Relating to what we’ve lostThe kids in Daubahal called me Rishi Bangur—Rishi the boar—a surprising moniker for a perennially underweight kid.
The house I grew up in sits right smack on the main road. We had a small chowk inside our house but when the anksabanda happened between my father and uncles, the chowk was dissected into pieces like a birthday cake. It only remains in our memories now. Come every monsoon, from where our chowk once was, rose a noisome odour that reminded all of us of the things we covered up. You see, the main drain out of our house passed the chowk on its way to join the main sewage pipe out in the main streets. So playing in the small, smelly chowk was not an option either.
But we always had Mangal Bazaar to ourselves.
My mother fondly remembers how she would take us to Mangal Bazaar. I used to chase pigeons, she tells me. She would sit in the shade provided by the Char Narayan Mandir and leave us to our own devices. If my mother was busy teaching—she taught for over 30 years in the government school in Chyasal before retiring—our uncle, my father’s brother, would take us to Mangal Bazaar. He would point out so many things to us and reveal the stories that were hidden in plain sight. He once took us (my sister and I) to Sundari Chowk and told us about the Malla kings and how they came here for a purifying bath before they went to Krishna Mandir to do their nitya-puja.
One time, he pointed at the three statues that guarded the front gate of the chowk and told me a curious tale. ‘Can you read those statues?’ he asked. ‘ummm… that one’s Ganesh. The other’s a Narsingh and the last one is Hanuman?” I guessed. “No, no. Can you tell me what it means?” I remember looking at him with a blank expression. I didn’t get it. I don’t think any kid would have. “It’s his signature,” uncle told me. “Whose?” we asked. “Siddhi Narsingh Malla.”
“Siddhi Narsingh Maharaj,” he said. “He left his signature on everything he built. The Ganesh’s statue means Siddhi, the Narsingh is, well, Narsingh, and since Hanuman is the patron deity of the Pahalmans, and of Khusti, the Malla yuddha, it means Malla. Add all three, and you get Siddhi Narsingh Malla.”
We were in awe of what my uncle knew and of the stories he told. He told us about how during the last big earthquake the cracked head of the elephant statue that guards the Vishwanath Mandir fell down to Manga-hiti, and what that omen meant. He pointed towards the golden bird that rests atop the statue of Yog Narendra Malla, in front of the Degu Talle in Patan Durbar Square. “See that bird? If that flies away, it will mean that our juju Siddhi Narsingh Maharaj has passed away.”
When the quake struck, I rushed to the Durbar Square to volunteer in any capacity I could. One of the first questions I asked a dust-cloaked rescue personnel was if the bird atop the statue had come loose or not. He threw me a dirty look. A few days later, I asked the same question to the Patan Museum team when I went to the museum to volunteer as a photographer to help them make an inventory of the things they’d salvaged. It was intact, they told me. I cannot tell you how relieved I felt. Not because it meant that Siddhi Narsingh Maharaj was still out there, immortal, but because one of the symbols that connected me to my childhood had survived.
But the quake took so many things I had come to love in Mangal Bazaar. If my mother were to return to Mangal Bazaar right now, she wouldn’t be able to find the shade of the Char Narayan Mandir anymore. It is gone. So is the Harihar Temple, where a few months back, I took a portrait of my wife and her uncle. The quake robbed me of the one place I found solace. Whenever I needed space to think, my feet dragged me to Mangal Bazaar. I don’t know why, but being in the vicinity had a calming effect on me. The constant chime of temple bells, the fluttering of the ever-present pigeons and the ambience of the place never failed to soothe my restless soul. I came there to escape the chaos of Kathmandu.
In my childhood, if both my mother and my uncle were busy, I only had one place in the entire world where I could go play—Swotha. A few minutes’ walk from our home, Swotha was our playground. Not just because of the wide courtyards, but because my mother’s younger sister lived there and she had kids our age. No one called me Rishi Bangur there. Being one of the oldest of the kids, I could play with them without attracting any bullies. There were kids who lived as tenants in the bahal and they also joined in our games. And what epic games we played! There was gatta, chor-police, and probably the best of all, hide-and-seek.
The grand structure of the Radha Krishna Mandir, and the adjacent Krishna Mandir, and two adjoining courtyards provided us more than ample space to do anything our heart desired. The Krishna Mandir in Swotha was built by Siddhi Narsingh Malla’s son. It was damaged in the last big quake and a hurried reconstruction had added a dome to an otherwise Shikhar-styled temple. The result was a strange-looking chimera. But we didn’t care about things like that. The dome (done in the Gumbaj style) meant that we could use the chamber as a neat hiding place. We climbed there from the temple’s side—there’s still a gap there in the structure. If you turn your back to the Swotha Narayan and face the temple, you’ll find that place, from where we climbed to the first storey of the temple, to your left. If enough of us were already using that place as a hideout, we’d run up the steep stairs of the Radha Krishna Temple and use the intricately carved thams (pillars) as hiding spots. Being much leaner than your average kid, I could easily hide behind it. And when the moment called for it, we would quietly sneak up on the person trying to find us. Dhyappa!
One of our inventive games was to see if we could jump to the Radha Krishna Mandir’s foundation plinth from the streets. If you took the lane from Kwalkhu to Swotha as you reached the temple’s plinth, a margin on the street separated the temple’s foundation from the street. It widened as it inched into the lane that snaked away from the Patan Durbar Square. The margin widened as it neared the main street, and we tried to see how many of us could jump to the plinth from the widest point in the margin. The gap felt like a never ending chasm when we made the jump. A lot was at stake in that jump. As the eldest, I was under pressure to ensure that no one came close to breaking my record. No one did. And I still take pride in that.
When I went to the square after the quake to help the local community and volunteer team to clear the rubble, that chasm was filled with debris. And the volunteers were jumping to-and-fro across the chasm like it was nothing. The pillars that had once so neatly enveloped me and kept me from being discovered were buried there, somewhere. The stones that I ran my fingers over as I ran from one base to another lay shattered, broken into pieces. The grand structure I knew and grew up with had turned to detritus, which engulfed me from all sides, as the volunteer team emptied one sack after another, filling the chasm that we were so afraid of falling into while growing up.
When I returned home, I was covered in dust. I took a quick bath, but I didn’t bother to pat away the dust on my black backpack. A thin veneer still lines the bag that I take to work every day. I’ve consciously decided to not clean it. The patina can stay. It reminds me of what I lost in the quake, and what we need to do to rebuild the square again.