Back then, I was something else.
Once I was destiny, plotting out an infinity of paths in a labyrinth of time where each fork diverged into another fork and each crossroad only let to another crossroad. This was a labyrinth of choices, one taken and the others forgotten. I watched you choose one after another, lost in your own self, thinking each choice you made was yours to make alone. But there were others and they chose exactly as you did. Only you would never meet them. You would never even know they exist. And even if your paths did cross, each would go your separate ways, not knowing that the world you held was the world they held too.
Once I was dream, amorphous and everywhere. I was a child, wandering through a meadow, fascinated by the robin and the blue jay, enthralled by the red wingtips of a massive butterfly and scared of the tall, thick shadow cast by the oak. I was a woman, lying in bed and wishing desperately for it to stop, seizing a hard, metal ashtray from the bedside table and smashing it into a head, blood as thick as molasses and hot as the sun trickling onto my skin and marking me for life. I was an old man, walking through the streets of the city, bent over my gnarled wooden stick, a candy wrapper stuck to my shoe, a long forgotten tune on my lips, my eyes on the distant horizon and my long-gone wife in my heart. I was a butterfly, dreaming I was a man. Or was it the other way around?
Once I was death, answering questions I didn’t know the answers to. I stood by empty cots, mangled cars, fallen buildings and the back of buildings. I stood on towers and bridges. I hung from ceiling fans and the branches of old, old trees. I lay in wells, discarded and in ditches, forgotten. I walked on ocean floors and fell from burning airplanes. And all those times, you asked me, what happens next. As if I had the answer. I am merely a conduit, I wanted to say. I am that which separates the black from the grey and the grey from the white. I am the crack in between, the line over which you must cross. I am neither here nor there. But instead, I heard myself say, what comes next irrelevant. What came before is all that matters. No one gets anything special. You get what everyone gets. First you dream, then you die.
These days, I am no one new.
“For those who believe in God, most of the big questions are answered. But for those of us who can’t readily accept the God formula, the big answers don’t remain stone-written. We adjust to new conditions and discoveries. We are pliable. Love need not be a command or faith a dictum. I am my own God.
We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state and our educational system.
We are here to drink beer.
We are here to kill war.
We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.
We are here to read these words from all these wise men and women who will tell us that we are here for different reasons and the same reason.”
- Charles Bukowski
“No why. Just here.”
- John Cage
There are some who claim that all we are is the sum of our memories. For wordsmith Sarah Kay, this summation of life seems pretty apt. On the makeshift stage at Jatra in Thamel, Sarah, beautiful and effervescent, held the packed audience in a rapturous embrace. Her short informal introduction was a shoutout to Ujjwala Maharjan, resident Word Warrior, and a reminder of her upbringing in New York, which segued smoothly into a spoken word piece on all that growing up in a vibrant metropolis can teach you, and a few, important things, that it can’t. Her opening poem was nostalgic, littered with past recollections and a bildungsroman of sorts, presenting to the Nepali audience Sarah the New Yorker, Sarah the daughter, Sarah the sister and Sarah the poet.
From watching her perform at TED or the myriad videos on YouTube, there are a few things that a viewer can’t quite tell. First, that she’s tall. Then, that this 23-year-old commands the stage with effortless confidence, exuding charm and spirit. But what does come across through video and in person is that her poems are so much persona, bravado, experience and emotion. There are matters of little import to others and yet, the way she tells it, she could very well be narrating the end of the world.
Sarah didn’t recite nor did she narrate. She spoke and there were iambs and rhythm. She gestured and there was fluid grace. Jatra’s floors overflowed with bodies, packed in close and tight, the perfect setting for the current of awe that this poet from so-far-away sent rippling. Two of my friends, who’ve barely ever read any poetry, were mesmerised, and walking away, professed yearning desire, a kind of love that is not contingent upon appearance, knowledge, experience but afflicts at an exchange of glances, the sound of a voice, strong and precise, that comes floating across tousled heads and warm, woollen caps, and sends cochlea vibrating with excitement.
Standing in the doorway, nestled warm by the press of strange bodies and illuminated by a number of Iphones and Ipads busy recording the performance, I forgot to take pictures, forgot the people around me, forgot the bitter cold outside. Sarah sought attention, not actively but gently, as if cajoling the audience with her stories, her memories and the people who make up her life. She spoke lingering of a love long ago but never past, and love between a toothbrush and a bicycle tire that is really, probably, not about a toothbrush and a bicycle tire. She spoke and in speaking, gave advice. Her metaphors were insights, the melody her voice.
