Photo by GRIDArendal (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
A morning in June. Kathmandu Valley woke up to its monsoon nightmare to discover that the city had transformed into a latrine. The previous night’s storm had agitated the Bagmati. The river, forced into a state of perpetual decay, had used the momentum of the monsoon rains to cough back to Kathmandu what the city had thrown in its way. The Bagmati had overspilled its banks and crept into streets, into homes. Everything had a subtle smell of shit hovering over it. Even in the streets further away from the riverbanks, shit-water oozed out of invisible pores on asphalt roads.
A simple task like walking to school became fraught with hazard.
Mothers who walked their kids to school were constantly weary that their children’s hand-washed and ironed uniforms would get caked with mud stirred in shit-water. For the child, going to school was an adventure, an obstacle course where, if he succeeded in saving the school uniform for another day, he would be rewarded with his favourite meal.
While growing up, such treats were a monsoon ritual for me and my mother. Now my neighbours were following suit. Witnessing young children in the neighbourhood follow a familiar pattern, it struck me how the city was caught in a cycle of decay.
As in previous years, incessant rains had decreased the frequency of garbage collection. Piles of garbage accumulated in chowks and near municipal signs which read: Be a good citizen! Dispose of waste only in designated areas. Violators will be fined.
People complained about the metamorphosis of Kathmandu into a wasteland. Aiding them were the daily newspapers, which repeated their annual ritual of complaining about the government’s inability to manage waste. “Solid waste a stinking problem”, a front-page headline in The Kathmandu Post read, bemoaning the city’s inability to manage the accumulated trash. Op-ed columnists and social media ranters added to the chorus. Everyone talked about the city’s transformation into an overspilling landfill as if it were an overnight change, forgetting that garbage and the Kathmandu Valley flirt throughout the year, but it is only in the monsoon that the relationship is consummated.
Kathmandu has struggled against accumulated waste through its monsoons and battles the memory of it through the winters – a phenomenon repeated in the public eye ever since its population exploded, once Nepal was cracked open to the free market in the late ‘80s.
The greedy logic of the free market has also succeeded in privatising every inch of the city. Indeed, there is no accessible public space left in the city. The people of Kathmandu have learned to digest the news of encroachment with their morning dalbhat. At a time when heritage sites and farmland are being bulldozed to expand roads and parking lots, the neoliberal regime appeared to have gained its final victory when Khula Manch, an open space in the heart of the city and an enduring locus for political resistance, was gobbled up by private interests. The Metropolitan City bulldozed the temporary structures on the grounds of Khula Manch after the occupation of the land became news. But attempts to wall-in open spaces are sure to continue.
These signs of Kathmandu’s material and moral decay, its extreme concretisation and privatisation, were expedited, if not begun, by the forceful injection of the world economy into Nepal’s circulation, exacerbating historical problems through forced labour migration. But by all measures of economic progress Nepal was climbing the human totem pole of prosperity.
The ballooning of the bourgeoisie is correlated with the steady decay of Kathmandu. Culture has vanished before open spaces. Those of us who felt the need for a cultural life went to an art gallery for a recurring exhibition where we nostalgically pored over Tony Hagen’s photographs of Nepal from the 1950s. Then, the Bagmati was still a river. And we sighed at our loss – for the pristineness of the river now available only as bottled ‘pure’ water that we carried as we walked from photograph to photograph.
In some of the photographs Kathmandu seemed like an empty valley. The natural abundance around the city gave Kathmandu a mystical, magical quality, which hippies in the 1960s came in search of as respite from the scorching heat of a war-tuned western modernity. But for others, Kathmandu was always a wasteland: Daniel Wright, an early British visitor who lived in Kathmandu for a decade, described Kathmandu in 1877 as a city built on a “dunghill in the middle of latrines”.
Like Kathmandu, my life seemed to be stuck in an eternally recursive cycle. And just when it seemed that nothing would change, everything did.
