I’ve been back barely a fortnight and my system is rejecting the very air I breathe. My throat feels raw, my eyes water and itch, and I’ve been sneezing like the Dickens. Finally, I give in and pop a pill or two, but I still haven’t had the sense to invest in a mask, and I insist on walking far more than is necessary or sanitary. You see more on the hoof, I tell my mother, how can you live in a city if you don’t know the texture of its living?
Living here is something else for my parents, though. It’s not important for them to live at street level, to be pedestrians. They’re too old to be wandering these broken roads. But they were never really interested in reading the moods of the pi-dogs, and have long cocooned themselves into high-walled compounds wherefrom they only venture in air-conditioned cars. When I try to explain to my mother just how bad things have become since the time we used to circle the ring road on our faux-BMXs and run from Bansbari to Nayabajaar for kicks, she doesn’t seem to understand, because the only sane response is to withdraw from the streets for a life less pedestrian – yet wholly so.
Walking out from Balkumari into the labyrinth of gallis east of Mangal Bajaar, I osmose the sights and sounds of a week-morn and store them somewhere in the anterooms of an open mind. The dogs that by night raise hell to defend territory no human has any use for at that time now lie supine on the pavements or pant in front of butchers’ shops with the patience of scrap-seekers. A girl smiles as she exits her front door into the path of a motorcyclist she recognises. Bloody hunks of buffalo decompose next to bright plastic piles of telecommunications. A rat spills its guts outside the community market. Clumsily modelled Shakyamunis the size of SUVs take pride of place as millennial shrines to obscure gods crumble by the roadside, shiny khatas wrapped around the one, caked vermillion smeared on the other. Two men laugh at a big black mongrel shuffling about in a pink T-shirt.
As I approach the decline of Pulchowk, a dozen observations are drowned out in the roar of traffic to the city, in which this place begins to resemble just another poor, unplanned clusterfuck of roads, overhead bridges, shopfronts, high-rises and people in a hurry. The dysfunction exists in its entirety on the smaller scale, too, but its humanity saves it. The variety of interactions in the old city is smoothed over into the monotony of a population headed to a destination of chopped-up office blocks. The variegated interest of Patan would hardly be the same if it were perfectly preserved, either, because such an artifice could only survive today as a purely touristic economy, as is the case in the “medieval” cores of Europe.
I’m not the only one wandering these streets. I take the overhead bridge and find myself in Bikalpa Art Center, where Founder/Director Saroj Mahato and artist Prabod Shrestha are preparing an exhibition of silk screen prints drawn from the latter’s peregrinations within the Valley and over the years: particularly following the earthquake and the loss of the gallery he ran in Sanepa with the support of the artist and Freak Street icon Jimmy Thapa. The fragments of prose that accompany the exhibition “Kathmandu My Fascination” are searchingly naïve, but are of less interest than the prints themselves. They force you to look at them. As pure photos, perhaps, they wouldn’t command quite the same interest. But flatten the dimensions of reality out, and the superimpositions of the new and the old that characterise Kathmandu are scrambled into a monotone of affect. Most striking are those works that you can’t quite make out at first glance, such as the drapery of laundry over the work executed by Kolor Kathmandu on a low wall in Kupondole. A panoramic street view of Makhan Tol, taking in Taleju Bhawani, cyclists, walkers and a solitary hen front and centre is rendered almost indecipherable by the scrawl of superimposed signatures and crude graffiti, yet seems to echo the voices of the people who live and breathe in this city. More accessible works, too, generate echoes and ripples. Rendered in red the paintings of deities and demons on the underside of the massive beams for the Rato Macchendranath chariot are almost too vivid, staring out accusingly at the observer who would fain pass them by in the dust of the quotidian. And then there is another wholly ordinary photo of a man on a ladder, which through Shrestha’s manipulations becomes almost transcendental; he fades out as he ascends to heaven while his compatriots scuttle along on their motorbikes to the daily grind.
Most old cities, being impressive agglomerations of peoples and their structures and cultures, have the capacity to generate this kind of art, which is a sort of reflective, running commentary on the layers we create and are, ultimately, both bewitched and trapped by. For wanderers like Prabod Shrestha and myself, that city happens to be Kathmandu.
“Kathmandu My Fascination” is on at the Bikalpa Art Center in Pulchowk from December 8-24, from 11-6 everyday. For more information contact Saroj Mahato at 9851147776.