Return to innocence: Reflections on a changing Kathmandu landscape
To my mind cities are distillations of human life itself, in all its nuances, with all its contradictions and anomalies, changing from one year to another, changing with the weather, changing with history, changing with the state of the world, changing above all in one´s own personal responses. — Jan Morris, British historian and travel writer
It has been such a long time I struggle to bring to mind even vague contours of that majestic landscape. What I do recall is a thick cluster of trees spread over an acre or so.
Then, there was the gurgling brook at its far end, by which we sang and danced in uniform, classes bunked, homework forgotten, as we pitched up makeshift tarpaulin tents for an in-house picnic.
During rains, I would run through the trees, clutching a bottle of Cola water in my left hand, a polythene bag of chiura and dalmot in my right, to our adolescent nirvana, not a kilometer from our school, while our teachers must have been wondering how five or six of their most obedient pupils would go missing on those rain-drenched days with troubling frequency. Unbothered, we continued with the time-honored tradition for years, soaking in the rattle of water drops on thick sal leaves from inside our makeshift abode.
It was in search of that long-lost romance that I headed down the gentle slope of the newly laid road starting right outside the compound of my old school at Old Baneshwor. My unbound adolescent sense of wonder now blunted by a heavy dose of reality, I retraced my footsteps on the path that once played host to our bicycle races, careless rambles and silly talk. I feared the worst.
Halfway down the memory lane, I stopped to take in the vista. A massive pink bungalow had replaced Saurab´s cozy little home where we gathered to play marbles, munching on Cheese balls fetched from the poky corner shop on the other side of the road. In place of the old paan-pasal, there now stood another monstrous eyesore.
The closer I got to Bhagwanthan, which marked the starting point of the old copse, the more my hope ebbed. Tall buildings in garish green and blue and red sprouted from ever little space available, packed in like a motley of Nepal Yatayat passengers on weekdays. Not a single tree was visible. As far as eyes could see, there was nothing besides concrete.
Why had I come? To have my beautiful illusions shattered by the somber realities of modern-day urban living?
From Bhagwanthan (once a defining feature of the locality, now reduced to a small caged-in enclave by the side of another mortar-and-brick behemoth), I took a left in the direction of the fabled woodland in my imagination. Building after ghastly building on either side, I was hoping against hope that somehow the old brook had been left by itself. Ten minutes into my walk—nothing. Not a trace that there had ever existed a sparkling waterway that quenched the thirst of restless souls looking for a brief respite from their angst-filled existence.
When I consider the death of my old green haunt, Ian Morris’ description of cities as changing “in one´s own personal responses” over time seems to apply perfectly to my experience of Kathmandu over the last couple of decades.
According to government data, 33 percent of the total area of Kathmandu Valley was covered by forests in 1999. The encircling verdant green oasis of Nagarjun, Shivapuri and Chandragiri lent Kathmandu an almost ethereal beauty. Since few studies have been carried out on the state of greenery in the valley, one can only hazard a guess of how green the valley is right now. If my back of the envelop calculation is any measure, at least a third of the green areas might have been ‘concretized’ in the time period. The green tree cover encircling the valley seems to be eroding at the same rate.
There are still many folks who have lived to tell the story of old Kathmandu: when they could go for a swim in the see-through Bagmati waters. Even thirty years ago, they tell us, people could dip their feet in its chilly comfort, a fish line in hand. That its water could be consumed straight from the source.
Looking at the thick, black sludge that passes for Bagmati these days, how they must rue the brutal onslaught on the stuff of their most cherished memories. Watch with agony the slow death of the beautiful Kathmandu they once knew. For those who have come of age in the Noughties, the metro might always represent all the worst attributes of urban living. Smoke-filled air, sludgy waterways, the incessant press of the people forever in a hurry.
A metropolis with far fewer playgrounds than game parlors where youngsters are happy to slay make-believe monsters without having to get up from their plastic chairs.
But the image of a city that was once at ease with itself will continue to haunt many generations, whose growing up years were blissfully removed from the insalubrious offerings of present-day Kathmandu.
Those sal trees that made my childhood so memorable have all gone. The brook gobbled up by concrete. Now there is no place to pitch our tarpaulin tents, our ephemeral house of dreams replaced by permanent urban nightmares.