A bloody accident: a car, a reckless driver, three sleepy passengers, an empty highway, speed, more speed, a truck – where-the-fuck-did-it-come-from? – spin, spin, spin…
Life changed in a day for my family.
Without ever rehearsing for the part, our roles reversed: I and my brother became our parents’ parents, and our parents were suddenly more helpless than toddlers.
Baba had broken a wrist, and Mamu’s right leg had shattered in thirteen different places. In X-rays, her bones looked more like pebbles and splinters than something that was a part of human anatomy.
Then began the month in the hospital. Visitors came everyday. Their presence cheered my parents up. For my mother, the constant stream of visitors – to the great annoyance of the attending nurses – was a return on her investment for being the person who put in the effort to get along with everybody. Recounting the details of the accident had a healing effect on my parents.
My mother is an optimist. But the recurring trauma of the accident, her confinement to bed, and her dependence on the nurses and her sons to even relieve herself in bed was an exercise in living humiliation. For my mother, who in another age would have insisted that a toilet be entirely separate from the house, the collapsing of the space between where she ate and where she shat was akin to the collapse of the distance between being a human and an animal. It spiralled her deeper into depression.
The accident happened in April and by June, the shock had dissipated into the monotony of recovery. We were back home from our surprise, unwelcome vacation at the hospital. My father healed fast, but my mother didn’t. She spent her days watching the rain pool on the balcony outside her room. There was nothing else she could do independently: she had no choice but to wait for her wounds to heal. The long wait seemed more painful to her than the initial trauma of the accident. Absolute dependence on her family members, and her immobility, started to haunt her.
“A tree has more freedom than I do,” she complained one morning.
Before the accident, she was a homemaker, a wife, a mother, a dancer and somebody who had great fondness for socialising. Now her identity was entirely that of someone who had survived a brutal accident.
To get over the trauma of the recovery, she sometimes volunteered stories about her childhood and youth. One night, she talked about the time she had been a political activist. “Thok na madal thok, Tuladhar lai vote!” Beat the mādal, vote for Tuladhar, she had chanted in the streets of Kathmandu for Padma Ratna Tuladhar’s electoral campaign in the late ‘80s, at the tail-end of the autocratic Panchayat era. I also discovered an old diary in which, as a young woman, she had penned poems about her sexuality, of arriving in Kathmandu. I had previously never considered that she had a life before becoming a mother. Her stories and diaries helped me see her as Kamala, a woman who was more than just my mother.
She slowly started moving about the house, but her bedroom was still also her bathroom. Perhaps as a way of compensating for the daily humiliation of relying upon her adult sons to relieve herself, she actively tried to forget the accident. Though it was impossible to erase everything, she insisted that I remove all material reminders of the accident. Her leg braces, when taken off, had to be shoved inside the closet; empty packets of medicines and old bandages had to be immediately disposed of.
But there was no way to forget the accident or the trash that incrementally accumulated in our home. The rain that drummed the city late in the afternoons and nights delayed garbage collection. And as the house filled with rubbish, my mother complained that she did not “want to live like an animal”. So I was often tasked with the responsibility of depositing our household garbage at a nearby chowk where a pile of trash was already mushrooming like a living organism.
If a disease were to spread from accumulating trash, our entire neighbourhood would have fallen ill. Perhaps we wouldn’t have been so eager to rid our homes of each day’s waste. But we also did it to appease my conservative Brahmin grandparents, as we had to observe certain ideas of purity, even though our house was neither sanitary, nor in order.
One of my grandparents ate meat, but believed that goat was the only animal fit for consumption. “Chicken are dirty. They eat phohor,” grandfather had hammered into me since childhood. Filth. “Goats eat only grass. They are clean and pure. Brahmins like us who want meat should eat only goat meat.” Eating chicken meat had been part of my father’s generational rebellion, and by now, my parents felt that abstaining from it was an irrelevant practice. Yet some measure of restraint had to be observed when preparing or eating chicken meat around my grandparents.
