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Flying currants in Kathmandu

Flying currants in Kathmandu

I was once invited by UNCTAD/GATT to give a seminar in Kathmandu, capital of Nepal. It was in 1980 but it felt as if it was in 1580. It was the most primitive undeveloped country I had ever come across anywhere in the world, and I had spent time in the outlying parts of Libya, Thailand, Colombia and Ethiopia.

In the markets I saw a woman selling meat that she kept in a hole in the wall. And then I noticed something moving amongst the blood and bones. It was a very tiny baby, nestling against the red meat and offal. This was the mother’s method of keeping her new-born child out of harm’s way whilst she worked.

In the town square I watched the auctions of sacks of flour and cereals. Middle-aged men stood leaning on rolled-up black umbrellas, as if they were in the City of London. One raised a hand to make a successful bid, then his servant stepped forward, heaved the sack to his shoulder and the two of them walked off. It could have been Europe in the Middle Ages.

I stopped once on a road to take in the view of the Himalayas from a cliff-top and was surprised when a girl no more than about 10 years old suddenly appeared, having climbed up the cliff to the road with a huge load of grass on her back. She supported it by tying a long ribbon round the pack and then round her forehead.

The seminar that I ran for two weeks was held in the brand new building that was just being completed for the Asian Development Bank. We ate in the bank’s canteen, which was as primitive as the new bank was modern. On my first day I was taken to the canteen for lunch. There was a counter and behind it a large lady sat cross-legged on the floor alongside a range of small charcoal burners on which she was doing the cooking. I couldn’t see anything appetising until I noticed a small flat pastry. It was loaded with currants and I immediately assumed it was akin to an Eccles cake, one of the few sweet things I enjoy in England. I pointed to that.

The woman stood up, took hold of the dish and swiped it with a cloth. Immediately all the currants flew off and she handed it to me. I discovered then that it was more akin to a quiche.

I was really intrigued by the business attire of the Chairman of the new bank and I asked one day if I could take his photograph. He was a diminutive man wearing white baggy trousers, a tweed jacket, a typical narrow cloth cap on his head and he always had a black rolled umbrella in his hand.

I positioned him outside the kitchen. He was obviously flattered to be photographed in this way and posed very courteously. I looked through the viewfinder of my camera and was about to click the aperture when I noticed something moving in the bottom left corner of the picture. I lowered the camera and saw that it was a huge black rat that was not so much crawling as squirming on its belly along the ground towards the Chairman. It reached his feet and then it expired.

I wasn’t sure if it had been expressly poisoned or whether it had simply had lunch in the canteen.

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