No Place Like Home by Sushma Joshi
Sushma Joshi is a writer and filmmaker from Nepal. She has written two books of short stories. “The End of the World” was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. She has a BA in international relations from Brown University and an MA in English Literature from Middlebury College (USA) She is currently working on a Ph.D on environmental governance at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at Otago University, New Zealand.
This essay was written in 2018 and reflects some of the damaging environmental impacts of Nepal’s communist rule, before KP Oli’s administration and before the Nepali Congress took power. A sudden surge in car imports have exacerbated the situation even further since this essay was written four years ago.
No place like home
A few days ago, I went out to do my vegetable shopping at 4 pm, as I do every evening. Our neighborhood is called Handigaun, and it is known as the oldest settlement in the Kathmandu Valley. The ancient peepul tree at the end of the road has a Radha-Krishna temple nestled inside its roots. Nobody has been keeping track of how long the roots have grown around this small sanctum sanctorum for hundreds of years.
According to architect and cultural heritage conservationist Sudharshan Tiwari (full disclosure: he is an uncle by relation), Handigau was the ancient capital of Nepal during the reign of the Verma, Gupta and Licchavi Kings until 8th Century AD. This area later fell into obscurity with the rise of three kingdoms in Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur. Just down the road and down some small steps is the Satya-Narayan Mandir, where an Italian archaeological team came and excavated during 1984; the archaeologists found ancient statues and artifacts that go back to Licchavi times. I remember seeing graceful human-sized statues displayed in the square in front of the Saraswoti temple. The memory stayed with me, although I couldn’t remember much beyond the grace and style. I thought of the figure as a Buddha.
I have grown up knowing that Handigaun hides many secrets: somewhere deep inside the depths of this now squalid settlement is buried the remains of the renowned palace complexes of the Licchacvi Era, called Kailashkut Bhavan. Licchavi King Angshuverma constructed this palace after he ascended the throne in 598 AD. Chinese traveler and monk Xuanzang mentions this fabled structure in his writings: Kailashkut Bhawan had three adjoining buildings, known as Indragriha (Indra’s home), Managriha (Mana’s home) and Kailashkut (the mythical residence of Shiva and Parvati.) According to Zuangzang, a thousand people could be accommodated in the top floor of this building. Kailashkut was a giant palatial structure known for its artistic glory.
A few minutes down from our house is an open plaza where vendors set up wooden tables and sell fresh vegetables each evening. Tiny temples surround the plaza: the Bhimsenthan has a statue of Bhimsen, the strongest and most powerful of the Pandava brothers from the epic Mahabaharata, holding a club. It is tiny and exquisite, a small shrine with four wooden pillars standing in the middle of the crossroads. A new Dakshinkali temple with a yellow roof houses a shiny statue. Rajan, an energetic community figure, conducts daily pujas, organizes the vegetable vendors into the packed plaza, and adjudicates their disputes and violent brawls. For this service, without which the public square would be in chaos and unused due to conflicts regarding occupancy, he charges Rs.30 per day from each vendor.
Across the road is the Sankata complex, a strip of anaconic statues on the ground venerating the goddess Sankata, whose dasha or planetary ruling period is often the most feared and most soul-searingly difficult in the Hindu mindscape. In the jyotish astrological timeline, the yogini dasha (dasha is a time period ruled by a specific planet) has eight dashas. The eight year long dasha of Sankata, ruled by Rahu, brings with it the most upheaval, turmoil and downright catastrophe. Little Jyapu children take their drums and pipes and circumbulate this complex faithfully at each jatra festival to appease the fearsome goddess. It is a landscape mapped out by the architecture of belief and the rhythm of festivals, designed to be walked by old and young alike.
