Down the valley from Kathmandu, the ancient capital of Nepal, rests an even older city. In Bhaktapur, the timeworn traditions of Hinduism sink as deep into the dry soil as the white-capped Himalayan Mountains rise in the background.
Bhaktapur looks like it was built one brick at a time. Narrow, brick-paved city streets are lined on both sides by three-story brick buildings built into each other over time to become a continuous wall of homes and stores. An occasional small tractor or motorcycle putters slowly by, joined for a few steps by a wandering goat or chicken or dog.
Delivery men on bicycles snake through the streets, weaving past groups of children walking in school uniforms, past women washing clothes in a street gutter, around bent laborers carrying huge bundles of straw on one shoulder or men crouching and forming spinning clay into a bowl, past groups of unemployed young men with nothing better to do than stand around, past tranquil street merchants waiting for customers, past holy statues of bronze rubbed gold by the touch of its worshipers, past sacred cows tied up, past large silent temples attracting the cameras of a few tourists, around small and active roadside shrines flowing goat blood into the street, and under the eyes of quiet gawkers hanging their heads from upper story windows to watch it all.
These poor, dusty and lost streets of Bhaktapur were once haunted and hunted and bloodied with human blood by a homegrown thug named Suraj Kasula.
Rise of a Gangster
Suraj, now 27, was an unlikely gangster. He was born into an orthodox Hindu family that still worships and offers blood sacrifices to their 330 million gods and goddesses.
“My childhood had very strong similarities to the Old Testament,” Suraj said, “especially in regard to the ceremonial laws. Like every orthodox Hindu family, every year our family’s sins were transferred onto a male goat and then we sacrificed it. We collected and sprinkled its blood on the doorposts of our house.”
But the sacred bloodshed and religious devotion were powerless to stop Suraj from the allurement of a life of crime, which began when he was 16. With jobs hard to find in the city, the notorious life of a thug appealed to him, and Suraj turned to armed robbery and formed a knife gang. “It’s very easy to form a gang in Bhaktapur because most of the youth don’t go to school or have jobs. We kept an arsenal of knives and steel rods in case a fight broke out. The gang and the crime became my satisfaction. I found joy in it.”
But mostly he was after money, not blood. “We mainly threatened people and demanded money. Then we would threaten them that if they told the police, we would kill them. We raised protection money from local startup businesses in our area. We would go into someone’s flat and ask for money and they would give it. If there was nobody home, we would steal it without any threat. We used the money to buy marijuana. Nobody would say anything. Over time, I became locally well-known, and the people in my village were afraid of me. Everybody knew I was a thug. My bad name and fame began spreading.”
Praying for His Death
His notorious thug life was spreading intimidation, but it was also incubating anger and hate in his heart. “I grew angry. If a man walked down the street and stared at me, I would beat him. One time a man was staring at me with no reason, which provoked me. I approached him, but he went up into a city bus. I ran in front of the bus and made it stop. The driver became scared and stopped. I went inside the big crowd; I pulled the man out and beat him on the street. He was crying for help but nobody dared to help him. Apart from an occasional fight with a rival gang, fighting was rare, because most people were scared of me.”
Suraj rode the city buses but never paid a full fare. Once, a conductor of a bus confronted him. Bad move. Suraj’s rage took over. He battered the conductor inside the bus and then stepped out and calmly walked away with the conductor’s blood all over his shirt. His wrath was responsive and proactive. Any whiff of a gang reprisal from others was preempted by his own attack.
Suraj tattooed his body, a cultural display of a thug’s hardness, meant to accentuate his intimidation. No respectable person in Nepal has tattoos. The marks on the surface of his skin were the outer evidence for the gnawing decay within his soul.
He broke the hearts of his family members who watched his decline. “My family and whole village wanted me to die because I was ruining their children’s lives. Everybody knew people were coming to our gang, which eventually grew to 16. Our parents were powerless to do anything. My family was very unhappy, and the whole village would offer prayers to their gods that I would be killed in a knife fight.”