Kathmandu knows me too well.

Kathmandu doesn’t flinch
when I openly flirt with Patan and Pokhara.
He doesn’t show any sign of envy or anger,
he pretends not to notice.
But when the night comes
and the cities are fast asleep,
Kathmandu slides into my bed and hugs me tightly.

“When I closed my door for you,
I didn’t want you to go and open your heart
to the next city you meet,”
he says,
“Instead,
I wanted you to explore the world,
experience new thing,
meet New York,
have a summer fling with San Francisco,
date Rome
have a one night stand with Istanbul
and possibly settle down with London.”

Before I could protest,
he kissed me softly,
making me change my mind.
Kathmandu knows me too well.
Kathmandu knows me too well.

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The Walk

One evening in the November of 2014, I walked home from Basantapur with a friend. The moment we passed Jana Bahal, his eyes twinkled with memories. These were the very streets, he played in as a child, he’d said. The roads he first stepped on, the area where he first went to buy pau with ek suka. He was full of stories till we reached Balkumari, where his childhood home was located. I remember walking inside a dark tiny galli right behind the Balkumari temple to see his old home.

Upon reaching there, I noticed that the eyes that were twinkling with memories a while ago was now staring silently at a big white washed building which had its doors and windows closed. The house that was home to 32 members once was now standing aloof to all the houses aligned; the place where his family shared joys and laughter was now the quietest and darkest one in the chowk. Both of us were teary eyed as we walked down towards Thamel crossing Asan and Jyatha. For someone who hadn’t moved out of the place from where she had grown up, I was finding it difficult to imagine how he must have been feeling. His memories no longer matching with the reality or worse, were in total contrast.

But five months after our walk, a big earthquake took place. He told me that although his house looked alright from the outside, it wasn’t the same from the inside. Of course, nobody had lived in it for years. But the walls had cracked so badly that all the members from his large extended family decided to tear it down. And there was nothing he could do about it.

Almost eleven months after the earthquake, a few evenings ago, we walked home again from Basantapur. And this time, instead of talking about our memories of the long stretch to Asan, we speculated each building that we passed by, wondering how many years they will have before they would face the same fate as his house. Those houses behind the kurta pasal, bhada pasal bag pasal, some with French windows and others with traditional Newari ones, what would become of them when more concrete buildings will appear in the neighborhood. With tekas placed in front of each houses, we wondered what will happen to them after a few years.

As we reached Balkumari, we decided to visit his house again. Right after the galli finished, we came across a pit that was dug up for a foundation. I remembered that there were small shops at that spot when we’d last visited. “Another concrete building will come up here” he said with a bitter tone.  This time this once a large house was not only the quietest and the darkest but also the shortest one in the chowk. I looked at this house that once awed me (I went back home to tell mother about it) and wondered what had been lost and what had been gone. It now was reduced to two floored building and seemed lost among other houses in that chowk.

As we moved out of the chowk, into the stretch that would take me home, my friend looked sullen. “I couldn’t save my house,” he told me as we walked away from his memories. Unlike last time, I knew what he was talking about. In my own case, I haven’t really succeeded in convincing my mama not to tear our house. Although he has been postponing the process despite the protest from my maiju, I still wonder if I can save what’s left of it.

Soon we reached Asan and my friend pointed out a half destroyed building that used to be home to Annapurna Seed Store. “Look that house is gone.” I then looked at a home by our side and said “That might go too. I love the window of that house.” We both looked up to see a darkness, of what we could make out of the window that was there. “And that will definitely go,” he pointed out to a long sattal near Annapurna Temple. “But that’s a sattal. At least they might retain the windows”, I told him.

While our last walk after Asan was full of silence with him gulping down his memories; this time it was full of pointing out random chowks, gallis and homes and giving it a timeline of when it will disappear. I told him how all the houses hidden inside the dark gallis have already gone down, leaving a large open space behind the outer layers of houses now. When we reached Tyauda, we looked at what once used to be a long wooden window, now a part of its gone after the house was divided into three.

Along the way, until we reached my home at Thamel, we talked about how we don’t know what to do, how to do or just where to start from regarding the current context of tearing the old houses in the name of modernization and now, security. We lamented over the fact that we are hopeless and we felt helplessness.  And that we haven’t been able to do anything about it, even on a personal level. Because how can you save a city if you cannot save your own home.

You and I

I want to trace the map of Kathmandu on the back of my hands with the stories you’ve told me. But you were never a storyteller and mapping Kathmandu on the back of anyone’s hands, no matter how big they are, is not possible at all.

I want to retrace the path we’d walked, in the three cities. The galli where you kissed me when we thought no one was watching, the chowk with a dead end which looked like a haunted place and the falcha in the middle of the pond where we wrote stories in form of poems, eating aloo-chips we bought nearby.

Then I realized as we mapped Kathmandu with the stories we’d known and the stories we were creating, I’d long forgotten how it felt like holding your hand and simply enjoy your presence. For many moments I’d found special, we were busier trying to find a new opening to the galli we’d just walked. Or find the darkest galli there is or the chowk with the most beautiful windows.