And yet, as I walked out that evening to try and do that most mundane of errands—
vegetable shopping—what I felt was an overwhelming sense of being swamped and trodden over. All around me were dozens of motorcycles, tooting their horns, swerving to get by, buzzing like angry hornets. I had to step aside, with my back to the walls, because otherwise they would have driven over me. I couldn’t cross the road to enter the market. I watched helplessly as the cars and motorcycles swarmed around me in this historic space, indifferent to my presence as a local resident, indifferent to my rights as a pedestrian. In their minds, getting home by the quickest route was more important than assuaging the grief of a local whose values and memories had become irrelevant, in this petroleum fueled internal combustion world.
As the evening traffic jam overwhelmed my neighborhood, bumper to bumper like an American highway, I stood behind and thought: What are they doing? How could they not see the historic significance of this space, and realize that this should be a pedestrian area where people walked places? How did the politicians imagine the world would sort itself out if thousands of these vehicles were added each year to this tiny valley, with no regulation to keep them in check?
As a pedestrian without a vehicle, I have no say in this republic of might. With an ankle injured during the 2015 earthquake, I have mobility problems. The slightest depression or uneven ground can make me stumble, but Kathmandu’s roads are never well built or well maintained in the current regime. The roads, it seems have gotten worse, rather than better. I try to maneuver over a non-existent sidewalk and kerb, holding onto an electric pole. A slight swelling of concrete indicates that one road has ended and is forking into another. The concrete has been slapped on by contractors from construction syndicates whose main goal had been to bid the lowest rates and get the contract, which they will split with their contacts inside the Department of Transport and inside political parties. The most famous of these is Shailung Construction, known to be owned by the landlord of Prachanda. Prachanda is one of the controversial leaders of the Maoist Revolution. The company has come under heavy media scrutiny for monopolizing dozens of government construction contracts while delivering very little infrastructure in return. Despite repeated reportage in the press about non-delivery or delivery of ill-constructed, dangerous structures, the company continues to get new contracts.
The traffic crushes the life out of the vegetable market, the neighborhood, the butcher, the dairy, and the sweetshop. At times, drivers hit children and dogs. The young woman who comes to help my mother clean was very upset this morning—a motorcycle, she said, dragged her six-year old on the way back from school, as he was holding her hand and skipping along. The hospital told her to bring him back for an ECG if he vomited. At night, she said, he got up and she thought perhaps he had vomited, but she wasn’t sure. The man who’d hit her child thankfully drove them immediately to the hospital. ‘My child is the same age, I have to make sure he’s fine,’ he said. Cruelty and compassion live side by side on the same streets.
My dog has a paw with a misshapen break in the middle of her leg—she was a street dog I rescued from the shelter, and during winters when it gets cold her bouncy step turns into a limp. It is not hard to guess where her injury came from: most likely a speeding motorcycle. While I was recovering from fractures I sustained during the 2015 earthquake, I would go to the physiotherapy room at Grande Hospital. During one of the sessions, I heard a physiotherapist share a story—he had been taking a midnight ride in his Enfield when he heard a ‘Splat!’ sound. ‘I look down and this dog had been totally smashed on the ground,’ he said in a casual, conversational tone. There was no indication in his story that he stopped to help the injured dog. He simply sped on his way. As I listened to the nice, kind-looking man who has been helping people diligently to get up on their feet after strokes and accidents, I can’t help but wonder at how such cruelty can exist side by side with such compassion. How could he spend his life healing people, spending all his time trying to get them up on their feet again after painful operations, while at the same time talk so casually about smashing up a dog with no acknowledgement of guilt or pain? Are we, as a human species, perhaps so anthropocentric we can’t feel the pain of animals other than our own species?
