Shopping for Buddhas
New Road begins at the Tundhikhel Parade Ground, and plows a broad swath through what has become, such as it is, downtown Kathmandu. I steer my old clunker – a Chinese-made “Flying Pigeon” with tassels streaming from the handgrips – through the brightly painted arch, and glide by the district of the gem shops; past the American Cultural Center, which used to have pictures of the Space Shuttle in the window but now shows photographs of Ronald Reagan felicitating the stiffly self-conscious personage of His Majesty, Sri Panch Maharaja Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev; past the pipal tree, beneath whose spreading branches are stacked piles and piles of newspapers issued by banned political parties; past one-hour photo finishing, 21 Flavors Ice Cream, cows lying complacently in the road as traffic swerves around them. And in the windows of the tour agencies I can read the brightly lettered signs saying,
LIVE ANIMAL SACRIFICES
EVERY TUESDAY AND SATURDAY!
At the end of New Road is the old royal palace with its towering pagodas, and fantastic courtyard populated by gods, goddesses and demons. Not a bad place to do some shopping…. But before making that plunge into the giddy world of Buddha buying, I stopped my bicycle and locked it by a telephone pole at the corner of Dharma Path and New Road. And there I gazed up, face to face with the entrance to Kathmandu’s most grotesque capitalist monument: three tiers of sooty raw concrete, and a hand-lettered sign reading “Shopping Centre.” Yes, it was an enclosed mall: five years old, and already an ancient ruin.
I’ll tell you why I stopped. Some friends had come to town a couple of weeks earlier, and they returned from a stroll one afternoon to inform me that the management of this so-called Shopping Centre had just finished installing an attraction that proved to be the modern-day equivalent of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. We’re talking about Kathmandu’s very first escalator, linking the first and second floors of the gritty enclosed mall.
Now, I’d been by before, hoping to find this marvel of technology in action. As a rule it was broken, covered with an enormous sheet of plastic, like a minor work by Christo. Today, though, contrary to any of my expectations, the escalator was running; and this I had to see.
There were two enormous crowds. One was gathered at the foot of the escalator, where a sneering guard wielding a nightstick pushed the bravest of the brave, one by one, onto the verandah, the no-man’s-land at the base of the procession of hypnotic, endlessly ascending steps. A barefoot porter in filthy, tattered rags – some lost refugee from the hills – stood immobilized at the starting line, awed to paralysis by the stream of metal that flowed, as if by divine writ, from the rubber cowl beneath his toes. As I watched, I realized that the man was experiencing a beatific transformation. His knees weakened; and within a moment he was bowing, praying, practically prostrating himself before this divine sight, this river of steel issuing miraculously out of the ground, just as the holy Ganges flows from the scalp of the great lord Shiva! The guard reached forward, and jerked him rudely aside.
The next victim was a 12 year old boy who, poised at the bottom, eyed the rise with all the trepidation of a diver who suddenly realizes that yeah, the high board is really a lot higher than it looks; he swung his arms and took a few deep breaths before closing his eyes and plunging out in his best urban swan dive. Right behind him was an elderly Moslem lady, who took one look and tried to back away… but instead she somehow stumbled onto the device. At first she kept her eyes closed, and seemed to heave a sigh of relief as her senses convinced her that she wasn’t moving after all. But as soon as she opened them, her face whitened into a mask of absolute and abject horror. She clung desperately to the rubber rail, crouched as if for combat, as her sisters, her husband, her sons, her grandsons all faded, perhaps forever, against the backdrop of blinking advertisements far below.
The second mob waited at the escalator’s summit, delighting in the huge joke of relative motion. These sophisticated voyeurs – many of them seasoned escalator veterans themselves – shouted with glee as each of the hapless riders was propelled, panicked and staggering, from the apparently motionless safety of the escalator onto the utterly unexpected menace presented by stable ground.
I ran up and down the stairway parallel to the marvelous escalator, enslaved by the realization that I could not leave, could not bear to leave, before demonstrating my utter command, my consummate prowess with escalators. No; I positively could not continue my search for a perfect peaceful Buddha before leaping onto this escalator like a trapeze artist, and wowing these local yokels with a bit of spontaneous street theater.
So, after mingling patiently with the downstairs mob (who ushered me forward with the respect and generosity characteristic of all Nepalis) I found myself at the coveted brink. At first I made a show of trying to back away and then, letting loose an awful howl, mounted the flying stairway in the most histrionic fashion imaginable, a pantomime of sheer terror, flailing and doubling back, slipping down the railing, disappearing from sight, finally rising to my feet only to be propelled like a rag doll into the waiting arms of the electrified crowd.
Ah, they roared! They loved it! These people! My people! I walked back down the steps, Nepalese slapping me on the back. Whew! Hey! What a riot! That was great! I was great!
But then the grin slid off my face like a wet towel, because the crwod was captured by a momentary silence. Far below, making their way through the swinging glass doors, a retinue of Buddhist monks, entered the Shopping Centre. They aproached it single file, heads shaven, their robes flowing behind them like a flood of fresh-squeezed Florida Orange juice.
The crowd melted, dividing like a cell to let them through. The guard abashedly lowered his nightstick and stepped hastily aside. And the monks, without panic or ceremony, simply mounted the escalator and
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