Think twice, it’s not alrightKathmandu’s summers are unforgiving. The sun at its zenith is a callous god, streaming down sweltering heat that brings beads to any unadorned shoulders.
Kathmandu’s summers are unforgiving. The sun at its zenith is a callous god, streaming down sweltering heat that brings beads to any unadorned shoulders. Refuse piles sweat. The air is heavy with humidity but also the stink of a thousand rancid armpits. Bluebottle flies buzz ravenously over freshly butchered goat heads. Mosquitos breed in the millions in stagnating puddles, only to rise in clouds as thick as smoke as dusk settles. Amorous frogs and crickets sound out the night, their plaintive yearning rising in a crescendo that never crests.
But there is hope. Clouds marshal with the speed of massing armies, dark and ominous. The sky blackens and the light that was once abundant is blotted out, the sun-god eclipsed by a monsoon cloak. Raindrops dagger the air without warning. One moment there is no rain and the next, rain is all around. It is a cleansing wash. The dust settles, the air sighs and the parched soil, wherever it can, drinks deeply. Flies and mosquitos recede as the rains advance. What little respite Kathmandu offers now comes from the rains.
Therein lies the tragedy. Once the saviour of a sweltering summer, the rains are now the bane of every pedestrian in the city. Kathmandu always underwent a transformation, when the monsoon water would pool in the streets, turning them into rivers of sewage and rainwater. Some good samaritan would have strategically placed bricks pale red against the murky brown of the shallow water to act as a makeshift bridge. Crossing required dexterity and speed, a willingness to leap first, think later. There was never time enough to gauge whether each brick was stable or wobbly, slick with moss or simply floating like islands in the ocean.
We who walked the streets knew this. It was a calculated bargain, braving streets turned into sewers for the munificence of the monsoon. It was another stain we were willing to shrug our shoulders to, having no other home but Kathmandu. Periodic opening up of backed up drains and digging of rivulets almost always turned temporary. Annie Proulx put it so poignantly in Brokeback Mountain—“if you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it.” We withstood it.
Until little girls began to fall into open sewer holes. This year, the flooding in the streets intensified, rising up a foot, drenching your knees. And lurking underneath that opaque sludge, holes feet deep looking eagerly to swallow the unwary. That one cellphone video of a schoolgirl disappearing into a drainage hole and reappearing a few metres down is a surreal sight. One moment she is there and the next, she’s gone. The waters close over her.
Earlier, the worst that could happen if you braved the slime of Kathmandu’s streets were stinking feet and ruined shoes, muddy trackmarks on the back of your pants, or maybe a rash. Now, you could die. There was news of an electrical wire that fell into the street and electrocuted three men walking through it. Another girl, Binita Phuyal from Nepaltar, fell into a drain and didn’t make it out alive. Responding to outrage, the prime minister issued an edict to fix all potholes within a fortnight. The potholes might have been fixed since but the flooding continues.
Kathmandu is fast turning into a city that cannot be walked. In the winters, it is dust and smoke that makes walking and breathing at the same time an almost insurmountable chore. In the summers, it is the rains. Now, I only welcome the rain when I am home, safe within this brick and cement structure from those stabbing daggers and that evil flood. If I have to step outside, I walk gingerly with an umbrella, pants legs folded up to my knees. I hop from dry land to dry land, avoiding any tell-tale bricks in muddy water. I take care not to get wet, not just because I am older now and more prone than ever to catching a cold but also because of the phone in my pocket. It is not just the city that has changed but also us. As the city, so its citizens.
As the middle-class grows, so does its demands for cars and motorbikes. The richer we get, the more we want to insulate ourselves from the city around us. Pedestrians walk around covered in the soot-breath of this city, the waste water runoff that splashes like a wave. The cyclists and the motorbikers are one step removed, at the mercy of the elements but moving fast enough to outrun the inclement weather. But even whole bikes are often swallowed by the rising waters. The city now is the province of the car, the sleek SUV that rides high on the streets so that its occupants can look down on the plebeians, awash. The roads are wide shallow rivers for cars to traverse and everyone else to avoid.
Since I have been back in this city, I have avoided walking. And when you cannot walk a city, you cannot really know it. My love for this city was born out of traversing its streets like a phantom, a ghost who walks. Trawling through its back alleys and hopping into backyards through waist-high fences. There was delight in discovery, a connection with the way the city rose up around you, with the earth beneath your feet and the air you breathed. Walking the city, whether in rain or shine, was what made me into a citizen of Kathmandu. Travelling always in a car, I could be anywhere. Kathmandu does not matter.
Out on the streets, it is as if I am a lone buoy in an angry raging ocean, tied down by its moorings but tossing and turning with every ebb and flow. I just flew in from Vienna, where pedestrians held right of way like a badge of honour, motorists going out of their way to let them pass. Just this past week, a massive white SUV sped up as it saw me crossing the street on the zebra crossing, its driver honking its horn as if frustrated with having to sit in his air-conditioned cocoon for another five seconds.
But this is not meant to be a tirade, neither a contrast with Vienna. It is a dirge for a city that once was. Mine is now a city of memory, where walking was something pleasant you did in the evenings, when the sun is low and the air is cool. Now it feels like going to war; every time I come back home, I feel battle-hardened. The city has changed but so have we. We do not want anymore what we once wanted from Kathmandu. As the citizens, so the city.