There are too many motorcycles in the Kathmandu Valley, all being driven at high speeds, responsible for many injuries of children, elderly people and dogs every single day. And yet there is no move to ban these vehicles. Politicians are indifferent to anything but taxes, which they pocket without transparency or accountability. There are no regulations to limit these vehicles in historic areas, or crowded pedestrian areas, because each motorcycle brings in tax. A taxi-driver listed for me the taxes he paid each year: Rs.16, 000 for annual tax; Rs.4000/each three months as road tax; Rs.1800 per year as municipal tax; Rs.1200 a year for navikaran fee; Rs.600 to recalculate the taxi meter’s fare, Rs.300 for meter navikaran. Another taxi-driver gave me a list of seven different taxes and insurance that he pays. Vehicles are profitable milking cows, and politicians don’t want this income source to stop. Profit dictates policy, what little there is of it. The political elites in power in Nepal used to run extortion operations in the People’s War. Now they tax people. It’s the same process, except back in the day it was illegal and now it’s done through the auspices of democracy. There seems to be no law—moral or ethical—that stops the politicians from allowing emission-spewing vehicles to pile up in this tiny valley. Nothing else, the air pollution, the rise of respiratory diseases, the chaos from vehicles parked randomly all over public space and speeding, hitting and disabling people — none of this matters.
It wasn’t always like this. The lane outside my house was a modest width—wide enough for water tankers and ambulances, not wide enough for hundreds of speeding motorcycles. The old brick walls, gently eroding rusty-orange, were high and covered with green moss. There was an overgrown stand of bamboo at the lane’s end. Trees covered the entire lane from one end to the other. Jacaranda trees that my grandfather had planted in the middle part of the twentieth century shaded my garden. I did not notice the slow erosion of the land in front of me as the houses built, and built, over what was once a large lake. The lake had been buried by real estate speculators and sold at some point in my childhood. I don’t remember when it happened; only that one day the lotus-covered lake beyond our house was gone.
The gas seller came by a week ago, and he said: ‘We used to run through the lane we thought a seven-headed naga lived in that lake. We were so afraid. And now people have built massive buildings. Nothing happened to them in the earthquake either.’
We look at each other, as if we can’t believe the naga would let these new people just go like this, without wreaking wrath on them. Building on lake bottoms has been discouraged because the mud liquefies and the bottom falls out during an earthquake, we’d always thought. Yet here was this set of giant buildings, with a new one being built at the speed of light by a young man who’s inherited his grandfather’s land and who seems indifferent to our concerns about seismic stability. Perhaps he did not know about the lake, or the seven-headed naga that could one day wreak his vengeance onto his investment.
Kathmandu had been a city full of beautiful ponds and lakes. Even the Dakshinkali temple and ward office of Handigaon had been build on a lotus pond that had been filled in. A well-connected man during the Panchayat era had decided to fill the pond and sell it. And that’s how the public ponds of Kathmandu vanished from the Eighties to now, one by one.
The leafy fans of the jacaranda leaves shaded my house from the outside world. I had only a dim idea of how it was changing outside. Then change came at the speed of light. The decade long People’s War, started in 1996, was followed by a ceasefire in 2006, then a comprehensive peace agreement. The rebels extorting people and making them flee from their ancestral villages were suddenly in power in Kathmandu, put there by the UN Mission to Nepal, which had brokered a peace agreement between the conflicting parties. Within a few short years, Baburam Bhattarai, architect of revolution and urban planner trained in JNU, was out there with his bulldozers smashing through the old streets of Kathmandu. This urban restructuring was going to be his magnum opus. A young man who lived at the end of our lane thought the pedestrian footpath in front of his house wasn’t grand enough. He had Maoist connections, people said. So in 2012 the bulldozers came by, relentlessly destroying the old growth trees in our lane. Jacaranda, bottlebrush, golden oaks, eucalyptus, trees whose names I did not know, they all fell, one by one. Hundred-year-old trees were gone within days. I think we lost three dozen trees in this fateful moment.
