Monsoon pours and floods, colors the streets pale with diluted dogshit and rusty with plain shit burned by the sun. When sewers that have crusted over in July's infernal heat take too long to soften their black sludge with monsoon's first wetness, they float upwards, their muck sucked up to mingle with the rainwater. Skies change colors from one gray to another gray and rain hits green leaves of thirsty maize and make nights bearable. So the monsoon comes, but the whistle of the garbage collector doesn't come anymore. The world smells not of new rain but old rot, but there is rain, it washes and cools, so all is alright.
Rain drowns the haze in the valley's bowl and clears the sight to distant mountains. The new green is oppressively verdant, too well blended into different shades of green, standing each weed tall and dark, shaking each leaf supple and clean. It does bring a smile to my face. I walk towards the bus-stop, not minding the puddle, the endless sludge shoveled into the street from the sewers my men whose heads are barely visible, and stop dead near a pile of garbage. I stand there and smile and startle passersby, who give me frowned, quizzical look before walking on, shaking their heads. The foreman chatting with men in the sewer–who, in their turn, can only talk in grunts best timed with the throw of the shovel–stops mid-sentence, sagely draws on a cigarette, exhales his thoughts in my direction. Habitually incapable of not remaining reflexive in moments like this, when even the stance belies the buoyant enlightenment frothing within, I stare for a minute more at the small instance of unexpected beauty that has captured me:
There, in a pile of unclaimed garbage, is an event made possible by a long-standing political stale-mate and the tardiness of nature. Because no body has collected the bags of mango pits, and because it has rained and shined just enough, there are mangoes sprouting all over the heap of rubbish. Not green yet, not taken roots yet, these plants are a dark brown, like blood concentrated into a paste and smeared for dramatic effect. Three large brown leaves are collecting the sunlight needed to push forth three more leaves, at the moment the tiniest spikes at the apex of the shoots. It is a forest of mangoes on a rubbish heap. Tomorrow, politicians will agree temporarily to allow the roads of Kathmandu to be cleared, but today there is a new grove of mangoes on each turn of the road, each collection of our detritus. I remember again Calvino's essay about garbage disposal in Paris and wonder if he had ever imagined a scenario like this: could that fabulist imagine a temporary forest, a black forest of infants that searched with a single, naked root a route to permanence and fixture?
I pick one up, and another: they have a thick carpet of newspaper hiding the pits.
The shoots have probed their way out of a bed of wet pulp, unleashing the calories stored in their hearts, then unfurled the broad leaves to receive the nurture that rains down from the skies. I admire the penile probe and vulnerability of a root that has nothing but a discarded plastic bottle-top to grip. The plants are extremely fragile, more so for their defiance of traps set by Kathmandu politics and urban planning. When I walk with two saplings picked from garbage heaps, still training their tails of shiny plastic foil and wet newspaper, people stop their conversations.
I am still carrying the plants while waiting for the bus at Dhumbarahi. The trouble with surprising oneself with a gesture like that after a half-hour or so, it begs conclusion, resolution, pay-off. What comes from the garbage heap, I suppose, ought to go back to another garbage heap, but these are living things, and it is unkind to just toss them into the trash. I carefully put them down by the swamp lining Chakrapath when I realize there is just one face that smiles at me in the crowd waiting for bus.
I am trying these days to grow a beard, to tend to it, carefully count and save the few gray and pale hairs in the lot, upturn the tip of moustache and appoint the chin-hair to a fine position between clownish and dignified. The man who smiles at me has a beard I will have to wait another six months for: it is scraggly just the right way, hanging lush from the chin, wisped under cheekbones, neatly separated over the upper lip and correctly pointed. He must live there, because he wears no shoes, ties his shirt crudely on his chest, has fingernails thicker than I have toenails, and smiles at everything about which others try hard to look disinterested. It is difficult to tell if he is happy, because he shows no other expression on his face except a series of smiles. He nods at the mango saplings and grins again. He must approve of the gesture.
People rush about him to get into the bus. He shifts just a little in the wet sand and continues looking at everything that passes him by. A mother starts fighting with a khalasi for asking her to show her son's identity card even though he is in uniform and no more than eleven years of age. "What do you think a child this age does if not go to school?" she asks. "Some children don't go to school," coolly says the not-much-older khalasi and that reduces her to angry under-breath mutterings. She searches for faces that have witnessed the exchange and perhaps sympathize with her. She looks at me, I look at the bearded man. She looks at the bearded man, who smiles at her, nods, yes, yes. He looks at me and nods, yes, yes. He looks at the khalasi and nods, yes, yes. His thick, yellow, gleaming nails daintily scratch under his chin, along the nose. He doesn't stop smiling, buries his head between the knees briefly to smile at his toes and looks up again, smiles at everyone and everything that watches him.
The mother looks at me. She is defeated: she paid twenty rupees instead of fifteen because the khalasi came back with a stringing repartee. She paid an unfair price because I didn't shake my head in disapproval of what the khalasi had done. Instead, I deferred judgment to the bearded man, who showed a gracious equanimity and pointed so something bigger than the five-rupee differential. Now he points to the two mango saplings by the ditch and points to me and smiles. I can't help but grin. Yes, I nod, yes, yes. The mother can't bear anymore of this. "Strange," she shakes her head. "Strange," and walks away.