Two months after the accident, my grandparents travelled to the United States to live with my uncle’s family for a few months. They returned in awe of the American way of life. They brought back stories of clean streets and an absence of garbage piles, and marvelled that life was so good for everyone that there was no suffering. And as my grandfather lived in close quarters with my cousin, who ate chicken everyday, he came back with slightly more acceptance for the presence of poultry around him.
But old habits die hard. My grandparents had often articulated the idea that those who did not observe the idea of Brahmanical purity were lesser people: it wasn’t that observing purity suddenly lifted one to a position above the others, but that a lapse in observing religious strictures denied one the opportunity to remain first among equals.
Normal banter at home in Kathmandu, as far as I can remember, had always been about shaming those who “threw their caste away”. Or reaffirming to ourselves how we, as Brahmins, were better off than everybody else, and how it was our duty to continue in our observance of purity strictures. I must have been five or six years old when either my mother or an aunt told me for the first time – You must marry a Brahmin girl. Because jāt phālna hudaina – you should not throw away your caste. And by this logic – supported by the 19th-century legal codification of caste (since repealed) – everyone else is lesser than a Brahmin. A labourer or peon is what he is because he did not work as hard as your father or uncle, relatives would tell me.
That monsoon, over a month, I travelled to Sisdol, where Kathmandu’s landfill site is located. There, the inhumane, humiliating conditions in the lives of scavengers appeared to me to be a direct product of caste-based discrimination.
In 1853, writing about the introduction of the railway system in India, Marx had predicted that industrial development would efface caste. But the orientalising excavator of the capitalist system could not foresee that modernisation has instead reinforced caste-based discrimination in India, in Nepal, and in the rest of South Asia. I was to encounter this fact repeatedly at the landfill site. But, personal experience, as my grandparents’ experience in America had made me realise, does not grant access to the truth that is reality. What it gave me instead was this story, a travelogue of sorts of a journey repeated many times over.
Each of my journeys to Sisdol began at an eatery in Balaju, on the banks of the Bagmati. The sewer swelled over the embankments and reached the edges of the eatery. Along the riverbank, one could see yellow bulldozers ready to dig new roads, the ubiquitous symbols of the Nepal Government’s purported development, even as the skies bucketed down rain vigorously.
Standing at the threshold of the eatery, Shankar smoked Pilot cigarettes as he looked beyond the bulldozers to check if his garbage truck had been loaded. Most of the workers at Environment Conservation Initiative Nepal (ECI), a garbage collection company he worked for, were busy playing cards or carom as garbage collection had halted due to the incessant rain. But rain or shine, some workers have to collect garbage from the neighbourhoods where VIPs live.
The manager of the company – a fat, pot-bellied man who did not hesitate to belittle his employees by calling them animals – had informed me that if they failed to collect garbage from VIP areas the Metropolitan Department threatened to rescind their permit to collect trash. The workers told me that two senior Nepali Congress leaders, one of whom had become prime minister of the country four times, lived in the VIP neighbourhoods of Balaju and Budhanilkantha where they were responsible for collecting trash.
Shankar and I waited for our dalbhat as the VIP trash was loaded onto the big truck. Shankar had sparse facial hair, which gave him the look of a teenager. He often wore a t-shirt with the figure of a person running in front of an image of the Dharahara. Beneath the image it said, 11th Kathmandu Marathon Run for Sustainable Development Goals.
Shankar did not know what sustainable development meant. He became furious when I translated the meaning of sustainable development into Nepali. The delay from the state in providing post-earthquake reconstruction funds had prevented the repair of his derelict house, in the same locality as the landfill site.
Like me, Shankar had been in the fourth grade in 2005 when the construction of the landfill site began. His mother tongue was Newa and he spoke Nepali, the language of education in public schools, haltingly. His teacher, a Brahmin man, had been quick to punish him and his peers if they spoke in their mother tongue or if their Nepali was inflected with a Newa accent. Unable to bear the punitive environment at school, he had run away from his village. Most of his peers, all Newa boys, had done the same. None of them, Shankar told me, had completed the tenth grade. Like Shankar, none of the scavengers I later met had completed high school and none of them spoke Nepali as their mother tongue.
