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Remembering Freak Street


OCT 01 -

If you want to be a bird, Why don’t you try a little flying?” sang the Holy Modal Rounders in the soundtrack to the epic hippie movie Easy Rider in 1969.  If the movie had been well ahead of the then-established benchmark in terms of counter-cultural statements, the song took things even further than that.

The words had resonated at the time with a young population in the West that was increasingly restless and looking to distance itself from the politics of the day, eventually going on to usher in the game-changing anti-war and civil rights movements. And songs like the above became anthems in and of themselves for a generation hoping to take spiritual flight, frustrated as they were with political conflict and what they perceived as the inherent materialism of the Western world.

While the legacy of the hippies in countries like the US—from their rise to their fall—has been clearly documented and examined many times over, the question of how the subculture travelled far enough to seep into the lap of the Himalayas and spread its wings there is still one that intrigues. The hippies came to Nepal, that much is clear, and Jhochhen, or ‘Freak Street’ as it is often called, was their domain. But what exactly lured them here?

The alleys in Jhochhen today are bound by looming buildings of all sizes, and are often too narrow for too many to walk through shoulder to shoulder. At first glance, one doesn’t really see anything new, or even rather importantly old in Jhochhen; it is difficult to imagine that this was once the epicentre of the hippie movement in Nepal.

But, of course, look hard enough and you’ll find the signs, signs that the counterculture had indeed found a home in these shady streets at one point of time. A few metres into the alley on the left when you enter the Basantapur Durbar Square from New Road and you will see a lodge bearing a board that reads proudly: “Original since 1972”. Move further in and you can see hookah shops that date back almost half a century; these and other similar shops, experts claim, were a big part of the city’s appeal for the young foreigners back in the day. These small elements represent what Kathmandu has retained from the era of the hippies.

And then there are the people themselves. The sight of a long-haired elderly tourist passing through a Jhochhen alleyway in loose, strange-looking clothes, his tattooed chest on display, is a common one here even today, and look into one of the small cafés and chances are you’ll find dreadlocked foreigners tucking into their teas and smoking beedis (a thin, local cigarette made with leaves).

A major part of the reason the hippies first flocked to Nepal in the 60s was owing to the fact that hashish and marijuana were not yet deemed illegal here. Of the hordes of young people who were traveling around the world in search of enlightenment, many happened to opt for cheap trips on the buses that plied the Silk Route joining Asia and Europe, through Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal and so on. And this was how fate contrived to bring them to Kathmandu.

They were rebels, wildlings, clambering against the social conventions and norms their parents’ generation had been bound by and looking for a way out. And conditions in the capital were serendipitous to the needs of these hungry souls. Prof. Abhi Subedi, who had witnessed first-hand the arrival of the hippies in Nepal, says they fell instantly in love with the city of temples, dazzled by the mythology that pervaded everyday life here and the cultural aesthetics of the place. Perhaps this was why they picked Jhochhen as their local base, with its proximity to the temples and strategic location within the cultural life of the city. “They loved it,” says Suman Shrestha, 58, owner of Century Lodge, which has existed since 1972. “There were many who would stay for more than a year.”

For the residents of Jhochhen, the marijuana trade was a gold mine of sorts during the hippie years. Besides which, the hippies were notoriously low-maintenance, which meant that they were not fussy about the food they were served or the kind of bed they had to sleep on. “They would offer us handsome sums of money for our hospitality,” says Mohan Krishna Mulepati, who owns Himalaya’s Guest House, an establishment also dating back to the 70s, and one that was popular with the new arrivals. “Selling hashish was a very lucrative business at the time.” Mulepati, a mere 12-year-old back then, recalls carrying glasses of cold lassi into his family’s “hashish centre” for the visiting hippies, most of whom he says, would sit there all day smoking, sometimes leaving only in the evenings to go to Swayambhu to take in the night-time views.

According to a TIME magazine article published in 1967, there existed particular guidelines to being part of the hippie code: “Do your own thing, wherever you have to do it and whenever you want. Drop out. Leave society as you have known it. Leave it utterly. Blow the mind of every straight person you can reach. Turn them on, if not to drugs, and then to beauty, love, honesty, fun.”

Subedi, then a master’s student of English literature at the Tribhuwan University testifies to the pervasiveness of this code in that period of time, explaining that the hippies—contrary to what is generally assumed—were not just pot-smoking slackers. According to him, these people didn’t emerge out of a vacuum; they brought with them certain cultural and philosophical influences as per their respective backgrounds, all of which had subliminal and long-term impacts on Nepali society. Music, for instance, is an obvious example, where the kind of music the hippies introduced in the capital is still largely popular today. Subedi says they also made a significant contribution to the development of English literature here.

“We are often too focused on their appearance,” Subedi says, adding that apart from their bizarre style of dressing and excessive inclination towards drugs, there were many among the hippies who possessed a flair for the creative that was rather inspiring. A mish-mash of painters, poets, story-tellers and musicians, many of whom are iconic today, are said to have come to Kathmandu during the 60s and early 70s. Mulepati claims that among the most prominent guests at his establishment were members of The Beatles, Cat Stevens and poet Garrish Mieder. “Bob Marley himself, as well as many other artists, came to the city and stayed at other hotels, most of which don’t exist anymore,” he says.

The hippies weren’t generally affluent, and many struggled to make ends meet. To make money, they would resort to selling used books, kitchen apparel, even vehicles. Subedi recalls the Spirit Book Catcher, a second-hand bookshop owned by a hippie, from where he’d purchased books often. And Mulepati remembers his father and elder brother making deals to buy vehicles from the foreigners. “They bought them cheap from the hippies and sold them to make big profits,” he says.

Subedi also credits the booming hotel business in Kathmandu at present to the hippie ‘invasion’ of the past. “People in Jhochhen readily accepted the tourists as guests, but they were at first utterly ignorant about the fact that they could make good money running lodges and guest-houses designated specifically for these tourists,” he says. Of course, it wasn’t long before the locals got into the swing of things, even learning to prepare dishes suitable to the western palate. And soon enough, the area was abuzz with thriving businesses; the living standard of Jhochhen locals had undergone something of a facelift in a matter of a few years.

Eventually, however, the hippie movement in Nepal died out, propelled largely by a directive from the US government to the government of Nepal in the early 70s to discourage the new arrivals. It was under this directive that the Nepali government came to ban the production and sale of hashish and marijuana. And as if that wasn’t enough, they also included strict regulations against long hair—even facial hair—and it was made mandatory for tourists to dress decently. “Discouraged and alienated in this way, by 1975, the hippies began to leave Kathmandu,” Subedi says. “It wasn’t an entirely voluntary or happy retreat,” he adds.

The trickling out of the hippies from the city meant that Jhochhen’s status as a tourist hub became shakier with time, soon to be replaced by Thamel. But it is still evident that although the subculture’s influence is much diminished today, traces of its presence still persist in Jhochhen’s nooks and crannies, whether in the form of dilapidated signboards, hookah shops or—and infinitely more importantly—in people’s memories. “Of course things aren’t the same anymore,” says youth activist Ganapati Lal Shrestha. “But the hospitality of the locals is still as warm as it was when the hippies were here.” The hazy days of the 60s and 70s might be long gone, but they’re certainly not forgotten.

Posted on: 2011-10-01 08:29