Sunday, December 21, 2008

Act III, Sundhara

I will be outside Kathmandu, on the road, for a few days. I haven't checked Sunday Post, but it is possible that my article hasn't been published, on account of its crappiness. It does have one phrase which I wish to have published, shown to the world: "the prolonged freshness of feces in the winter." Here, the issue is one of the olfactory and visual persistence or the freshness of feces in public spaces in Kathmandu. Normally--or, in warmer weather--feces that appear overnight tend to dry, brown and contract over the day, and in a few days, become one with the city's overcoat of filth. Not so in winter. Now, dryness comes in patches, and the surface becomes mottled rather than uniformly browned, and its wetness is also preserved: it turns a shiny orange before it turns brown, as if the hemoglobin refuses to oxidise into rust.

Keen observation makes for good writing, I am told, but all I see around me is shit.

Act III, Sundhara

A busy afternoon around Sundhara looks an infernal mess. The halt-and-sprint frenzy of vehicles coming through Sahid Gate, the wide-eyed scurrying of pedestrians crossing where they shouldn't, the prolonged freshness of feces in the winter, the olive-garbed stampede of baton-wielding municipality police, the joust of peddlers and hawkers, the teary, insistent and sometimes absent eyes of limbless children laid along the post-office walls, all add to the fermented sensory mayhem of the space.

Sometimes during the day, late, perhaps, or just before everything else of interest is about to start—worries, meetings with friends or family, a demonstration outside Tri-Chandra to halt all traffic coming around Tundikhel—it is possible to hear warcries answered by ululations and lamenting, thick footfalls running after the fast patter of rubber chappals. Soon municipality police comes hurrying through, searching for seeming phantoms that melt into the crowd, shaking the moment with their threats, while signalling ululations are relayed to every corner in the neighborhood. Anybody witnessing this frequent and comedic show of municipal efficiency is habitually forced to giggle and gloat in empathy with those that have evaded the reach of city-issued bamboo canes. It is possible to be enthralled to see this dance of the city.

But, sometimes, these tableaux disintegrate into chaos. An end of a fariya comes undone and trips its owner, or a cane finds its mark on a fleeing child's back. A nanglo of oranges must be hard to juggle as a horde of pot-bellied, potty-mouthed men come pouncing, attacking their way through the crowd, putting a yard between themselves and each mall-shopping respectable citizen while, like fabled champions, finding with their canes the scum of the city: the tax-evading, slum-living, sidewalk-hogging, defecating, fast-hawking, rag-picking outsiders. Pressed to a side, fixed into observing, from one vantage their relationship—the gulf between the hunter and the chased, and the sinew that binds them together—becomes illuminated and detailed.

The chase is a farce that mirrors all that is primal and base in our relations: strength towering over weakness, the wretched fleeing for its life while a blood-thirsty horde goes giggling after it. It is an old struggle renewed each day by both parties. The weak says—I will connive to steal from your purse for no other reason than the fact that your draw my mouth shut and give me nothing to eat, will hear nothing I say, and you leave me with nothing to claim. The strong says—I remain strong because I steal your grub and your grit; because I rub out your voice, I can bellow. So the weak moves stealthily in the shadows to spread its wares of piled lime, piled strawberries, piled amala, freshly milled dal around a grindstone, sheaves of pirated DVDs, watches in submerged in water, rechargeable batteries, Cello pens on the sidewalks. It knows from old muscle memory that everything must be arranges in neat, pyramidal piles if upward mobility is to be effected: such shapes alone lift the weak away from the shackling memory of the wallowing pit where they had hitherto perished. It remembers from revolutions and temples. But, the strong knows where gold grows: it grows in the distance between the work done by a weakling and the feed it gets in return for that effort. Therefore the strong guards that distance angrily, as if it is the seedbed for its progeny.

A nanglo of oranges must be hard to juggle while running up a flight of steps, or while begging an alley to swallow you. Sometimes the oranges, so neatly piled, yet excused from rules of ambition, crudely tumble out of formation, fall down steps, fall into not-yet-caked feces, leave a bright, guilty trail behind for the municipal police to follow. This usually brings a short jolt to Sundhara, throwing in its path a hiccupping interruption, occasion for pedestrians to grin at the comedy of oranges falling like marbles down a flight of stairs, and mall-shopping respectable citizens banging into each other's important heads as they try to steal just one orange, or no more than how many both hands will hold, with one more in the bag, (why not?).

Right then, the unshapely, dim-robed metropolitan policemen bang their canes hard on the floor and glare at the citizens picking from the earth the fruits of another person's labor. The ruddy ardor of chase falls away from their faces and they clutch their sides in pain. They are deeply disgusted by the gestures of the people for whose comfort they chase away old women with baskets of peanuts and bags of strawberries. They lack the authority to chase after these thieves, so they watch in horror, looking askance into the alleys where the owner of the snatched oranges has disappeared. Suddenly, they are the fathers and brothers of the same women who set shop on the pavements.

Then the ridiculousness of the chase becomes apparent. Their sides hurt and they want a cigarette to catch their breath. Theirs is a job for jesters, pawns, jokers. They serve the aesthetics of another sort of people, which involves raining lashes at widows from outlying villages. From one vantage, the hunters look bewildered, confused by the cheap greed of pedestrians bending to snatch oranges from the ground and the wail and curses of a looted vendor echoing from an alley. That cry of desperation bonds with the bewilderment, the sense of betrayal on the face of metro-police. Come night, both police and vendor will share same room, same meal. Come tomorrow, they must wear their costumes and head to Sundhara to play out the farce. Thus, everyday Sundhara elevates from being just a mess and in its terrifying essence remains simply infernal.

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