by CK LAL
Let them eat cake
Mutu maathi dhunga raakhi hasnu parya chha.
The remembrance of things past is part recollection and part recreation. Like the appearance of a rainbow on a rain-soaked day, memorable occurrences are too fleeting to leave a permanent impression. What we later remember is largely a picture of our own imagination. And with every lick, a part of the ice-cream melts in the mouth. Describing such experiences based on memory is, then, an exercise in creativity.
This story too is part fact, part fiction—a factional account. Much scientific research has shown that memory cannot be trusted without independent sources of verification. Details of this description may not stand up to close scrutiny. After all, it was such a long time ago, and memory starts to weaken with age.
Once there lived a carefree youth in a rented room inside Narsingh Camp at Thamel. Two of his immediate neighbours staying on the same floor of the house were a taxi driver and a cook. The young man never paid much attention to either. That was until he discovered, quite by chance, that the taxi driver was none other than Nepal’s most famous singer, the late Narayan Gopal.
The taxi driver Narayan Gopal was unusually shy. He didn’t talk much with anyone, let alone the young man who apparently did nothing, other than read thick tomes all day long. Confronted with awe-struck namaskars, the legendary singer would sometimes respond with an absent-minded wave of his hand—highly creative people are introverted because their minds are otherwise occupied. In addition to being an idol to his fans, Narayan Gopal is now a cultural symbol of even Nepal’s self-styled progressives.
Marxist critics lament that Narayan Gopal didn’t sing “songs of the people”. That is probably the best compliment to Narayan Gopal. Good thing he didn’t, Narayan Gopal didn’t need to prove himself to anyone. He had attained, to use a Gandhian expression, “a harmony between thought and action, experienced the unity between art and life”. He didn’t need to be a card-carrying representative of the masses to speak to them through music. And Narayan Gopal’s songs purified the soul.
Mass media, and democracy, turned Narayan Gopal into a national icon. But the neighbour in the Thamel apartment, Babu Kaji, turned out to be a different sort of artist in a medium that is much less recognised. He became the Master Chef of Nanglo—another name that is now a legend in its own right. For quarter of a century, Babu Kaji’s creations have pampered the palate of millions of finicky connoisseurs and demanding customers.
Zealous fans of our Swar-Samrat will find it preposterous to put Babu Kaji on a pedestal with their idol. But Narayan Gopal himself would have had no objection. He was a practical person with few pretensions. And Proust would have certainly approved: no art is as powerful as an honest portrayal of everyday life.
At the rooftop restaurant of Nanglo recently, I was struck again by the magic that ambience and food can evoke. There was an aroma of hot soup wafting in the winter sun, the sight and sound of a sizzler arriving. In such a setting, Ashutosh Tiwari planning a month-long art festival patterned after something similar in Europe, or Renchin Yonjan visualising a grand boulevard on the scale of Champs Elysee between Bhadrakali and Singha Darbar, sound perfectly realistic. Eating in the sun below the blue skies in the company of friends you realise what may have made Louis Armstrong sing “What a wonderful world”.
But joy is a fragile feeling. It falls on the ground of hard realities, and shatters. A bejewelled woman is by the door of her car, a uniformed chauffeur shoos two street kids away. Sher Bahadur Deuba’s government is generating taxes through an ordinance. Holding the SAARC Summit was a matter of prestige for Nepal, and Deuba looked visibly gleeful when he suddenly saw President Musharraf extending his hand to Prime Minister Vajpayee. But raising taxes to pay for his 41-member jumbo cabinet?
Perhaps Deuba’s political mentor has an answer. Asked whether his personal honesty had any meaning in the political environment of a country where the word politics itself has become synonymous with corruption, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai replied on camera that being a rose could relieve you from the guilt of having mounds of manure at your roots. And only Finance Minister Ram Sharan Mahat could have come up with a scheme as ingenious as voluntary disclosure of property. Mahat is so forgetful that he once forgot to disclose his own foreign bank account.
As the third flatmate, that carefree youth sharing the Thamel apartment with Babu Kaji and Narayan Gopal, I look at the two and realise that living with inconsistencies is what makes life bearable in these contradictory times.
(This article was published in Nepali Times #78, February, 2002)
The following responses to the article were published in Nepali Times #82 (22-28 February, 2002)
CK Lal’s “Let them eat cake” (#78) about “Swar Samrat” Narayan Gopal has attracted the attention of this Trust. Lal’s recollections are interesting and wonderful, but what disturbed and shattered me badly was his reference to the singer being a taxi driver. I was with my husband during that period, and I am quite sure he never even touched the steering wheel of a taxi, let alone any vehicle with four wheels.
Narayan Gopal Music Trust
CK Lal replies: “Despite my advancing age, I stand by my memory.”