The bulldozer came by and kept hitting my jacaranda over and over, because the old tree refused to give way. It was a painful fight, with the tree groaning and screeching for days. Eventually the bulldozer won. The tree was cut to the nub, but it was still alive a year later, sprouting green fronds. Secretly I hoped the roots had survived and would sprout again. Sadly it was not to be—some person came by and chopped the last remaining bit of it for firewood one winter day during the Indian blockade three years later, leaving only emptiness behind. I screamed at the bulldozer driver. He bashed in my wall in revenge. You can still see the depression where he hit my bricks and caused damage. Our little corner of Kathmandu was now no longer a green and mossy sanctuary where children walked to school and breathed fresh air. It was filled with piston-firing Enfield motorcycles, roaring by at all times of the day and night. A motorbike called Crossfire, which made explosive gunshot like sounds, could be heard speeding by at night. I learnt from taxidrivers that the reason for the excruciatingly loud decibels was tampering with the Mobil oil, which was mixed with chemicals to make an extra loud sound. Expensive SUVs worth millions of rupees and battered water tankers filled with water tanks soon piled up outside, using the once green space as a parking lot. When once we used to have sweet-smelling eucalyptus, we now have the smell of diesel exhaust.
I look at the mark the bulldozer made bashing into my wall, the depression caved in, and see it as the mark of the government which couldn’t stand the outrage of an ordinary citizen beset by the oppressive illusion of democracy. Because this was no democratic process—this was a man drunk with his own ideology and power who’d relentlessly destroyed neighborhoods and homes, just as he’d destroyed the lives of people in the People’s War. But there was to be no accountability, because peace was all that mattered. We were not to make a commotion but to accept this is how things were going to be in our hometown, from now on.
In Lazimpat, a leafy neighborhood close to the former royal palace, they uprooted the shady green trees again, slapping on the concrete and making the road so wide it’s impossible to cross it now. The vehicles do not stop these days—it’s a wide highway of speeding motorcycles. In 2014, I was working to write a TV script in an office in Lazimpat. A colleague confided in me that he’s started the process to immigrate to Canada. ‘I am leaving Kathmandu for two reasons,’ he said. ‘First, I want my children to be able to breathe clean air. And secondly I want them to be able to cross the road. This is the only reason I want to immigrate to Canada.’
We will never see trees as big as my grandfather’s turn of the century trees in Kathmandu in my lifetime. Once you cut a tree that old, it’s gone. But there was a more sinister side effect. In the springtime, I could see women desperately running water pumps for hours. When I asked them if the water was coming, they’d shake their heads: ‘Only a trickle.’ As the trees were destroyed, so was the water table which fell many feet below. I see women running up to the tankers that provide free water in a frenzy, and sometimes there is a fight as people jostle to fill their plastic canisters. I’m terrified my water pump is going to break and I won’t have water, just like the time after the earthquake when I had my period and diarrhoea and would wake up and hobble with a crutch to go to my parents’ bathroom—only to find my sister-in-law had latched the door on the other side. My father ignored my pleas. He thought that old and dilapidated pump, which no longer worked, was enough for my needs. As the water table had dried up, we’d run it for hours and not a drop of water would come up. Fortunately I had enough savings to buy a new pump, which cost eight hundred US dollars. For many in Kathmandu, this is a luxury beyond reach.
I meet my neighbor Poppy who tells me her neighbor, the judge’s wife, can’t stand the leaf fall from her tree. They threaten her because some leaves have drifted into their yard. ‘At one point, they came over and set fire to the tree,’ she told me, her eyes full of tears. ‘Who would do such a thing to a tree? They want everything neat and clean.’ In modern developed minds, the ability to cover every inch of ground with concrete is regarded as a sign of gentrification and upward mobility.
In a few years, perhaps a decade or so, we’ll no longer have water in Kathmandu. If the Maoist ideal is to surround and capture the city, they did this excellently by killing trees. The first thing an enemy does when attacking a fortressed space is to attack the water source. The dhungay dhara, or stone spouts built by ancient inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley are a closely guarded secret—only a select handful of tantrics know their sources. The reason for the secrecy was practical—if enemies attacked the city, the first thing they did was disable the water system, so it was imperative to keep its workings subterranean and hidden. In the early 21st century, Maoists attacked Kathmandu and its water sources with great success. Once you deprive the “feudals” of water, they can no longer live in the city. The feudals are flushed out from water starvation, while the Maoists party onwards with bottled water and alcohol. But the donors who love the romance of revolution, even though they personally would never want to live through one, have installed these regimes, and we must make the most of it. Anybody who opposes this way of being is feudal, anti-democratic. Home no longer feels like home, as the relentless march of the feudal, secular Democratic regime’s progress piles up, destroying historic neighborhoods and cultural artifacts, century old trees and water tables, street dogs and children.