Shankar arrived in Kathmandu, where he floated from one menial job to another. Eventually he started working at a private school and did all kinds of odd work: washing dishes, running errands for the principal, and even filling in as a substitute teacher. He could not teach, but he entertained the kids. His monthly salary was 500 rupees. He was a good worker; his salary was raised every few months.
By his fifth year of working at the school he was making 5000 rupees per month. “Whenever the principal needed to hire somebody, he would call me into his office, and say to the new person – ‘Look at where Shankar began and where he is now.’ I was a model employee,” Shankar said proudly.
Slowly, the yearning for education began and Shankar felt that an English-medium education was the way to break away from the cycle of poverty that ensnared his family. He asked the principal to enrol him into school. The principal promised to send him to a government school nearby.
“I was opposed to that. If I wanted a government school education, I would never have left my village,” Shankar said. “The principal’s wife tried consoling me. She told me that I did not need an education and that she would take me to America with them.”
Financially capable people, like my parents, sent their kids to private schools in the belief that their kids were receiving an education that would distinguish them from the masses. One parameter for elitism in Nepal is one’s command of the English language. Shankar’s desire to learn English was an affront to the elitist mentality, something the principal would have never allowed. Shankar left the school once he realised that the principal and his wife were manipulating him, playing him like a puppet.
During his time in Kathmandu, Shankar’s village had been transformed. The landfill site which was meant to be temporary had become a permanent home for Kathmandu’s trash. For their troubles, the villagers were meant to get a state-of-the-art hospital, but a two-room health post remains under construction. When the promise for a hospital fell through, the villagers demanded an ambulance, but now the ambulance, a gift from the Japanese aid agency JICA, rots in a corner of the Kathmandu Metropolitan Office, waiting for a scrap dealer to finally make his claim.
In past years, agitating villagers have often blocked the road to the landfill site. Their demands have been met on paper and often, as per media reports, millions of rupees have been sanctioned for the villagers. But Shankar claimed that the sanctioned money, if it ever saw its way out of the state coffers, was lost in the oversized pockets of a few village leaders.
When Shankar returned home, every single household had at least one unemployed member – individual struggles differ in their particulars but the contours are the same. By blocking the road to Sisdol, the villagers renewed two of their demands. First, that employment be guaranteed to the village youth, and second, that public transportation be made available for use by the villagers.
Most village youth, including Shankar and his brother, were hired as truck drivers by waste management companies. This made a significant impact on the lives of the villagers. As a driver, Shankar started making 22,000 rupees a month – an amount more than what most villagers had ever made. They also received other benefits, such as a pension plan.
But the drivers gradually felt that they had been tricked. Their employers – private waste management companies operating out of rented apartments in Kathmandu – made the drivers park the garbage trucks in the village itself. For companies, it eased the problem of finding parking spaces in an overcrowded city. For the drivers, it initially seemed that having the trucks at hand would ease their commute to Kathmandu. But parking the trucks in front of their houses brought the stench of the landfill site even closer to their hearths. Children were frequently nauseated and fainted. And now that the youth were dependent on waste management companies for employment, they lost the power of political bargaining. The only effective union existed among the waste management companies, but their employees didn’t belong to one.
The villagers’ second demand for public transportation was never met. Instead, the garbage trucks became the only means for transportation for them. It was on a garbage truck that Babu, a scavenger I met at Sisdol, had taken his wife to a hospital to deliver their child. And it was on a garbage truck that I commuted to Sisdol. With me and Shankar were a group of villagers who squeezed into the truck with us, and off we went to the heart of the wasteland.
