Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Notes from Nepal

I was in Kathmandu for about two weeks this July. While the trip was part of my day job and I worked with folks from our sister architecture studio in Kathmandu on all the weekdays, I also got to explore a few parts of the city and its life after work and during the weekends. Here are a few notes:

Soon after reaching there, I realized that there was something about the place that felt very similar to India. I just couldn't tell what yet. Some resolution happened over dinner and lunch with the folks at Himal, but most of these comparison-y impressions were colored only after some very interesting conversations I had with this one colleague, Bikash Dai. He is Nepali origin but had recently moved back after spending ten years in Germany. He could see his country and people from a distance and having also visited India recently, he could relate to this sense of familiarity that I was feeling. But Nepal was still distinctly different from India in telling ways and this kept getting more lucid through our conversations and my experiences over the fortnight.

For starters, much of the city and its buildings felt much like parts of Delhi, but just tinier by about 20 percent; the main roads, the streets that connected the buildings, the buildings, the staircases, the furniture. Sanepa and Jawalakhel (where I was staying) seemed much like plotted neighbourhoods in Delhi, but built only to perhaps half of what is considered full capacity here. Housing many embassies and international offices, the neighbourhood consequently houses a sizeable expatriate population and everything that comes with it (European bakeries, organic cafes and vegetable stores and usually lower population densities).

Also, in general, the city felt much easier to deal with in comparison to Delhi. I remember I felt like I had settled in fairly quickly. Everyday Breakfast was croissants and fresh mangoes. Workplace was fifteen minutes from my B&B by foot. The Studio was in the attic of a mixed use building that also housed an acupuncture therapist, a cosy casual dining Japanese restaurant and day care as well as a thrift sale counter selling second hand clothing, books and furniture. Lunch used to be the Nepali staple, daal bhaat tarkari, the staff meals at the Japanese restaurant that we shared.

The neighbourhood of Thamel felt quite like Janpath in the day and Hauz Khas Village at night, only much tamer. Most public places that I visited were anchored around temples and stupas. But despite the fact they were in use, these places were fairly religion neutral and very public. There would be men and women, young and old, sitting around or standing in groups and in pairs, and kids playing football. Much could be learnt from the way these common people appropriate their public places, the steps, the edges, etc.

Taking public transport in Kathmandu was harder than I had imagined. Cabs were pretty easy but expensive in comparison to the cost of everything else there. Then there were buses and mini buses and micro buses. While the easier part was to ask and getting (absolutely) stuffed into these vehicles, the difficult part was to get the conductors to understand where I wanted to get off. The more difficult part was to brave the Nadeem-Shravan grade of superhit bollywood music from the 90s, usually featuring Kumar Sanu and Udit Narayan (the Nepali superstar), that bus loudspeakers would be blaring for hours together.

This bus confusion is what got me to enter the UNESCO world heritage site, the city of Bhaktapur from a gate that was diametrically opposite to the gate that most tourists are supposed to enter from. But what a fortunate accident did it turn out to be! Here I saw everyday life unfold. Young and old women and men were selling vegetables and  fruits, knitted garments, footwear,  juju dhau among other dairy products in little shops along very neat brick lined streets. The old folk were sitting about and smoking cigarettes in elevated brick pavilions overlooking humble public squares. All of this was being played out with spectacularly finished brick and timber buildings in the background. Also in the back lanes were timber and terracotta craftsmen who had been able to successfully sustain their traditional craft practices over the years. The place seemed to be frozen in time; not just its buildings but also its indigenous people. Conservation seemed like a very constructive and active word here.

I only wish I had stayed in Bhaktapur for longer and drawn more. But I had to come back and attend an architects’ talk about the future of Nepali cities. Interestingly (or not, actually), the whole event was conducted in the Nepali language, the presentations as well as the discussion that followed. For the time that I had zoned out during the event, I was thinking (hard) about the last time that I had attended anything in India that was in Hindi or a regional language. 

 I made my way to the Patan Darbar Square about four times during the trip. There was something really magnetic about this whole place, the main street that was lined by the main face of a 16th century palace of the Malla kings and a host of temples were sprinkled on the plaza facing the palace wall. The palace is now converted into a museum but the temples are still in function. However, what is interesting that this urban space is used and appropriated extensively by the people, with little functional or historical baggage. There were people old and young, local and travellers, sitting around on the raised platforms edging the buildings and chatting and smoking, playing football, eating ice cream. On could also hear prayer songs and temple bells in the background and also an occasional wedding procession with people dancing to the latest bollywood songs played by a brass band.

It appeared that this disassociation of the architecture from its function had helped people build new relationships with the place. The temple wasn’t trying to enforce what must be done right outside its boundary, or what is possibly a breach of the sanctity of the place. There were barriers for controlled passage of cars but there were no boundary walls. There was also no major vandalism that I saw. There was also no aggressive street vendors/ hawkers. The street was public and open and free and inviting. And nothing was claiming this public space more than the other, especially the architecture. These heritage buildings were just the backdrop to see urban life unfold. It made me think about our heritage structures in Delhi and what would happen if the city opened its monuments to its people in a true sense. What are we scared of?

I borrowed and rode Bikash dai's mountain bike to the tiny town of Kirtipur and the Taudaha Lake on one of my last days in Kathmandu. Of course, I died several times during this day trip riding uphill, sparing a moment or two to think about how unhealthy our city lives were and how we’re actually going to die very soon. Twenty minutes of cycling and I was in the middle of wilderness with spectacular views of the valley. The air was light and cold but still smelt of pollution.

I made friends with 9 year old David, Sujen and Dilsan at my first drawing spot in Kirtipur and they agreed to take me around from then on. We walked to the Bagh Bhairav Mandir, two versions of which we drew together. I was surprised to realize how the kids read and drew the line work of the temple while I looked at the planes at play. Then they took me the Uma Maheshwar temple and narrated to me old and new stories about the temple and the town. From here, one could see the massive urban magnet that Kathmandu was becoming and also imagine the powerful position that Kirtipur would have enjoyed once.

Thirty minutes away was the Taudaha Lake. It seemed like a proper local tourist spot that families and couples flock. The main thing for tourists to do here was to buy fish food from these women planted all around the lakeside and feed the fish in the lake. I lay the bike to rest by a stone wall and began to draw. Interested first in the bike but soon in my brush pens were six year old Sangam and Sarthak. They helped me with some water from the lake and also with some little fish from the lake that they brought for me as a present.  I was surprised to find them clueless when I asked them whether they had been to Kathmandu. They said that the had never heard of Kathmandu. Then they told me that they knew about Pakistan, China, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and the Netherlands. In no time, they had guessed that I was from India. As soon as they figured, the first thing they asked me was whether CID was for real! They were also singing Yo-Yo Honey Singh songs this whole while. Our conversation left me puzzled but equally amused on many levels. 

The trip was a good mix of everyday routine work and wandering. With its relatively easy lifestyle, Kathmandu seemed like a good place to move to, for work. Within days of living and working there, I actually got in the groove of the place and felt like I could do this for a long time without getting restless. Bikash dai's analogy summed it pretty well for me, "A lot of Nepal is much like India, just minus the steroids."

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