And it is in these moments of despair, when I look at the grey sunset and wonder whether Kathmandu will be inhabitable in 10, 20, 30 years time, that I see the planet’s future. We are all captured in this planet with people like the Maoists, who put forward the ideal of modern progress as the only way forward.
The insect population has plunged 80 times in the past thirty years, and with it has gone all the birds that used to subsist on insects. ‘The insect apocalypse is here,’ the New York Times proclaimed on 27 November 2018, in an article with the same title.
One day I saw bugs had eaten my ferns, and posted a photo of it on Twitter: ‘Some naughty bug has munched through my million year old angiosperm.’ The post was partly in jest, but partly I was drawing attention to the millennia old continuum of life, which respected the rights of the bug to munch through this plant. That is how life has always continued, with one life form depending upon another. The bug would die, and its body would fertilize the earth on which the fern grew. That is always how it has been. Before the humans came along, and started to spray organophosphates that destroyed the insects’ neurological system. They started to paralyze the cockroaches, and with it, also the humans. The insidious diseases we cannot name or identify all go back to these poisons we think will kill pests but end up killing us as well, because we are tied by the indivisible thread of life. The cancers, the dementia, the Alzheimer’s, the Parkinson. The dreadful wasting diseases to which there is no cure. All of which afflict people in developed countries in such greater proportion than in developing countries far from these neurotoxins and endocrine disrupters. But now it is hard to find any pristine place on the planet. The farthest reaches of Greenland is filling up with plastic, even though the people living there are so few in number they could not have possibly tossed that many plastic objects in their ice-clear drinking water. It is all coming from elsewhere.
Robert MacFarlane, a British nature writer, wrote a book called “The Lost Words.” In it, he tries to reconjure back the words which described the natural world, now being lost to this hypercapitalist, technological era. Oxford’s Junior Dictionary decided to take out fifty nature words like acorn, buttercup and conker and replace it with tech words like analogue, broadband and cut and paste. Celebrity replaced magpie and newt. This is a reflection of how our world has evolved—one ruled by the four square borders of a computer screen, and not the sounds and sights of nature. MacFarlane, along with a group of other writers, wrote a letter of protest which became a rallying cry against this literary erasure. As writers, we must all try to find our own ways of protesting this slow erasure of the natural world from our own locations and vantage points.
People have named this age the anthropocene—the age where humans influence climate and environment to such an extent they end up becoming its defining, dominant force. We are the apex predator of our own species. But the coinage of the word eromocene, by philosopher and biologist EO Wilson, captures our future with more eerie specificity: a time and place where insects die off, taking with them birds, animals and the entire chain of living beings with them. The eromocene is the age of loneliness, where the sounds and sights of all living creatures are silenced by our ecocidal ethos. Like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which pushed the world to understand the consequences of DDT on living beings, activists, writers, Nobel Prize winners and children from all over are now pushing us to face the unavoidable consequences of the sum of all human actions—from fossil fuel to plastics, from pesticides to chemical fertilizers, from our coltan-containing computers to our cobalt and tungsten containing cell phones, all destroying and silencing the web of life.
When will we stop thinking homo sapiens and their ability to use their hands and brains is the supreme intelligence that exists on this planet, and start thinking about ethics and morality in our use of lethal human inventions, science and technology? When will the shift occur, when humans understand that they are not god’s gift to planet earth, but her worst enemy? Until then, we have to live in this apocalyptic space—our mother earth, our planet—where despite the degradations, there is nowhere else to go but back home.
