Dreams to rebuildConcerned authorities should listen to the modest proposals of Nepali architects
There are three kinds of post-quake dreamers in Nepal. The first among them are the architects. These days, a young architect named B.B. Kokhali can be seen walking in Kathmandu with some plans—a pocketful of dreams for the city. Then, there are the other kinds of dreamers who create with words. As a literary writer, I belong to this group of people who believe that the best way to heal the wounds of the collapsed city is to write poetry, paint, or write a play.
Use of English
I have noticed a sense of desperation. Some people who have been affected by the earthquake have sadly given up all hopes of getting any assistance from those who handle the money, whereas others have been waiting eagerly for help to come from foreigners.
Girish, who is a rock musician, travelled to a quake-affected area and recorded a unique speech given by a young man in English. He spoke in what may be called ‘broken English’, because there were some Europeans present there—either to collect information, or dole out some succour to the earthquake victims. It was moving to hear this school graduate make use of English taught by untrained teachers in the village. He says, “That’s why we cannot remove all our house have food because we cannot remove. If we going inside if we remove house is fall down. Two times three times coming. We are happy because we need food. I give many many thanks all of you” [sic]. He links happiness with food and thanks the foreigners.I find this use of language to communicate the horrors of the quake extremely moving because I have spent nearly 44 years of my life teaching the English language, culture and global literature. One important lesson that I learned as a student of the English language teaching course in Britain, especially from linguists like Henry Widdowson and Pitt Corder, was that English is used to communicate ideas even without mastering it. The above is an extreme example of that. Yet, the young man’s use of English to communicate with the foreigners during crisis speaks volumes.
Then, there is the third type: restless dreamers—the politicians. Their anxieties are more complex than both the architect’s and artist’s. The anxiety of winning people’s hearts for the party makes the altruistic imagination a little earthly. They send their party cadres to the affected areas to avoid meeting people who could question them about the dreams that they had sown there earlier. The polity and political parties all have stakes there.
Going back to the second type of dreamers, the architects are concerned about the reconstruction and planning of the metropolis. Whenever I meet Kokhali, he talks about what the Society of Nepalese Architects (SONA) is planning to do at this stage. Some of the points he mentions to me are a little alarming. He says that the restorations of the old bahas or courtyards or such spaces that people use are closely linked to their lives and they have a tacit connection with such places. Now, people are selling those spaces and moving out with whatever money they get for it. The new occupants will not see such spaces with the same eyes. They will demolish them and build monstrosities. The other point he mentions is the use of the materials. I believe the artisans and skilled workers are still available, but their labour will not be participatory and emotional. Rather, it will be guided by capitalist values. But I have seen restoration works in Japan, Korea and India, where the state has been restoring the old sites exactly to their original form.So, it can still be done.
But the most essential part of that process is the intervention of the state without any further delay. Kokhali and his colleagues at Sona want the government to declare the collapsed cultural sites as protected spaces and issue a decree stating that those spaces cannot be bought or sold. Furthermore, restoration works should be strictly based on the plans. His plans made me think of Bungamati, the great cultural site that currently lies in ruins. If the Bhainsepati-like builders and constructors move there and buy the entire ancient township to build a housing colony, it will be an irreparable loss, another disaster. So, the architects emphasise that heritage sites and cultural monuments in Kathmandu Valley should be reconstructed with great care. The old collapsed private housing colonies should be recovered but by strictly following the modes and methods of proper restoration.
The architects also want to construct earthquake memorials and parks.In the meantime, they want to see the reconstruction of Dharahara alias Bhimsen Tower along with other heritage sites. I have certain caveats regarding the plans. The reconstruction of Bhimsen Tower is essential but this monument should be treated a little differently. Immediately after the earthquake, Kishor Nepal wrote in the Kantipur that people were alarmed by the collapse of the Tower more than by the loss of a cultural monuments because of the Tower’s symbolic association with state and authority. By the same token, I would like to put the construction of Bhimsen Tower under a different scheme than those of the other heritage sites in terms of the intangible value of culture. The other point that the planning of the metropolis highlights is how the civilisation of the Capital is vastly different from that of the moffusil.
The last time that SONA invited me was at a discussion on the planning of the Kathmandu metropolis at Hotel Shangrila on November 22, 2014. That creatively ambitious seminar addressed by Sudarshan Raj Tiwari and other senior architects was a combination of utopia, urban fear and a Nepali imaginary of Mumfordian city philosophy. Sadly, after the earthquake struck Nepal on April 25, 2015 everything changed. I guess the Sona is emerging out of the confusions after the quake. And think among the many post-earthquake dreamers, the architects have come up with clear, modest proposals. The concerned bodies must listen to them.