The Pasang Lhamu Highway hung like a loose belt on the mountainside. Landslides were a constant threat, and in several places mudslides had already destroyed sections of the road. Drivers coming from the newly reopened border to Tibet and those going to Sisdol carefully negotiated space for their vehicles as the rain fogged the windshield. As the vehicles crossed paths, I wondered if a piece of plastic in the garbage truck had begun its journey in Nepal in one of the buses or trucks coming from the border. The road was also occupied by workers wearing bright orange jackets. Shivering in the rain, they poured hot asphalt onto the wet road; as the monsoon drew to an end, so did the fiscal year and the annual race to use up the budget.
But it did not rain everyday. On sunny days, after passing the restaurants, resorts and a rehabilitation centre, we could see the landfill site from the highway. Pointing to a sandy clearing in the vast swathe of green and blue mountains, Shankar announced to me, “That’s Sisdol!” From that distance, it looked like a construction site abandoned after the foundations had been dug.
The site buzzed with activity. Almost two hundred and fifty garbage trucks climbed the hill everyday, and slowly backed onto the cliff where they unloaded. Before the municipal bulldozer pushed the trash to the ground below, men and women jumped into the mound of garbage to salvage anything that could be sold. Hard plastic, aluminum cans, shoes were all collected and later separated into piles. The garbage trucks that had brought the trash to Sisdol were then rented by scavengers to drive the resaleable trash to one of the many kawādkhānā, recyclable processing centres, in the Kathmandu Valley.
A semi-functioning ecosystem existed at the landfill site. First, the scavengers separated anything that had market value, then the cows and goats tore through the plastic to fill their bellies. Then it was the turn of the birds to nibble at the leftovers. I was really taken by the curious absence of crows and the overwhelming presence of goats at the landfill site. One day, I counted up to 200 goats and then lost count, and interest.
“These goats are like people,” Sunita said in response to my question as she cut soles out of shoes. “When you let them out of their cage, they find their way here. They don’t eat grass anymore.” We sat under a makeshift camp and talked as the scavengers bagged recyclables.
Sometimes our conversation went to places in our memories and at other times they took the shape of hurried, journalistic interviews. Sometimes it seemed that we were friends and other times it felt like we were aliens encountering each other for the first time and that there was nothing but fear between us.
There were five of them: two women and three men. They said they were between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five. Compared to the nearly hundred scavengers working there, this group seemed younger. But hard labour had aged them. Each was different, with a different temperament, nonetheless everyone seemed united in their dislike for the Rasuwalis from the impoverished district of Rasuwa to the northwest of Kathmandu. The Rasuwalis comprised a significant portion of the scavenging community. They were non-Hindus and, viewed through the lens of the Hindu system, were lower on the caste hierarchy. These five scavengers did not have a high caste to throw away, so they aimed their anger at the Rasuwalis.
One day, the journalist in me, pressed for time, asked: What do you think of waste and what is your relationship with it? Nobody had an answer. Except Buddhi, the youngest, always shirtless, grew visibly angry and ranted about the rich “hiding behind their walls” and threatened to “kill all NGO workers”. That day, I was a hungry journalist and Buddhi was providing the soundbite. I always suspected, but never confirmed, that he had been a street kid who grew up sniffing glue in the tourist quarter of Kathmandu.
Over time, I learned more about the group.
Babu, the oldest, had worked in Sisdol for eight years, and recently become a father. He did not have a citizenship card and therefore could not obtain a birth certificate for his daughter.
Did he exist? Not for the Government of Nepal.
Buddhi, no shirt, no citizenship card, possessed the ability to threaten to kill his interlocutors with the kind of casualness that lovers use when proclaiming their love for each other, and wanted you to listen to him speaking English.
Did he exist?
Ravi, a former garbage truck driver, had lost his driving license after the truck he was driving killed a person, but he had not lost hope in the Nepali Congress. The electoral tides were in favour of the communists, but Ravi knew there would always be a next time.
Did he exist? To the system, only as a felon.