As if to echo this loss of nature, I also had the half-remembered vision of the statue excavated from Handigaon’s Satya Narayan Mandir reoccur in my memories. What was that statue? Where did it go? How do the layers of histories get erased by the plundering hand of time?
Writer William Dalrymple, who has been researching the spread of Hinduism to South East Asia, recently wrote in a tweet: ‘In 802, two years after Charlemagne declared the birth of the Holy Roman Empire on Christmas day in St. Peters, on the remote hilltop of Phnom Kulen, the young Khmer Prince Jayavarman II was declared chakravartin of what would become the great Empire of Angkor.’
The name “Jayavarman” struck a chord. “Varman” sounds like the suffixes in the names of the kings of Kathmandu Valley of the pre-modern past. So I looked it up. And lo and behold, the article that surfaced said a statue had been dug up from Maligaon, a five minute walk from my house, in 1992, and a Brahmi script said it was of a King Jayavarman. Brahmi and Sanskrit scripts on the pedestal dates the statue to 185 AD, making it the earliest known historical epigraphic record of the Kathmandu Valley.
I looked at the photograph in the article—and realized I had found my lost statue. I recognized the way the clothing was wrapped around his body, the Grecian similarities to style. The lost statue was not of a Buddha but of a Shaivite king.
Dalrymple mentions that Jayavarman II of Cambodia was a passionate Shaivite. Could it be that the Jayavarman of my neighborhood and the Jayavarman of Angkor were related? Could the latter have descended from the former, 600 years later? Shiva continues to be worshipped in Nepal in all his forms, but his most loved incarnations is Pashupati, the peaceful, loving lord of the animals, and Bhairav, his angriest and most destructive form. As I walk down the narrow alleys of Handigaon, now so full of motorcars and motorcycles as to be almost unwalkable, it occurs to me that this neighborhood where I grew up in, which to most people is only perceived of as a poor, broken down neighborhood to be raced through impatiently, may have been the kingdom from where Shaivite Hinduism spread out throughout South-East Asia. Somewhere from the dusty cobwebs of time, a connection was made and came to life again, sparking a light on what was once lost and dead.
Perhaps in the same way the seeds of life of our mother earth can once again come to life, evoking secrets from the womb of the planet, weaving the threads of knowledge together, bringing together the pieces of what we once thought was shattered and broken. Perhaps the ecological wisdom of our ancestors, which saw divinity in mountains and rivers, rock and water, animate and inanimate forms, can once again spread throughout the lands, in all its glorious incarnations.
Antonini, Chiara Silvi, and Giovani Veradi. “Excavation in the Kathmandu Valley.” Ancient Nepal 89, 1985, pp. 17-36.
Carson, Rachel. Silent spring. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002.
Jarvis, Brooke. “The Insect Apocalypse is here.” The New York Times, November 27, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/27/magazine/insect-apocalypse.html
Kharel, Samir, “Locals plead for Handigaun preservation.” Kathmandu Post, April 6, 2013.
Mishra, Tara Nanda. “Dated figure of King Jayavarma, the tradition of figure making and the historical importance of this discovery.” Ancient Nepal 146, 2000, pp. 1-23. http://himalaya.socanth.cam.ac.uk/collections/journals/ancientnepal/pdf/ancient_nepal_146_01.pdf
Tiwari, Sudarshan Raj. The Brick and the Bull: An Account of Handigaun, the Ancient Capital of Nepal. Himal Books, 2002.
“‘Nowhere to go’ on the frontlines of climate change.” The New Humanitarian, December 13, 2018. https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news-feature/2018/12/13/nowhere-go-front-lines-climate-change
Dalrymple, William [@DalrympleWill] “In 802, two years after Charlemagne declared the birth of the Holy Roman Empire on Christmas day in St. Peters, on the remote hilltop of Phnom Kulen, the young Khmer Prince Jayavarman II was declared chakravartin of what would become the great Empire of Angkor.” Twitter, December 14, 2021. https://twitter.com/DalrympleWill/status/1470383978851057664