Khadga Kumari was born in Dimla, east Nepal. But she grew up in Kathmandu. What hopes the family had of establishing itself in the capital were shattered by the 1934 earthquake, when its skyline of wood and brick temples, palaces and houses sagged and collapsed, crushing 4000 in its downward rush.
‘When the earthquake came, the people from two houses ran out through a narrow passage to get to the front yard, but this house and that house fell on us. Everyone in our building died, 14 in all. When the police came, Muwa and I were the only ones they pulled out alive, she covered me with her body. How it was in Kathmandu then.’
She looks up, cloud-eyed; the corona of her faded hair framing her deeply lined face. ‘I was born to weep,’ she says. ‘Muwa survived, but she really suffered, both her hips were gone…she suffered a lot. Five years later, she was gone.’
When my grandmother told me this story, it brought to life a world past, a modern dark age where hereditary prime ministers ruled in the name of kings vaunted as incarnations of Vishnu. At 16, she became the second wife of the scion of a feudal clan; barely 20, she was widowed. She spent most of her long life as a Hindu widow, cohabiting with her co-wife, subsisting on a strictly vegetarian, ritually sanctified diet, with ample helpings of religion.
By the time she died last year at the age of 90, we lived in the secular, federal, democratic republic of Nepal. Kathmandu is now a metropolis of several million, the three elegant Malla city-states merged into a single smoke-spewing conurbation of higgledy-piggledly concrete and steel constructions. But the faultlines remained, and we knew it. We were bogged down in a stew of fatalism. ‘What will happen, will happen.’ I moved into a high-rise tower.
It happened. Last Saturday, thousands of houses shuddered and crumbled to dust, taking with them 5000 souls. For those lamenting the destruction of ancient monuments across the Kathmandu Valley, the very soul of the country is in jeopardy. But for now, as then, all Nepalis ache for the suffering of the thousands left out in the cold, and we are scrambling to help in any way they possibly can before the human cost consumes us.
Nepal is a land of rumour. This past week the Valley has been bubbling with dire predictions of apocalypse. Aftershocks, though diminished, stoke the fire of a simmering rage against the perceived absence of the state. My grandmother told of how the despot Juddha Shamsher provided loans for the destitute, then cancelled the debts of thousands the following year. Now the talk is of where the money is going; how you need ‘source-force’ just to get a measly tarpaulin. Times have changed: but now I understand a little more of Khadga Kumari’s life. We share a story to be passed down to my grandchildren.
Originally published in German in the Austrian weekly Profil, this piece draws on ‘Becoming Mugali’, which appeared in photo.circle’s compendium of biographical stories, Hamra Hajurama.