Sense of an ending in Kathmandu #NepalEarthquake

With the recent devastation of the historic national heritages, I have developed a new sense of loss

The Laxminarayan Temple in front of the Garuda is no more.

The Laxminarayan Temple in front of the Garuda is no more.

KATHMANDU, APR 27 – This is undoubtedly the worst possible time to admit this. But given the times we are living in, there is no better time to acknowledge it.

I have always felt uneasy with the portrayal of the Kathmandu Durbar Square as the face of Kathmandu. Not that I have not spent innumerable mornings, afternoons and evenings loitering aimlessly at the Square. It is not as if I have not spent many hours sitting at the Maju Deval facing different directions depending on my mood either: facing the buildings behind when not in the mood to look at people, a different side not to disturb lovers or just staring ahead at the people, feeling the wind and watching life go by. On different steps of the Deval and the surrounding temples, I have met different friends to discuss different issues: a career, development, relationships and death, and unwillingly gulped down many cups of tea.

Still, my question has always remained: must we always justify our love of Kathmandu in relation to the cup of tea we sipped on the steps of the Laxmi Narayan temple? Does all writing about Kathmandu have to justify one’s love of the Durbar Square or situate itself in the alleys of Asan? What about the Kathmandu beyond the stretch of the stone-paved path from Juddha Salik to a temple called the small Pasupatinath? On other days, when discussion on Twitter inadvertently veered towards accusing ‘Kathmandu’ of not doing this or that, I have wondered what Kathmandu is. Is it a collection of white buildings inside Singha Durbar? Is it Baluwatar? Or is it the millions that live in tiny rented rooms in the city or migrants from elsewhere who now have a ghar in Kathmandu? Can the city be what it is by excluding any one of these?

The end of an era: Dharahara is no more.

The end of an era: Dharahara is no more.

But when I first saw Dharahara missing from the city’s landscape, I was very clear as to what Kathmandu is or was. (more…)


Bhaktapur in ruins

The well preserved ancient city of Bhaktapur lost some of its old and traditional buildings in yesterday’s earthquake. The devastation of some of the structures like the Batsala Durga temple in the famed Darbar Square was a heart-wrenching sight. I had spent several peaceful evenings there. However, to see the majestic Nyatapola still standing tall was heartening. A Chinese couple was busy taking photos in front of the intact Nyatapola. An abandoned chariot stood in-front of it. A rest-house right next to the Taleju temple had collapsed. During the Dashain festival that is where old men and women gathered, played instruments and sang bhajans. Locals had gathered at the square to escape the aftershocks. On my way back, I saw many old buildings along the old highway (purano bato) damaged severely. In one of those houses, three rabbits were staying still in a perilous place just below a window.

The earthquake in Kathmandu 2015

Mahesh Acharya had just finished speaking about the contentious constitutional issues. It was now turn to talk about the upcoming national convention of his party the Nepali Congress. The Minister of Forest and Soil Conservation, who is also a Nepali Congress leader, was telling me how the rumours that the NC President and Prime Minister Koirala was seeking to elongate the constitution-writing process until after the party convention were baseless. Then, he said, “There’s an earthquake” and rushed towards the door. I did too. But just as I had scrambled out of the door, I don’t remember how, it began shaking like crazy. I reached the grass lawn outside, but lost balance. I rolled on the ground, something similar to a somersault, only that it was involuntary. What a weird situation to be in, I thought. To be taking an interview as a journalist and doing a somersault. It amused me. In retrospect, I must have been grinning while I rolled. Then there were aftershocks. Earthworms began to emerge from the soft grass. Walls nearby had collapsed. I couldn’t make a phone call. But I could tweet. Then, I realized that I simply had no idea about what I should do during an earthquake when out in the open! I remembered the public service announcements I had heard on the radio, particularly the one which used to be (don’t know if they still do) played quite frequently in the Hits FM.  None of the suggestions I knew of, like leave the lines open for people to contact each other or finding a corner to stand, hiding below a table dealt with the outdoors. I looked around me wondering if there was a certain position people were supposed to sit or crouch in. There were only five people in the lawn, me and a photographer with the Kantipur publications, Nimeshji, along with the minister, his wife and son.  I did what Nimeshji was doing, resting his elbow and knees on the grass. I realised how unprepared I was for the ‘big one’. All my life, ever since I have known that a great earthquake was due in Kathmandu, I have felt as though my life is one long wait for an earthquake. Over the years, I have indulged myself with the imagined repercussions of the earthquake in great detail. Kathmandu would be flattened. Ideally, I would be at home with all my family members. But when the earthquake did actually happen, I barely had the time to register what was happening. About 20 minutes later, I headed towards the door of the Ministerial  quarters where visitors are supposed to leave behind an identity card and they are given a visitor’s card to whichever minister’s house they are headed to. When I reach the door, the police at the gate again sent me back to get the visitor’s card I’d left behind. I had to go back and get it. The farce of it all, I thought. There is no certainty about life and what the police wants to do is to demonstrate his power or follow the rule apparently! Once out on the streets, it was clear that the only open spaces in Kathmandu for most people were its roads. Most of Kathmandu seemed to be intact while traveling on the main roads. Newer buildings survived, but those built before the 1900s (looked so) had either collapsed or were damaged partially. Thousands of people in Kathmandu had secured places for themselves in limited public spaces like in the middle of the roads, some grounds including the military parade ground that was opened to the public in central Kathmandu and in traffic island in the middle of the road. In the outskirts of the city, residents have gathered in small groups, away from their homes, to spend night. I am typing this from one of those shelters. In the case of my neighbourhood, we are spending the night under a tin shack which is under construction for a furniture shop. People are fearful of the very houses they would otherwise feel secure in. If this is what Kathmandu has been undergoing, one can only imagine the horrors people elsewhere in the country lived through. [The latest tremor I felt was about 10 minutes ago, at 11:30 pm, as I was rearranging the photos in the album below. Good night from the tin shack.] Here are some photos I took today:

Birgunj: a city of price-tags

It seems as though Birgunj is capable of putting a price tag on everything, including on the future of its girls

APR 17 – Birgunj, at first glance, looks as though it was built for business. A traveller does not need to know the history of the city to reach this conclusion. A short walk starting from the Ghantaghar through the Main Road—which changes its name at different points to Meena Bazaar, Mohan Market or Maisthan Chowk, Kalwar Market or Mahabirsthan and Adarshanagar—will suffice. This stretch and the side roads on both sides are filled with shops that sell just about everything. On a relatively quiet weekend, a pedestrian can find herself inhaling the smell of new clothes. But if Bhupi Sherchan were to write about Birjung now, he would perhaps slightly tweak his poem Mero Chowk, and say: “Birjung ma ke chaina sab thok cha, kewal grahak chaina” (Birgunj has everything but customers).


Virtual is the new real

MAR 20 – A few days back, no sooner had I stepped inside a microbus in the evening, a picture of a brain displayed on a mobile phone caught my eye. From where my head was positioned, caught in between the arm of a woman in the front and a man at the back, the screen was unmissable. The brain which seemed to be a post in a stranger’s Facebook timeline resembled the insides of a walnut. The phone’s  owner, a young woman, was seated across a young man equally engrossed with this white-coloured phone.

Right above his head, a sticker pasted alongside Mahila/Apanga/Asakta 1, 2, 3 asked: Billions of rupees for leaders, what for the people? Smartphones, perhaps, I thought to myself.

It was an uneventful ride until it was time for the white-phone owner to get off.  As soon as he stepped out, he got into a verbal altercation with the conductor. Apparently, the latter pissed the man off by making a snide remark about his fiddling with the phone.

Kaslai hepeko?


As is the case with such fights, it was difficult for me to establish who had actually disrespected whom. By then the passengers had already begun to take sides. “Why should a passenger engrossed with his phone be a problem unless he does not pay the fare?” one asked. “People need to kill time on a public vehicle some way or the other,” a woman added.

The man for whom the arguments were being made had long gone. At that very instant, it felt as though we (the people in the vehicle) had moved on too–to join our global tribe which, if need be, will fight tooth and nail for the right to stare at our screens as and when we wish to. It reminded me of something I binge-watched about a month or so ago and which has been bothering me ever since.


Forced to survive

JAN 23 – The morning after the constitution was not promulgated within the stipulated time, for the second time, was like every other day. The remains of a dog crushed by a vehicle on the road to Pepsi-cola the night before stayed where it was. In Jadibuti, a man pushed his bicycle loaded with the dead body of a pig, mostly exposed. On the bridge connecting Kathmandu with Bhaktapur, buses plied and the Manohara flowed below, managing to fit in its ever-reducing width as people encroach its banks and grow vegetables and maize there. Then on the dusty road to the right of the Araniko Highway, two schoolboys returning from their karate classes observed that the cold had receded. At a nearby public tap, a child only inches taller than a 2.5 litre green—Mountain Dew—bottle was trying to lift it. The mother’s calls, to not touch the bottles, remained unheeded.

It was just another normal day.

The sky did not fall because the mythical constitution was not promulgated. Chairs, not people, became the only casualties on Tuesday. So this, according to some pundits on Twitter is a time to heave a sigh of relief. After all, people want a democratic and inclusive constitution, not a rushed exclusionary document. Well said. But this almost a decade-long political drama is not just about an inclusive document. It is as much about living in a bubble of perpetual transition.


The disappearance of Tej Bahadur Bhandari

Thirteen years on, the wife and children of a retired school teacher from Lamjung have been looking for answers as to what happened to him after he was accosted by security personnel, blindfolded, and thrown into a police van

JAN 05 – At 67, most people look back on their lives with some sort of clarity of what happened in the past decades that have gone by and who they are today. The distinct lines that run across Laxmi Bhandari’s face, however, are no indication of such clarity.

On a recent chilly morning in her children’s house in Kathmandu, Laxmi, who was seated on a chair across me asks, “So what would you call me, nani? Saduwa or a biduwa?” As I fumbled for words she continues, “I don’t know what I am supposed to call myself.” (Saduwa is a woman whose husband is still alive and biduwa, a widow.)

Had he been alive, Laxmi expressed belief that she would have definitely known of her husband’s whereabouts. After all, she says, he could see, could speak. He would have tried to reach out to his family. Even if he were dead, people would have found his body by now. After mulling on it, Laxmi came back to the question that has been haunting her for the last 13 years: “Cha ki, chaina ki? (Is he alive? Is he dead?”)