Sunita could read and write, was the mother of a two year old, and felt eternally guilty for bringing her daughter to the landfill site. An NGO worker had promised to build a day-care centre, and now the NGO worker had disappeared.
Did she exist?
In this garbage-strewn land of the falling people, they existed, if at all, only among themselves. Perhaps that is why they seemed more alive when they bickered, quarrelled and fought.
On a torpid summer morning, an argument broke out between Ravi and Buddhi. Undisturbed, Babu, Sunita and Nirmala, the other woman of the group, methodically emptied bottles of tick powder past their expiration dates. In the farthest corner of the shade, a little girl was busy squeezing out plastic tubes, while Sunita continuously warned her to not put anything in her mouth.
“Fucker, how many times do I need to tell you that I will pay you when I have the money?” Ravi yelled. “Why do you keep behaving like bhāt khāna napāko Rasuwali?” Like a Rasuwali who has never tasted rice.
“You expect me to work without eating? I have been carrying around an empty stomach since yesterday. I know you are hoarding money, fucker. Give me my money or I will kill you,” Buddhi retorted.
Ravi paused for a moment, as if trying to form a response. But then he lunged at Buddhi.
Ravi punched Buddhi in the stomach. Buddhi fell to the ground, and something cracked beneath him. We learned later that bare-chested Buddhi had received a significant cut to his back.
“Asshole, come and try to kill me,” Ravi yelled, angrier than before. Sunita quietly got up and took her daughter away.
Buddhi was in pain but seemed too proud to ask for help.
“If you fight like this everyday, how will we work?” Babu said, exercising his authority. “It’s getting hot. Sāley haru, ma dhoti bhandā kālo bhaisake.” Bastards, I’m becoming blacker than an Indian. “The truck’s here. Let’s load quickly and get away from here.”
Before Ravi left, he handed a fresh 500 rupee note to Buddhi and warned him. “Never be seen in my area.”
Buddhi started fumbling and once Ravi had left, declared, “If I had done anything, all of his men would have come after me. But let him come to Kathmandu – I’ll make sure that his head is on one side of the river and the body on the other.
“I will kill him. No problem,” Buddhi told me in English, after which he calmed down and tried cleaning his wounds.
After loading a truck with recyclables, a few minutes after the fight, everyone gathered at the makeshift shed which gave respite from the scorching heat. Ravi sat next to Buddhi: the animosity between them seemed to have disappeared. Babu took a stick and started making outlines on the sand, something he did whenever he was not working. Had he the means Babu would have spent his days “drawing like the scientists”.
“I saw you yesterday, talking to Babu dai,” said Nirmala, the quietest member of the group. “What brings you here?”
“Sir has come to learn about us. To write,” Ravi answered on my behalf.
“What is there to write about the poor?” Buddhi suddenly exploded, “Look – we live in the open. Everything is simple. It’s the rich who hide behind their walls.”
“Sāla yo Buddhi ko buddhi chaina.” This asshole Buddhi does not have any buddhi, brains. “He is ruining everything,” Ravi said. “Sir, don’t listen to him. He is an alcoholic. He will spend the money I gave him in a bhatti and come begging again.”
“Poverty cannot be understood,” Babu addressed me. “It can only be lived.”
“What did I say wrong?” Buddhi retorted, “You people have a place to sleep and a family. What do I have? I sleep here. In this smelly place.”
“It is your own doing. You don’t save a rupee. You are the one who has to drink everyday. You are worse than the Rasuwalis,” Nirmala said with an air of superiority.
There are regular outbreaks of quarrels at the landfill site. A battalion of the Armed Police Force has been stationed there since 2016, after some scavengers torched a bulldozer when Ravi’s garbage truck accidentally backed into one of them.
Perhaps one way to think about the frequent fights is as an assertion of their identity, because proximity to waste pushes a person closer to an animal-like state. It then becomes necessary to find the human within, to compensate for the constant humiliation of recognizing one’s position in the scheme of things. Shankar, who was often called an animal by his manager, called the scavengers filthy animals in turn. The system of oppression thus remained intact. And when there is nobody below you, no inferior soul to transfer the burden to, fights break out. Albeit only on sunny days. When the monsoon poured down, the landfill site transformed from a giant latrine into a squelching Hell.
