Arts & Culture

Elvis of the Himalayas

Restaurant owner bridges two worlds—food and music.

Beneath the burgundy vinyl awning that reads “Nepal House” in white block letters, a poster of Buddha looks down at the entrance to 920 N. Charles St. in Mount Vernon. “Namaste,” it says. “Welcome.” Gentle, lyric-less music, the type you might hear while face down on a massage table, plays in the background, reverberating through a long, dark dining room on the right, and a cozy bar with booths to the left. 

When you walk in, it’s impossible not to feel the presence of the restaurant’s owner, Prem Raja Mahat. Just inside the door, the contents of a plastic-windowed display case give away a part of his fascinating life story. Dozens of colorful CDs and cassettes bear Mahat’s endearing image: His black, parted hair tops a round face and deep brown eyes, and a thick, bushy mustache prominently sits on his top lip, though it’s not large enough to hide an ebullient grin. A stereo rests on a shelf below, for requests from these albums filled with hundreds of songs he wrote and performed himself over a decades-long career. 

Nepal is a country of more than 29 million people, sandwiched between India and China and smaller in size than half the states in the U.S. It’s a place most known as the home of Mount Everest and, more recently in the spring of 2015, for a devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake.

It’s also where—in what must be one of the most unlikely double identities on record—a little-known Baltimore restaurateur is revered, from the highest Himalayan peaks up north, to the big central city of Kathmandu, to the plains along the southern Indian border, and in the remote, hilly villages between.

Simply put, Prem Raja Mahat is a Nepali folk singing legend, considered his country’s equivalent of Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Willie Nelson, even Elvis. “He is too popular,” says Mahat’s brother, Shyam. “Everybody knows him.” Nonetheless, one of Nepal’s most famous exports more or less blends into the crowd in Baltimore, unless you stop to talk to him, and he reveals his varied roles: father of four, immigrant, special consul for his home country, restaurant owner, hit singer and songwriter. He might just be the Most Interesting Man in the World, and that suggestion doesn’t even take into account how his journey started.

“I love this country and I love back home,” the 54-year-old Mahat says from behind his cluttered office desk in the back of Nepal House, while he sips rich Nepalese tea. “This is my workplace, that is my birthplace.”

Forty years ago, and more than 7,500 miles away in Nepal’s west central hills, Mahat grew up mostly parentless. His mother died when he was 7. The cause, according to his wife, Kabita Mahat, reflects Nepal’s status as a still-developing country: an everyday stomach ailment. Two years later, Mahat’s father died of a heart attack.

As a young boy, Mahat and his two older brothers worked the family’s land to feed themselves and their five sisters. Mahat also looked after the cattle. At times, he would listen to the music of the Gaines, the people who make up one of  Nepal’s lowest social castes, as they played music door-to-door, begging for money. “That captivated my mind,” Mahat says. “I started to learn with them.”

His brother, Shyam, bought him a wooden flute, and soon the 7-year-old Prem was figuring out tunes while farming. He eventually learned to play the sarangi, a small, short-necked instrument similar to a violin that’s held upright. He was a natural. 

For 10 years straight, Mahat had Nepal’s top-selling albums.

In the late 1970s, Mahat went to college at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, the country’s capital city, where he performed on what was then the nation’s only radio station, government-run Radio Nepal. His versions of dohori—a popular, conversational style of song that features light drum beats, flutes, and strings—caught on fast, as much for their grooves, rhyming, and pace as for the folk-song themes that describe the human condition. Mahat says he found inspiration from earlier generations of Nepali singers, and in American songs by Bob Dylan and John Denver—he was planning to meet Denver before he died in a plane crash.

In one of Mahat’s hits, “Sim Sime Pani Ma,” Mahat begs (though English translations are difficult): Please don’t leave, you don’t have anyone but me in this world. A female singer replies: I want to be close to you, but I am fearful of what society will say. 

“He portrays love and tragedy in his songs. It’s very consistent with his upbringing,” says Mahat’s nephew, Dig Mahat, who was born in Nepal and is a molecular biology postgraduate student at Cornell University. “The songs are always upbeat, about hope, then regret or sorrow. People connect with him because of that. His songs are ubiquitous.” 

For 10 years straight, Mahat had the country’s top-selling albums. He’s a prolific artist, who so far has created 58 CDs or cassettes during his career, one for just about every year he has lived. And in places only reachable by rubble paths, tunes like the lively, back-and-forth “Paan Ko Paat” and “Banjo Khet Ma” spread by word-of-mouth, says Tara Linhardt, a musician who studied in Nepal during college and later shared the stage with Mahat in Baltimore and the Washington, D.C., area. “It’s a whole different thing than you’ve ever imagined,” Linhardt says. “He would write a song and it would spread to people that didn’t have electricity.”

That’s quite an accomplishment considering more than 100 languages make up the country’s vernacular. “For the people,” Mahat says. “That’s the kind of person I am.”

On a weekday night, before the dinner rush at Nepal House, Mahat takes a break before attending to the kitchen and customers. He and his wife bite into momos—dumplings that are a Nepali delicacy—and discuss life. For them, it revolves around the restaurant. 

