Floods and storiesIn the alleyways of Patan, the houses are pressed against each other like books on a bookshelf. Things keep breaking and stories keep spilling.
My story begins where most stories begin -the place where you are born. I was born in Patan, and the alleyways of Patan became my playground. I spent my childhood roaming the seemingly infinite maze of alleyways, brick roads, and ancient houses.
In Patan, the houses are pressed against each other like books on a bookshelf. However, in real bookshelves, the story of one book limits itself to its pages; it doesn’t spill onto the pages of its neighbouring books. The characters, settings, and dialogue do not mesh together, creating a cacophony of voices, stories, and plots. In the alleyways of Patan, where the houses cling to each other like a baby monkey clings to its mother, it all spills. Every house, every family, every story spills from one house to the other.
I always thought it was lucky that our house only had one neighbour to be spilled onto. A road cut across to Pimbahal on the right of our house, so we only had one adjacent house to our left. For 19 years, when I was growing up, our left-door neighbours were perfect. Perfect in the sense that they were not nosy, not loud, and not rude. Most of the time.
The rest of the time was during festival times when the father used to host late-night parties for his friends. The parties with their overflowing booze, fortune-altering cards, and obnoxious music used to keep me up all night. But other times, the family used to be peaceful and accommodating. We used to interact with each others’ family members whenever we used to run into each other. The usual greetings—hello, how are you and the end. When we entered our own houses, we didn’t cling to each other. Our personal family stories and problems were closed off from each other between the brick walls.
They had a son, five years my senior. Whenever my mother used to find me playing while he studied out loud in the background like a priest reciting mantras, I used to get a free dose of the typical parent lecture.
“All you do is waste your time playing rather than doing your homework. Do you know Ashish’s mother told me yesterday that he got first place in the recent exams? He got 95 percent while my son barely passed with 65 percent.”
He was a model student, who got distinction in SLC, was sent straight to join the Science faculty at an expensive college, completed his bachelor's degree in IT, and worked in an IT company, raking in hundreds of thousands rupees a month. As luck would have it, he got selected for a DV to the USA. His family brought us sweets when the news broke out in our neighbourhood. Eventually, the whole family moved to the USA.
In 19 years of my life, I had become used to not spilling with my neighbour. But as soon as my lifelong neighbours were whisked away to the USA, the Shakyas came. The Shakyas were a smaller family. Only the husband and wife. Young couple. Both in their late twenties.
The initial months after the Shakyas moved in next door, nothing changed. Nothing spilled onto places where it wasn’t supposed to spill onto. Not nosy, not loud, not rude. Our families led separate lives in houses fused together. However, that all started to change with the change in seasons.
The husband started to come home late and drunk and loud. The wife started to leave the house less and less. Sometimes they didn’t close their windows, and then I could hear discussions devolving into screaming matches. The whole neighbourhood was starting to get irritated. A little spilling was okay, but not a flood. But we are patient people. Rarely proactive and rarely reactive. So, the neighbourhood just watched and let fate run its course. Who in their right mind attempts to divert a flood?
Soon, the screaming matches turned up a notch and ventured into physical territory. I could hear discomforting thuds from the walls, the breaking of utensils and glass, and the heart-wrenching sound of wailing.
When I used to go grocery shopping, I used to hear talks about the Shakyas from the neighbourhood aunties.
“I feel so sorry for the girl.”
“Yeah, I see bruises all over her hands whenever I see her.”
“Why hasn’t she called the police on that no-good husband?”
During dinner after a particularly violent and loud fight next door, I had uncomfortably brought up this topic to my mother.
“Ma, do you think we should inform the police or some organisation about the fights and screaming next door?”
She looked at me like I had announced a plan to jump off the roof and fly to the USA. “What? Are you insane? Why would we interfere in other people’s family matters? If your father heard about you trying to interfere in other people’s affairs, he would give you a good beating instead. Mind your own business, son.”
“I just think we should do something before something bad happens.”
“We are not the neighbourhood police. And besides, we cannot force her to leave her own house if she doesn’t want to. Some families are like this, son. Family matters will work out on their own.”
I couldn’t argue more with her. I let my qualms seep into the brick walls and disappear.
Meanwhile, the neighbourhood was getting flooded with the talk of the Shakyas with each thundering night of downpours. The husband used to receive cold stares from the neighbourhood aunties, but he just shrugged them off. Things remained the same. The screaming, the beating, the crying.
Soon, Dashain came along, and there was the smell of festivities in the air. The aroma of delicious curry wafting through each kitchen window made me wonder why anyone would leave this place. I visited my mamaghar in Kirtipur for two weeks in Dashain.
When I returned, things had changed. The flood had receded and left behind houses buried deep in dirt.
There were no late night shouting matches anymore. I could finally sleep peacefully. The neighbourhood sighed waves of relief.
After a few weeks of undisturbed silence in the night, I finally asked my mother whatever happened to our neighbours. She replied that the wife had gone to her parent’s home for Dashain and hadn’t returned yet. Maybe family matters were starting to work out on their own.
A few months passed by, and the husband was always seen alone. He employed a house helper to prepare breakfast and dinner, and he went to work and back as usual. The rumours and gossip started again.
When I went grocery shopping, I heard one aunty saying to the other, “You know my husband is friends with someone who works in the same office as the Shakya guy. He said that the husband was frustrated because the wife didn’t want the husband’s parents to move in with them. The husband’s parents were constantly sick and their health was starting to worsen so he wanted to invite them to move in with them.”
“What? I heard that he was an alcoholic and he beat his wife without any rhyme or reason.”
“Well, I heard that the wife was having an affair.”
“I heard the husband was having an affair.”
Every time I went to the market to get groceries, all I could hear was the waves and waves of conjectures about the Shakyas. Sick of the gossip, I begged my mother not to send me grocery shopping anymore.
One breakfast morning, I again gathered courage and asked my mother about our neighbours.
“Ma, what happened to our neighbour?”
She looked at me and scoffed a little. I thought I was in for another lecture, but she replied with an uncaring tone.
“I heard that the husband is going to file for divorce soon. The wife doesn’t want to return home. Families are so brittle nowadays. During my time, families used to stick together through thick and thin.”
Her mind wandered a bit and she added, “You don’t change your house when a lightbulb goes out.”
I wondered how many lightbulbs, windows, doors would have to be broken beyond repair before you sighed, packed up your bags, and never looked back. I never saw the wife again and I thought maybe enough things had been broken.
I resumed my grocery shopping duties again and new neighbourhood gossip has replaced the old. Violence. Betrayal. Affairs. The same old cycle, water changing into vapour into rain into flood.
In the alleyways of Patan, the houses are pressed against each other like books on a bookshelf. Things keep breaking and stories keep spilling.