Rivers of black liquid oozed like half-hearted waterfalls from mounds of garbage. The land became mushy, and the black river crisscrossed everywhere. It is hard to describe that peculiar smell of decay, but after falling into the black river, I learned what Hell tasted like.
After each monsoon shower, the black river widened or altered its course, changing the garbage-scape everyday, like the desert changing its contours after each storm. Being there was to be in a state of constant disorientation.
Over the years, the road at the landfill site had disappeared under the garbage and the road that had to be dug out each year was so mushy that the municipal bulldozer had to push big trucks to the cliff so they could dump their cargo. There was one bulldozer and 250 trucks. The queue was so long that it was faster to reach the landfill site by walking. But to walk meant to taste Hell. I chose to stay put in the truck with Shankar. He spent hours playing Ludo on his phone. For hours there would be uninterrupted silence between us. In the silence, I felt sorry for Shankar and all those who were in the filth everyday to eke out a precarious living. And yet, when Shankar had asked the previous day, I could not be completely honest with him about all the jumpstarts I had received in life. I did not tell him that my struggles were beyond that of gās, bās ra kapās – food, shelter and clothing. Maybe he had figured it out and perhaps that was why he had not said a word in the two hours we had been holed up in the truck.
“How many women have you done?” Shankar finally punctured the silence between us. “Lajāunu bhayena ni.” Don’t feel shy, he said and began recounting some of his sexual adventures. First there was this girl and that girl, and then this other. As the details of his sexual exploits expanded, it became clear that he and the other drivers teased and touched the village girls who had no choice but to use the garbage truck to commute to the city. Shankar seemed not to see the harm in that.
I was repulsed by the things he said. Here we were – two men on diverging paths in life, and yet deep within I knew a similar toxicity existed in me. I consider myself a progressive, a feminist, and yet in moments of anger or frustration I have said things to my mother or my girlfriend that are so humiliating, so toxic that even I am surprised by the things that come out of my mouth. Isn’t it horrifying that two men who exist on different ends of the social spectrum could connect to each other through a common propensity to dehumanize the women around us?
The two things that helped maintain the chokehold of oppression over people like Shankar – the state’s policy of delivering education in the Nepali language in public schools, and the caste structure – had provided the boost for my father to uplift his family from financial vulnerability. But if an unsuspecting alien from a different galaxy listened to Shankar talk about women and my father talk to my mother they might confuse Shankar, Baba and me as members of the same nuclear family.
Every milestone in my life is an inverse representation of the difficulties Shankar continues to face in his attempt to achieve some semblance of economic security. And yet I have known myself to be just as sexist as Shankar, to harbour in some part of me just the same ugliness that allows for such attitudes to arise. A more rigorous historical analysis may be needed to determine why this is the case, but perhaps an explanation emerges in our relationship with waste. In a deeply stratified society like Kathmandu, it is our waste, our toxicity that binds us together. The sewers that come out of our homes wrap around the city like a spell.
During the monsoon, when Kathmandu is shrinking beneath the weight of its own waste, a small grant had provided the excuse for me to begin reporting on Sisdol. I had pitched this as an ethnographic study of scavengers. But a proper empathetic study of the lives of Babu, Sunita, Buddhi, Ravi, Nirmala and countless others, derogatorily referred to as khātey by the city dwellers, required spending more time at the landfill site. This was obstructed by my need to attend to my mother, and my own bourgeois proclivity of desiring luxury, which made it cumbersome to keep visiting the landfill site. If I was fatigued by going to the landfill site for a month, what must it be like for those forced to be there?
