Cellphone videos show shrines, including those snapped by Mr. Das Shrestha’s grandfather, were destroyed. Ancient, tiered, wood-and-brick structures began to shake, became hidden in clouds of dust and flocks of birds, and then, like a cruel magic trick, disappeared. The epochal transformations that fascinated Mr. Das Shrestha are even harder to understand now that so much is rubble.
When I visited Kathmandu last year, I was fascinated by the changes the city was going through. I went to check in with old friends, and escape into the quiet of the hills as I have every couple of years since studying Nepali, the official language, and the culture of Nepal in 1996. But the city, a crucible of green against the white walls of the Himalayas, seemed so promising. I emailed my editor at The New York Times (“The capital has become surprisingly cosmopolitan,” I wrote) and began reporting a “36 Hours in Kathmandu” article, scheduled to be published this month.
It’s now on hold indefinitely, like so much in the country. Schools are shut. The government is reportedly transporting injured citizens from remote areas to the best hospitals in big cities, which are overwhelmed. Foreigners are sending tons of aid, or at least enough to crack the fragile runway of the small international airport.
The earthquake wasn’t a surprise. In Kathmandu, there was always talk about being overdue for a big shake. When I visited Elizabeth Hawley a couple of years earlier, the nonagenarian chronicler of Himalayan expeditions had gone so far as to chain the filing cabinets to the walls of her downtown home.
And it was impossible to overlook the fragility of so many buildings and historic sites. I had long wondered about the structural integrity of “cooked” mud slabs. My study-abroad host family in the suburbs had dug clay from beside their fields of rice, mustard and wheat, and shaped hundreds of bricks with a wooden form. The cubes dried in the sun until one night we stacked them in a pile as tall as the trees. A fire was lit from the kindling embedded in the bottom layers. Home-brew was drunk from a jerrycan. And the mound became a kiln that would become the makings of my older host brother’s family home — a wonderful but wobbly start, if there ever was one.
But while I, like many, worried about an earthquake, I was entranced by the Kathmandu of 2014. So much was happening. Two Sherpas had waved goodbye to the hazards of Mount Everest to open an airy atelier in a peaceful courtyard, where they made and sold beautiful watches. A designer had opened a stylish men’s boutique. A well-traveled pair of 20-somethings had opened a bohemian restaurant that was not only organic, but also featured vegetables grown in their families’ fields. Other entrepreneurs had opened a dance club to rival Delhi’s coolest. Cafes doubled as “creative collaborative work spaces,” in Brooklyn parlance, and profits from one supported the creation of Wi-Fi networks in poor mountain communities.
The government was still astoundingly ineffective, unable to produce even a proper constitution, and gangsters supposedly ran the unions that organized the protesters who brought the city to a halt. Electricity remained unreliable, never mind sewage systems, building codes or the road network.
But fatalism was on the wane. Impatient young Nepalis were creating a worldly metropolis. It was possible to imagine a day when “Ke garne?” or “What can you do?” was no longer Nepal’s catchphrase.
Or so I thought. Along with spending a few weeks in Kathmandu, I also returned to the hamlet of Simigaun, one valley over from Everest, where I had lived with a family for a month some 18 years earlier. The remote village was like thousands around Nepal. It was basically terraced out of a cliff, a cluster of some 100 homes draped along narrow ribbons of rocky soil. And it still existed, I discovered, outside the government, the economy and the health care system, such as they were. If a wave of modernity had washed over Kathmandu, it certainly had not reached 7,000 feet.
To get there I rode a motorcycle east of Kathmandu to the town of Bhimeshwor, where a police officer agreed to show me the way up a dirt road in exchange for a ride to his post. Night fell before I reached the trailhead to Simigaun. A monsoon rain poured down. I climbed the steep jungle path holding an umbrella and a flashlight.
At the first house with signs of life, I stuck my head inside to ask directions to my host father’s home. The family and neighbors seated around a cook fire insisted that I eat with them.
“You came alone?” the mother asked in Nepali.
“Yes,” I said.
“No, I think you came with friends,” she said, pointing out the jukaa, forest leeches, that had apparently dropped from the leaves during my hike, and sank their teeth into my neck and wrists. I shrieked like a child as she dribbled a mysterious tincture on them and they fell off. After the laughter died down, she rolled out a blanket for me to sleep in.
