Hitting reset

July 8, 2018

Filtered through the prism of years, Nepal opens a floodgate of memories altered by time and architecture

Hitting reset

The body carries memory, but architecture does not always comply. I am back in Kathmandu after five years, back near the white gate of Dhokaima, failing to locate the blue signboard of Tasty Momos. Once upon a time, that steaming eatery was my devoted spot for dinner. I recognise the awning outside the small clinic that often gave me refuge in the rain, but like other landmarks I once ordered my days around, Tasty Momos has disappeared. In its place, a host of new momo places. "Yes, why not," the waiter outside one restaurant insists, "We have tasty momos!" So yes, why not, I go in, acting under that special combination of submission and spontaneity only made possible by travelling.

But this is not a city I associate with travelling in the conventional sense. Kathmandu has been my home, though some days I question my right to claim that. In 2013, I lived in the valley for three months, working at the local newspaper, travelling around the country, living alone in a new city for the first time in my life. I had no cushion of family, no convenience of college life, no roadmaps laid out for me before my arrival or guardians to ease my transition into this new, brief, wonderful life. I learned the city’s pulse from scratch. Memorised it with combined power of feet, eyes, and imagination.

My job at the paper helped, sending me off to areas I would have never discovered on my own, so with each farflung assignment, with each complicated bus route figured out, a new neighbourhood introduced itself as fresh grounds for loitering, a new space gained colour, the city’s contours grew in my mind.

They were the best days I have known. Every morning, I stepped out with the confidence that something magical lay in wait. I was 22, had never felt so liberated, so free in my body and feet. Nothing, nothing felt impossible, and Kathmandu -- whether experienced from the highrises of Sinamangal or the winding alleys of Patan -- Kathmandu was an inexhaustible well of stimuli, overflowing with life. This is the city where the world first opened itself up to me.

Walking in Patan now, I am terrified of discovering I might not know my way around these streets I claim to have traversed more than any neighbourhood in Karachi. Much of the familiar world before me looks different, feels different. Of course, buildings move, shops closed down, but something in the very air has shifted. Earthquake restorations underway, entire streets dug up, so much activity, but also so much space mortgaged by air. When I look up I see the invisible outlines of buildings waiting to be filled. When I look down the stacks of bricks and construction material lining wall-fronts feel imposing, are discomfiting reminders of shapes that once existed, of possibilities that will soon be restored to their original forms.

The Golden Temple, from the outside you would never guess what it contains: a tiny, quiet, golden sanctuary of calm. Just like my first visit, a cat greets me outside. There is something unmistakably ghostly in these repetitions, and I am sure the temple will not match the one in my memory.

Every new-familiar scene greets me with this strain of nostalgia, so I am interpreting the sights and sounds of Patan against the memory of days that no longer exist. After the row of shops selling statues and metal works, I expect to see the hole-in-the-wall electronics shop where I once bought a cheap keyboard, and I am filled with annoyance at my constant comparisons, this measuring of a new experience against the memory of a past. But my fear, I know, is not so much about feeling displaced spatially, but feeling displaced emotionally: what if I do not encounter that same rush of possibility, that thrill of the city revealing itself to me, that feeling which made Kathmandu home.

In fact I am walking alert, preparing -- any moment now -- to be swept by the sinking horror of confirmation that the present never lives up to the past.

Unbeknownst to myself I am retracing old steps. Just like my first time walking around Patan, I stop before the sign pointing towards The Golden Temple, from the outside you would never guess what it contains: a tiny, quiet, golden sanctuary of calm. Just like my first visit, a cat greets me outside. There is something unmistakably ghostly in these repetitions, and I am sure the temple will not match the one in my memory. Some part of it must have collapsed, some section of its magnificent roof fallen in the earthquake. But if it did -- I walk in -- there is no trace of it. Inside, everything is as beautiful and indescribable. The gold of the temple competing with the radiance of the sun. The light in that space undoes something, some weight lifts to make room for a new sensation: of memory being rewritten, of memory contorting with new meaning, of memory getting all mixed up so you can no longer tell what is new and what is only a shadow from the past.

I move through the temple taking in this new comfort of familiarity edged by a new awareness, reading everything around me with old feelings guiding new eyes. The doves perched on the curling steel canopies, the mainas moving in pairs on the floor. The old Monk and a young child playing a board game, behind them a woman moving in what looks like a kitchen through the open door. The pleasure of noticing everything, of learning a city ground up. Old memories flooding back, released by the colour of vermillion or some syllable in Nepali. The private joys of travelling alone. Creating a new memory under the shadow of a tree, renting a cycle and cruising down Ekantakuna late at night. Going in search of an art exhibit and coming back making a new friend who helps you navigate the delirium of their new city. The meditation room bordering the temple, how I once walked in to find tranquility. How all I can focus on now is the light sifting through the coloured prayer flags, the inescapable wild stirrings and movements even in the smallest details, even in the calmest parts of this city. This is a good place to be, the point between longing and discovery.

When I leave the temple I am replenished, and Kathmandu, once again, feels inexhaustible.

I must be close to the square, I know, walking a bit further, trusting my feet. How else to explain the sudden appearance of singing bowls outside every shop. These lanes are familiar. The smell of incense, of rain in wait. The cafe I have never gone inside, the small grocery shop hidden behind a tree, the didi who paints boxes and masks she has painted herself… I think I take a left here. But where is the stupa? Where I remember a small, rough gray structure, is only empty ground. Yet I know I should turn left here, and sure enough, the alley opens into a wider one and there at the end, where it thins again, the first glimpse of Darbar Square. I am not lost. Architecture may not comply, but the body carries memory.

Hitting reset