Nepal House—which smells delectably of cinnamon and cumin—serves traditional tastes of the Himalayas seven days—and nights—a week. Chicken, lamb, vegetable, and curry dishes dot the menu, as well as the delectable $9.99 weekday lunch buffet. The atmosphere, befitting its owners, is welcoming and friendly. The Mahats and their 14 employees—11 of whom are from Nepal—check in kindly on each table. “Cook for you,” is Prem’s mantra to his staff when he talks to them about his aspirations for quality, cleanliness, and affordability. The priciest dishes on the menu are $21.99, including a skewered lamb prime rib, marinated in ginger, garlic, and yogurt. 

The restaurant’s décor attempts to transport you to Nepal, with carvings, chalk paintings, and bronze casts that hang on the walls. In the hallway outside Mahat’s office that overlooks the kitchen, a portrait of Elvis rests beneath a calendar featuring Mahat’s own likeness. Here he plans to commission a mural featuring 14 of Earth’s highest peaks, all over 25,000 feet and all located within Nepal’s borders.

The Mahats—who had an arranged marriage 30 years ago—also talk about what brought them to the United States. A decentralized government has been a hallmark of Nepal’s history since the 1990s, which is when the government and police lost control. Rebels kidnapped children at school. Public transportation shut down. People were killed in the streets. The Mahats had four young children, and were worried. 

Prem, who was then 35 and in his musical prime, was playing a concert in Texas in 1996 when he decided to leave Nepal for good. “I am here for my kids,” he says. One of his godparents lived in Baltimore, and Mahat decided to begin the U.S. immigration process. He lived in an apartment near Patterson Park before his wife and children could immigrate five years later, in 2001. Then, they all moved to a house in Towson, for the schools. 

Mahat’s family understood what a sacrifice this was for him. “I still feel guilty about it,” says his daughter, Sadikshya Mahat, 25. “He had everything back home, and [music] is what he was meant to be doing. All of my siblings, we regret that he had to give everything up for us. But we were more of a priority to him than his career. He came here and started from scratch.”

Mahat decided to leave Nepal in 1996. “I am here for my kids,” he says.  

Mahat started working as a waiter at Mughal Garden, an Indian restaurant that operated in Nepal House’s current space for about 20 years. With a friend, he later opened a mostly carry-out spot in Locust Point. Kabita Mahat worked at a Royal Farms store for a decade before the couple took an opportunity to buy Mughal Garden, and reinvent it, in August 2014. Their four children—Sargam, 29, Samikshya, 28, Sadikshya, and Sangeet, 23—each helped to open Nepal House two years ago. They have all graduated from college. 

“They are all doing really good, have very good jobs,” Mahat says. “I am very proud.”

As for the future, Mahat first wants his restaurant to make Nepalese food more widely known in Maryland. Second, but no less important, he intends to continue the restaurant’s mission as a Nepali welcome center. 

In the most recent U.S. census, 3,412 Nepalese were counted in Maryland, many driven here by political strife and a poor economy. Many of those immigrants know Mahat. For years, he has helped new arrivals find places to stay or live. “I’ve heard a lot of people in the community sing praise about him,” says Sajeed Poudyal, co-owner of the Nepali news website, DC Nepal. In 2004, Mahat co-founded the Baltimore Association of Nepalese in America, and in 2010 the Nepalese government gave him the volunteer title of honorary consul. Sometimes, he puts up fellow countrymen in his house, which is technically a Nepali consulate. (When they were younger, his daughters Samikshya and Sadikshya shared a bedroom and often wondered why one of them couldn’t take the finished basement downstairs. “I need that for guests,” their dad said.) 

In addition to day-to-day managerial tasks like paying the bills and ordering supplies, Mahat is a job creator. Rajan Ghimire was born in the Pokhara Valley, near where Mahat grew up. Now, the 26-year-old works for the star he heard on the radio. “We have a family environment here,” Ghimire says.

Mahat has even taught a few Nepalese how to drive. “In life, there’s a lot of up and down,” he says. “My thinking is, ‘Hey, friend. I’m here, I can help you.’ That’s more important than the money. Everybody doesn’t have the money, but everybody has the mind, the heart.” 

Adjacent to Mahat’s Nepal House office is a tiny one-room apartment that includes a bed, bathroom, and refrigerator. Visitors are welcome to stay here in Mount Vernon, just like they are at the house in Towson. But sometimes, the private room is for the owner himself. If he works late at the restaurant or on a new song, as he still does, he’ll pick up a sarangi and sing. 

Mahat made a late-November sojourn to Nepal— a “music trip” he called it a few days before he left. He made time for relatives, friends and strangers, but he fulfilled his primary purpose two weeks in, when he visited a recording studio. “It was very good, very good,” he said when he returned. “I am happy.” 

Album 59 is on the way, led by the title track, “Ayo Nepali,” a song of national pride born out of the earthquake that killed thousands nearly two years ago. The CD will soon join the rest on the restaurant shelves, ready to proudly play, while Buddha keeps watch.