When he was a student, Thomas Bell wanted to go to Africa to become a foreign correspondent, “but I realised there are very few African countries that British people are ever at all interested in, and those were already covered”. After a pause to shift continents, Nepal seemed to fit the bill. A drunk crown prince had just massacred the royal family, and in the countryside a Maoist insurgency was in full swing. Bell arrived in the capital, Kathmandu, to find a city full of gleaming SUVs – parliamentarians had just voted to allow themselves each to buy one tax-free – and where “on each Buddhist rooftop flies the stripy flag, like a gay pride banner, of Theravada Buddhism”.
It’s a city that’s in the news again – the first anniversary of the shattering earthquake that killed nearly 9,000 people is on 25 April and Bell was there to witness and record the devastation. Now, in Kathmandu, he tells the story of the city both before and, to an extent, after the quake. It’s his attempt to unravel the twisting history of the streets he finds himself in, though the answers he gets aren’t always much more illuminating than the time when he asked an old woman “why a ritual (bewilderingly elaborate in my eyes, though hardly out of the ordinary) was done the way it was. Her answer was duly translated: ‘For the same reason you wash your arse after shitting’.”
But then this isn’t so much a standard history as an amiable ramble around Nepal’s past. It’s a past that lasted longer than most: slavery existed until the 1920s; the country was closed to foreigners until 1951. Even in the early 60s, “money was still considered the latest innovation”. Bell’s approach isn’t entirely orthodox – alongside the accounts of 19th-century historians, he includes anecdotes of his friends and neighbours. So it is, we learn, that a friend of his grandfather had a servant to undo the string on their pyjamas and “hold their dick while they pissed, shake the drops off, and put it back for them”.
But it’s all the more readable for it. And he vividly recounts episodes from Nepal’s more recent history, which he covered for the Daily Telegraph. “Since 1951,” he notes, “revolution has been followed by royal coup followed by revolution followed by royal coup followed by revolution.”
He’s there for at least a couple of them, travelling into the hills to meet Maoist rebels during the decade-long civil war, while trying to piece together what’s happening behind the scenes. It’s only after the war ends that he learns about Operation Mustang, an MI6 counter-insurgency operation that supported the monarchy and was, he believes – and tries to provide evidence for – involved in the disappearance of hundreds of people, still missing six years after the war ended.
Bell’s plan was to stay for two years but more than a decade on, he’s still there, acquiring a Nepalese wife and children but losing none of his outsider edge. And it’s this, perhaps, that provides the last third of the book with its firepower. I met Bell when I went to Nepal last year after the earthquake and he’s one of the most trenchant critics of both the shortcomings of the government and the failure of western aid agencies to address those failings. The country is, he says, a “rentier state… stagnant and surprisingly stable”.
A narrow class of educated, urban, high-caste Nepalese have continued to accrue wealth and power, and while aid has flowed into the country, only a tiny amount, he claims, has gone to the people who need it most. Sixty two per cent of children leave government schools without a single qualification and the country languishes near the bottom of more or less every index: one of the most unequal nations on earth; among the poorest countries in Asia. “Nepali hill villages are almost always picturesque,” he writes, “bearing no relation to how sad they are.”
Some of the most damning evidence is in one of his footnotes, where he quotes a development expert, professor Mick Moore, giving evidence to the House of Commons international development committee: “I have rarely seen as corrupt a country as Nepal,” he says, which is “partly just people stealing money” but also “people setting the system up so they can stay in power to carry on stealing money”.
Bell writes about how he’d find himself “thinking obsessively” where he’d be during the next, often predicted quake, “when the walls open like curtains of bricks”. In an epilogue, he writes about the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck a year ago and how, like so many things in Nepal, it disproportionately affected the poor. Natural disasters happen, but Bell’s anger is at what has followed it. A new constitution, the result of years of negotiation following the end of the war, was rushed through and an opportunity to reset Nepal’s future lost. “It’s one of the most dismal times I’ve known. The same men who are in charge now were in charge a quarter of a century ago.”
It’s a depressing note to end on. The best case scenario, he says, is that “things muddle on”. The only consolation perhaps is that, as his book shows, things always have.
Kathmandu is published by Haus Publishing* (£17.99)*