I wish I could write songs instead of this piece. At least I could then trace our story, step by step, chapter by chapter, song by song. And we could finally see the pattern. Of how we went on from being a head over heels lovers to unrecognizable strangers. Now, we, or rather I can just read fragments of story formed in my head making me suddenly realize, I don’t even know what you feel.

So I want to trace the maps of Kathmandu and retrace the path we’d walked in the three cities. I want to rewind everything so that this time, it’s your narrative. It’s your monologue. It’s your story. Will you let me?

Homage – II

When I walked home that night, after a street movie in Maru, with a friend. When it was dark and we had the long road from Indra Chowk to Ason and then from Ason to Jyatha, all over to ourselves. When it was silent. When it was far away from the usual hurdle of a market place. I felt belonged. Listening to his story, I felt home. Because each house we passed had a soul. There were noises coming from the rooms inside the chowks with dark galli. The noise of TV running, children crying, mothers shouting, fathers laughing.

The big square in the middle of Ason was empty. But you could hear the breathing of people who had gone home after a long day of business. The shops with wooden doors were closed. But you could smell the masalas, the dried fishes and the rice grains they stored inside. Although the houses with intricate windows and detailed walls were standing still, you could feel life in them.

Today, as I stood over a slightly more crowded Ason, a chill ran through my soul. Few of the shops were closed. And unlike that night, the houses weren’t beaming under the moonlight. It was still bright day when I decided to go to Ason to check out the shops. The houses, now felt empty, stripped off their soul. The windows were opened and you could see a dark room inside. The shops were shut down but this time, you couldn’t smell anything but terror. The chowks are now silent. The TV has been unplugged. The family has moved somewhere else, most probably, the big community of tent in Tundikhel. The houses are standing still, but their walls have cracked and wooden beams have broken down.

While during other times, I would get scared to barge into an unknown chowk in fear of invading privacy, I was scared today to do the same in fear of the building collapsing.

The earthquake took many things from us. Family and friends. Homes. Heritage sites. And our favorite gallies and chowks and houses that reminded why Kathmandu was still beautiful, despite the chaos in the first place.

Homage – I

I grew up in concrete house. My home, located in Thamel, used to be made up of mud and bricks and timber like most of the houses in older part of Kathmandu but since we had a large family consisting of my grandparents and their five sons-three daughters, it was decided to demolish the house to build a new one made up of concrete, right after I was born. After all, four of my uncles would get married in the future and each of them would have kids.

My mamaghar, on the other hand, was made up of bricks and mud and timber with a jasatapata roof. As a kid, I was told not to jump around the house and dance because the dust would fall off from the floor I would be staying. That sometimes made me think that maybe, new concrete buildings were better than the old traditional brick houses. But of course I would forget about the thought, the moment I would sit in the falcha with Maa, basking the sun and listening to her friends’ gossips. Located in Bhaktapur, I still think, mamaghar is the only private house with its own falcha. A real falcha where old women would come to bask the sun in the winter as it faced south and children would come to watch processions of Gai Jatra.

Coming to think about it, that falcha was the reason why I started to fall in love with traditional structures, mostly homes. Mamaghar meant sanctuary. A place where I would shut the world down. A place where no one could reach me, and I would be all by myself, pampered with love. It was like a farmhouse – where you would go to live in every other vacation for few days. To lay down and forget about the world, your school work, friends, exams. Because it was old (the house was still standing after the 1934 earthquake and was mildly renovated before the 1987 one of which I was totally unaware of till now), at one point, I started becoming scared that Baa will one day decide to demolish the house in favor of a concrete ones. When I expressed by worry, he assured me that it won’t be the case, as the municipality won’t allow it.

When Maa passed away, mom was first diagnosed with cancer and my cousin moved to Australia, mama would joke about how they would leave the place and move somewhere else near to mom. Maiju would also agree with him. Despite knowing it to be a joke, I would immediately ask them to give me the house. “I would turn the buigal and chota into apartment while maata will be an art gallery and I would combine chelli and falcha and turn them into a nice café”. I used to share my plans and they would all laugh at 15-year-old me. Later on, I started a casual reminder on how I don’t want new concrete buildings in place of our old mud and brick house.

There was something about the place. The chowk. The warmth of rooms with tall windows where you could sit and stare at people passing by. And sit in the falcha and remember your childhood days. There was something about the orange-colored brick paved road. Brick houses with wooden windows of all kinds. About the pond in middle of the square. I found solace in this view. I found home. So I didn’t want a concrete neighborhood here. I wanted old men with wrinkled faces singing bhajan every evening at the falcha in front of our house. I wanted old women basking the sun and gossiping. I wanted to sit in the windows and write about how I feel calm and in peace.

The last time I was there, for Bisket Jatra, Maiju cautiously told me that maybe they should demolish the place. It was an old house that now shook every time a jeep drove through. And she was afraid. I told her that it was the last time I was saying no. If they built a concrete house, I will never step in ever again. Twenty five days after that threat, top two floors of our neighbors came crashing down after the earthquake. The walls then got cracked and made a hole. A week later, my beloved house was given red card. “It’s better if you don’t live here” the engineers said.