‘I am transfixed by the gleeful, cathartic violence’

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A series on true experiences

RIOTS

By Neel Sood

Illustrations: Rishabh Arora

I AM afraid for my country” says my drinking partner, a young Nepali named Jaya. We are in a small bar in Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu. A couple of Dutch girls have just sat themselves down on the table where I’m sitting, beer in hand, watching an ancient politician firmly state that his party will never compromise on its ideals, on a weathered, wall-mounted TV. The girls’ arrival is the cue for half a dozen Nepali men to approach the table and start making conversation, turning the immediate area into a nexus of cigarette and hash smoke. Meanwhile, people filter into the bar like gathering storm clouds.

I’m intrigued by Jaya’s statement. He explains that the leaders of Nepal’s respective political parties have been meeting for weeks now, in urgent congress, whilst they bicker about the terms of the country’s first Constitution. However, it’s just been announced that the Maoist party, led by zealous old men, is unable to compromise with the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist–Leninist, led by equally zealous old men. Jaya thinks it’s going to be another five years before a Constitution is agreed upon.

A pervading sense of frustration and disappointment at this anticlimactic outcome seems to have spread through the streets of Kathmandu like fire. Jaya is now waxing lyrical about his hatred for the Nepali Congress, joined by several acquaintances at the back of the bar who punctuate his sentences with emphatic grunts. Elsewhere in the city, protests and riots have been breaking out. I finish my beer. The bar suddenly seems a lot fuller, although the accompanying buzz of conversation is noticeably absent. The single dim bulb hanging from the ceiling projects flickering shadows onto the whitewashed walls, and the temperature seems to drop abruptly. The Dutch girls seem to sense it too. Out of the corner of my eye I can see them having an urgent, whispered conversation, smiling apologetically at their would-be suitors, and scurrying out.

Out of nowhere, a glass bottle of Everest beer smashes into a wall, centimetres from a man’s head. Shards of glass cut his cheek and forehead. He doubles over, his face cradled in his palms. A group of men in the far corner of the room surge forward drunkenly, and everything devolves into utter chaos. Some are streaming down the stairs, others are grappling with each other in the doorway. I can vaguely see the silhouettes of two men mercilessly kicking another man lying on the floor in the foetal position. The single lightbulb has long since been smashed.

A dozen police and army vehicles screech to a halt in the adjacent square, and policemen toting batons and riot shields swarm down the street whilst the bar’s erstwhile clientele lay down a barrage of rocks and bottles, which clatter and smash against the wall of shields like hailstones. A thin khaki line succeeds in fighting its way to the bar’s entrance, and two officers pull down an iron grille over the opening. I know I should hightail it as far away as I can, but I’m standing there, enthralled, as the crowd swells and overwhelms the police barricade. The police is still trying to hold the line, and I feel as if I’m standing in an improbable space, where the directives of morality and law don’t apply. I am free to do as I choose — the boundaries of the law and the realm of action/consequence begin almost fifty metres away to my right, marked by the barricade. However, I’m too transfixed by the gleeful, cathartic violence to capitalise on this. The men who had been smashing up the bar emerge from the opening and sprint away into the night. I light a cigarette and walk away. There are bonfires in the streets and by their light I can see myriad silhouettes run across my path to the sound of sirens.

Neel Sood is 19. He is a student based in Claremont, California

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