The next day, I met my host father for the first time in 18 years. He was in his 50s, and lean and muscular, thanks to a lifetime of subsistence farming.
Over the next three days, we traded stories, jokes and woes. He had fallen, smashed his face on a rock, and, loath to visit a hospital, drooled uncontrollably out of one corner of his mouth. We ate boiled potatoes, the only crop harvested that time of year, and as before, he reserved the least rotten spuds for me. In the best and worst ways, it felt like the village that time had forgotten.
Now it doesn’t exist. Everyone survived the earthquake, but it destroyed many houses. A powerful aftershock leveled the rest.
To many, however, the impoverished village had ceased to exist before the earthquake.
“Where’s my brother, your son?” I asked my host father one day.
“Gone to Kathmandu,” he said. “He wanted a better life.”Continue reading the main story
A take on how the western media generally projects/covers Nepal
By Deepak Adhikari
This blog entry is inspired by two Granta pieces: How to Write about Africa and How to Write about Pakistan:
Start your piece with “Nepal is a Himalayan country sandwiched between two Asian giants…” Also add that Nepal is ‘tiny’, even though there are several smaller European countries (which never seem tiny is Western eyes) than Nepal. Nepal, with the population of 28 million, is world’s 30th largest country (if you take population to describe a country’s size). Mention the population but don’t explain what it means, don’t bring perspectives—your readers just want facts about the poor countries (Don’t forget to say it’s one of the ten poorest countries in the world).
Also, don’t forget to sprinkle your report with the poverty porn: “Nepalese earn less than two dollar a day.” Forget that we don’t measure our income in dollars and there are filthy rich Nepalis in Kathmandu, outside Nepal and even in rural areas. But, the third world poverty is what sells in the West. Finley Peter Dunne rightly said newspaper (or journalism) “comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable.” So, those living out there in western metropolis in their cozy and comfy rooms need to be educated about the poor living in far flung areas. This will add to their sense of how lucky they are!
While writing about Nepal, apart from the glistening mountains and its beauty, you must also write about the Sherpas, the unsung mountaineering heroes, the Gurkhas, the brave soldiers. Write that Nepal is a mountainous country, blissfully eschewing the fact that half of the population lives in Tarai plains. Use the word Shangri-La, that beloved invention of yours (we never had that). This word can also be used for Sikkim, Tibet, Laddakh, Bhutan, among others. Write that this was a paradise!
Forget how this country came into being but don’t forget to mention the June 1 2001 massacre and compare that with some Shakespearean tragedy. Don’t forget to mention this in your report, this will make your story straight out of a horror movie!
Taboo subjects: the vibrant Nepali middle class, the recent development in sectors such as education, healthcare, media, among others. It’s literary tradition, the folk lore. Treat Kathmandu as if it is still a medieval city. While in here don’t spare the ‘living goddess’. Your readers will be amazed at this tradition of maintaining a living goddess while her counterparts in western countries enjoy their childhood. Exoticize this as well as other topics as much as you can and avoid exploring why the Kumari tradition continues after all these years. Your report should not have to be nuanced. It should resonate with your readers’ stereotypes.
Insert a sentence saying the Buddha was born in India (the way Fareed Zakaria did in his book Post-American World). Confuse Nepal with Tibet. While writing the head line, make sure you use Everest, mountain, Himalayas, roof of the world, top of the world, high (as in recent WashPost headline: Mao in the Mountains).
Even though the monarchy was abolished in 2008, write the country is the world’s only Hindu kingdom. When you write about the Maoists (the fave topic of yours), write that Prachanda means “the fierce one” or even better “the awesome”! And, compare the Maoists with their Chinese counterpart and its cultural revolution (but also be ready to discover how different they are: China’s turnaround from its own past while Maoists still stick to Mao’s dictums).
Best of luck—you can make an outstanding career as a writer or foreign correspondent in Nepal!
Editor’s note: Please add your own favorite expression at the Western press about Nepal.
UWB blogger Deepak Adhikari is a journalist with Kantipur, Nepal’s largest newspaper. He maintains a personal online diary here.