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‘Kathmandu’ is an excerpt taken from the travelogue ‘From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet’ by Vikram Seth. It is an autobiographical account of his experience in Kathmandu as he records his journey from Sinkiang to Delhi.
About the Author:
Vikram Seth (1952-) is a notable Indian novelist as well as a poet. He is the recipient of several awards, including the Padma Shri. Famous works of his include ‘The Golden Gate’, ‘A Suitable Boy’, and ‘An Equal Music’.
The theme of this excerpt is travel. Through vivid descriptions, Seth paints a detailed picture of Kathmandu, its people, its landscape and terrain, and the contrast between the religions Hinduism and Buddhism there from his own days of travel.
The Two Temple:
The extract begins with the narrator, Seth himself, set to visit two scared temples of Hinduism and Buddhism in Kathmandu with a Mr. Seth’s son and nephew. His portrayal of the Pashupathinath temple, sacred to Hindus, is not uncommon. A stringent rule of ‘Only Hindus’ was followed there, an example of the Westerners presented by Seth demonstrating this. People and animals thronged alike, forming a suffocating crowd and what he calls as an atmosphere of ‘febrile confusion’. Through the antics of two monkeys, Seth brings out that the holy river Bagmati flowed down the temples and how cremations happen on its banks. This river happens to be the place of doing laundry and dropping old offerings alike, thus highlighting a typical Hindu setup.
The Buddhist shrine the Baudnath Stupa he visits next is in complete contrast. There are no crowds there, no busy streets found. It is blanketed by an air of peace and quiet.
Kathmandu is not a religious hotspot but is also a place where almost everything can be found. From flowers to western cosmetics to antiques, a day spent there would offer versatile options for entertainment. Exhausted, Seth settles into merely going home having had enough adventure, after buying a flight ticket to depart Kathmandu the next day.
The Flute Seller:
A flute seller near his hotel catches Seth’s eye. He was numerous flutes made out of bamboo waiting to be sold. He, however, does not shout out his wares but instead, merely plays a tune from one of his flutes from time. This sight mesmerizes Seth for he has a penchant for flute music. He relishes this for, as he himself recalls, had not found himself admiring these kinds of details ever since he returned from abroad.
This text is a beautiful account of Kathmandu as recorded by its author, Vikram Seth. By capturing every little thing, he successfully manages to portray Kathmandu in vivid detail, its contrasting stillness and endearing chaos.