumer Culture, covers social practices of viewing cinema and videos as well as mass media and its effects on class and gender. One chapter is entitled Building Body, Making Face, Doing Love. Another, provocatively entitled Carnal Economies: The Commodification of Food and Sex in Kathmandu, describes popular eateries and hang-outs and includes the conceptualization of space in modern urban society. Part III: Women and the Experience of Modernity, focuses on female freedoms in Nepal’s modern youth society, women as consumers, and the presence and meaning of popular pornography.

These are definitely not your traditional ‘old school’ ethnographic essays. Nonetheless, the book presents an amazingly rich foray into urban youth culture, and a look at the impacts (real and imagined) of modern media on lifestyle, and at the freedoms and chains that materialistic/consumer globalization imposes on Nepali society.

Liechty writes in the Preface: “If there is a unifying theme in these essays, and all of my work, it concerns the impact of media and consumption on class practice and class subjectivity... within a larger field of consumer culture.” He goes on to say that the book’s title evokes a modern “globalized” sensibility where “people come to experience themselves, their city, and their location in the world of meaning through interactions with media and other consumer goods from around the world that cast shadows of desire and marginalization over everyday life. When people who have never ventured beyond the valley rim identify their own experience as “out here”..., we see the power of media and other consumerist promotions... promotions [that] then reinvigorate circuits of desire that drive people to seek presumably better lives elsewhere.”

He points out, however, that the realities and impacts of the contemporary massive foreign employment and the remittance culture that now attracts thousands of Nepali youth away from home, have barely begun to be analyzed. When they are, we are bound to see how this form of profound globalization plays out back here in Kathmandu.

This provocative  book helps us understand some facets of contemporary Nepali urban life, the impact of modern media on society, and the yearnings and (often unobtainable) aspirations of youth. Here we have a cogent analysis of their symbols played out in fashion, food, sex, love, mass media, caste, gender and class. Out Here in Kathmandu is a recommended read.

This provocative  book helps us understand some facets of contemporary Nepali urban life, the impact of modern media on society, and the yearnings and (often unobtainable) aspirations of youth.

Published in 2010 by Martin Chautari Press, Kathmandu; 402pp., 1100 rupees in Kathmandu bookstores. The author, Mark Liechty, is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and History at the University of Illinois, in Chicago, and the author of Suitably Modern: Making Middle-Class Culture in a New Consumer Society (2003, Princeton University Press). The book reviewer is an anthropologist, freelance writer and contributing editor to ECS Nepal magazine. He can be contacted at don.editor@gmail.com.
 
ECS Nepal (Living in Nepal), 1 July 2011, pp. 40-41


About the Author