Instead, I have tried to use the brief experience of visiting the landfill site to inquire into my deep suspicion that something is horribly wrong with the way we live in Kathmandu – and the entire world. I started writing using big words like ‘modernity’ and ‘third world life’, but constructing a narrative by conjoining diverging experiences has helped me better understand this common predicament of life in the city. At the beginning of this project, I had falsely assumed that my parent’s brutal accident was a hindrance to my attempt at understanding, but it is clear now that experiences that centre on the human body such as pain and hunger can provide the clearest critique to a system of control.
For a month after the accident, my mother was in a hospital bed uttering sounds of pain like those that come before a mouth learns a language, like those made by a baby. One morning when the attending nurse came with a thick syringe ready to insert into her bone marrow, Mamu shouted, “Yamrāj āyo!” The god of death has come – these were her first words in her new life, and since then she has developed a new way of marking the passage of time.
“Today would be the 45th day of shraddha had I died,” Mamu said, “Your father would have surely remarried.” Baba, who was on the couch, listened quietly. His silence was an affirmation of what Mamu was saying. Only recently, a grand-uncle of mine had remarried, shortly after his wife’s funeral rites had been completed.
“But a woman is forced into widowhood. Why?” Mamu complained, and while my mother would be strapped to her bed for another year, Baba would return to his habit of drinking with his friends every night.
“If your Baba had my injuries, I would be by his side day and night – nursing his wounds, but what do I get?” Mamu seemed resolved to not accept my father’s monstrous impositions quietly, and though this was not going to completely reverse the gendered dynamics between my parents it did force my father to take a greater share of responsibility in household work. The accident and her bitter words had forced a realization on me. My intellectual life had come at the cost of my mother’s unacknowledged labour. While I sat reclining in a chair, reading a book with my feet propped on the table, my mother went around the house cooking, cleaning my room, washing my dirty laundry without any complaint.
If it took my mother to break her bones and almost lose her life for me to value her presence, her love, her labour, and my father and my brother to begin acknowledging her life, what will it take Kathmandu to acknowledge the quiet toil of the labouring masses? Will there be a day when Shankar is able to fix the broken wall of his home and Babu receives his citizenship?
In my home it took an accident, a break in the pattern for the male members to recognize the value of the woman who kept the house functional. It also pushed the three of us out of our shell to provide the space for interaction as a family. It cost my mother a broken femur that pushed her to the edge of survival to start being vocal about some of the oppression of being a married woman in Nepal. In her diary, poems, songs and journal entries had been replaced by a list of utility bills. The dates show that Mamu stopped writing regularly soon after getting married. Had the exigencies of marriage and motherhood not weighed down on her she would have been the one writing her story of pain and recovery. Why did Mamu stop writing? And why is it that one has to be thrown off the edge before reacting to the silencing, demeaning forces of our society? Why had I not started working on my patriarchal biases before my mother almost died? Why does only desperation force us to act?
After everything, all I have are questions.
On my last day there, when I bid my farewells, everyone was busy coiling copper wires – the most valuable item in the dumping grounds. Most of them only nodded their heads and said, “Okay.”
Visiting the landfill site has been one of the most powerful experiences of my life. I still struggle to say what I learnt, other than the simple fact that the scavengers and I were connected – this for me was the haqeeqat, the ultimate reality. But the scavengers did not acknowledge this connection.
Since I had couple more hours to kill before I would find a garbage truck to take me back to the city for the last time, I hung around. I watched the goats tear through the plastic to find food. I spotted Babu again, though the rest of the group had disappeared. We started talking, and I mentioned again that I would not return. “Somebody else came before you and there will be a hundred more after you,” Babu said, indifferently. “You will go to many places. I will always be here.”
The Wasteland, by Sandesh Ghimire, was written as part of the 2018 La.Lit Writer’s Fellowships in Nonfiction: New Ethnographic Writing, which was organized by La.Lit in partnership with the Open Institute. Each year, the fellowship supports aspiring writers to immerse themselves in a field context to capture facets of the societies, cultures, religions and environments we live in.