Kathmandu is a dusty, polluted, frenetic town-village .First look -and its just a mess of hodge-podge roads awash with India's discarded ,decrepit,diesel spewing Tata Sumos , Boleros and Maruti 800s .Bisected by a terribly polluted Bagmati river ,it has humongous power cuts.Its otherwise stunning location - as the base of a vast bowl surrounded on all sides by snow peaked mountains,can be seldom appreciated as dust haze obscures everything.In Maurice Herzog's 1950's,it was car-less and tree dense.Not any more.
All the pollution now gets trapped at the cooler valley bottom, making it a bad place for those with eye, nose, chest problems.
Yet,there will be a point when,after the rains,a rainbow will hang from one distant snow peak to the other and the western peaks will be awash with streaks of melting gold - peach-orange-crimson-marmalade .And you would understand why it is so intensely romanced in song and word.
This dysfunctional , falling apart town,is one of the most charming and fascinating places I have been to. Not just because its highways lead on to the enchanting Pokhra .You can not ignore the traffic and pollution in the dozen odd main streets;but just wear a Rs 50 pollution mask and take a walk in the backlanes. And find timelessness, even peace and quiet .
Yes, you can still walk down in the bylanes of the charming old districts of Patan or Hanuman Dhoka in Kathmandu or a little way out in Bhaktapur; and find yourself face to face with timeless moments. So much of colour , life and energy suffuses these old corners ! These places hold your hand with a sweet little smile and beckon you to explore more.
The air is damp and cool here and architecture of old quarters is stunning.Life bustles regardless of both the beauty and the decay.The old and timeless stands casually and un-selfconsciously next to the garish and the transitory.An immense good-natured graciousness animates everyday life here - of a kind hard to imagine if you live in Delhi .Armed with a camera, I often felt, I was intruding in the lives of these people - as in these close knitted courtyards much of everyday life is carried on in the streets .But never once did I feel less than welcome .
And yes ! women dominate the public spaces here - running tea shops, selling incredibly fresh vegetables and fruits grown in their backyards, doing crafts ,gossiping , tending kids and livestock , smiling , offering water to strangers ,helping them out with directions and teaching them how to make the Nepalese sweet Lakhamari in their sweet shops ! Never felt unsafe here, nor was ever hustled . People may come and offer to be your guides but if you refuse they smile and say bye -unimaginable in Agra or Jaipur!
And what beautiful women ! with proud gaits , high foreheads and shining black tresses . I forget how many Manisha Koirala equivalents I saw in humble tea shops doing the washing, or in busy markets and temples .But they get married too young - most above the age fifteen sport sindoor !
I am drawn in by the clouds of incense wafting from the stupendously carved pagoda-ed wood and stone Hindu-Buddhist temples where serpents , dragons , Hindu deities - all sit convivially coiled over Buddha eyes; daubs of kum-kum decorate the ancient carved wood and prayer flags flutter in merry festoons.Busy squares have ancient statues draped with marigold .Roosters and dogs snooze by a massive temple bell strung on poles.Old men feed their goats juicy green grass by hand and ruddy faced school-kids slide down the backs of massive lions and griffins guarding the temples and palaces.
Quaint shops operate out of ancient doorways .Impossibly cute wicker baskets,mats, brooms,stone-ware being carved and polished ; shiny brass and copper vessels of delightful shapes ; all latch on to my hungry eyes .If I could , I would have bought them all.You feel somewhat rich as the rupee goes a little way longer here .But only in a crude commercial sense.
A little girl,grubby faced and pig tailed peers out of an impossibly cute wooden jharokha , a hill dog all black and brown , delirious with joy, joins her .The girl sees me looking and waves out - the dog licks her face .Granny picks the girl up but the dog continues the street vigil from the balcony .I have many such moments that stay fresh in my heart if not on camera.
Actually these people are rich for all their dismal HDI ranking.I did not see any starving or abandoned kids or ill-treated animals throughout my trip.Yes! they sacrifice goats at the temple and eat meat but they also really love their livestock and live in happy co-existence with the dogs, roosters, cows et al.They like to do a little vegetable gardening and this probably accounts for the food self -sufficiency (as well as good health) of the house-holds.
I am appalled to find that a similarly placed official in Nepalese bureaucracy earns a paltry 30000 rupees as salary and no perks like medical facilities and vehicle allowance .In offices , tells my husband, things move haltingly if at all .Even highest officials of land preside from decaying buildings where urine pong and a sense of despair as well as resignation pervades.The decision to offer a cup of tea to a visiting team is a big one - because no one can decide who will fund it .Worse is the indecision regarding who will reply and what will be the reply to the queries ? All communications are in hindi-scripted Nepalese -English proficiency is plain Bad.India for most,is a place of glittering modern dreams where money can be made and where all kinds of hospitals can be relied to treat all kinds of diseases which Nepal's crumbling state Hospitals can not.
If there is beauty in Kathmandu, despite non-existent Governance and hibernating administration ,its because of the natural good nature and hard work ethic of the common people who smile a lot .Maybe its the proximity to the Himalayas , maybe its a sense of making do with whatever they have, instead of noisily clamouring for more and more entitlements.
I would take Pokhra anyday or nurture Annapurna dreams,but still Kathmandu is an intriguing place which will exceed your expectations and belie your apprehensions. I have spent boring times in people-free ;desolate towns of middle east and Europe and in that dull diplomatic haven Geneva : which have all possible offerings of man-made and commercial nature,but where people move around with shuttered faces in monochrome unvarying environments .
Give me Kathmandu's rustic colour and life anyday.