Walking away, there was something intangible in the air, as if struck with something too incomprehensible to behold. Maybe this is what poetry does. Walking away, men and women, girls and boys, I think we all fell in love with Sarah Kay.
(Originally published in the Kathmandu Post, 2 December 2012)
Dawn breaks in Kathmandu. Morning light as grey as steel spills quietly over the hills like thick paint from a bucket. At first it is stealthy, the light creeping up on you like an assassin in the night. There is a point where the darkness and the light meet, locked in a cosmic battle but each a complement to the other. The darkness seems to hesitate at first, as if unwilling to give up ground, but the light is insistent. While one retreats, the other advances. The light seeps in, through cracks, into crannies, around sky-high buildings and centuries-old temples, across beggars crouched in doorways and street-kids huddled under a cardboard box for warmth, over the Rani Pokhari, over the Durbar Square, over New Road and into the heart of Kathmandu, it pierces like an arrow.
This is a liminal time, neither day nor night. Dawn and dusk mark the edges of time, that grey area where an old day has not ended and a new one has not begun. This is time that is neither yesterday nor today, neither here nor. It can only exist for a fraction, for a fleeting moment when the cold has not dissipated and the warmth has not permeated. It is at this time, when most of the city is in bed, that Kathmandu seems most itself. But this lasts for only a moment and then, like magic, it is gone.
Then, the city stirs awake. A resounding gong from a temple bell resonates throughout the city, bouncing off of walls and hills. Roosters crow, each roused by the last and eager to join in on the chorus. Newspaper boys pedal furiously under the cover of the fast disappearing darkness, aiming papers at doorstops and over gates with the precision of a marksman. They share the streets with milkmen, trucks more often but sometimes a lone man, also on his bicycle, two jars of milk balanced perfectly on either side of his rear wheel. Weary policemen at Maharajgunj yawn at their checkposts, an eye open and ear cocked for their long-awaited relief. A transvestite prostitute limps home on high heels from outside a guesthouse at Sundhara. An old man, almost bent double, a gnarled walking stick in his left hand, shuffles along Jamal in a waist-coat, daura-suruwal and a Bhadgaunle topi. Dogs that roamed the night streets like militia men now shrink under doorways and into corners, as if afraid of the brightness. Rats and cockroaches scurry into drains and birds awaken in their nests and roosts, the pigeons cooing rhythmically, crows cawing intermittently and sparrows chirping erratically. Slowly, the city rouses itself out of one era and steps gingerly into another.
Kathmandu is time out of joint, a haphazard, confusing, eclectic mix of centuries, all the way from the 17th to the 21st. Wood and stone temples jostle for space with concrete and glass monoliths. Women in red chaubandi cholos share the streets with socialites in Ray Ban sunglasses and Louis Vuitton bags. While rich young kids sip Illy coffee from ornate mugs in cafes straight out of American sit-coms, Madhesi vegetable hawkers wheel rickety Avon bikes laden with produce in large bamboo baskets. This is a city of contrasts, of breathtaking beauty and eyesore ugliness. And as the morning breaks, as buildings and hills come into view, as breathless panoramas are revealed as the Chandrama recedes and the Surya advances, as eyes open and pupils dilate, the body responds, sluggishly at first but then more urgently: awake, it says, it is day and everything must pick up where it left off.
(The Kathmandu Post, September 8 2012)
Only the ten foot tall Kal Bhairav remains standing as stoic as it ever was, plastered in bright vermillion that could easily be the blood of a thousand sacrificed to this hungry god. The Kal Bhairav relief is the only structure that is consistently worshipped and prayed to. Devotees throng the menacing statue and tourists are often awe-struck by the god’s monstrous visage. The Kal Bhairav is befitting his name: an incarnation of death that is not the sinewy skeleton of the grim reaper nor the shadowy apparition of a spectre, he is fear and wrath incarnate, death at its most primal, a breaking away of form and matter, free reign to all passions, no longer boxed by the lie that is maya. No wonder so many come to pray to him. With his weapon held aloft, his eyes blazing like a thousand suns, Kal Bhairav stares down at all us puny humans, kneeling at his feet, supplicating ourselves so that he will stay away just a little longer, so that the shadow of his mighty form not fall upon us that night as we lay afraid and quaking in our beds, praying, praying for death to take the other door.
The Kathmandu Durbar Square seems to serve as a synecdoche for the city of Kathmandu, a contrasting symbol. Modern and ancient all at once, concrete jostling for space with brick and centuries old wood. A living goddess sharing space with us humble humans. Shiva Parvati looking out from their dabali window as young lovers walk hand in hand below their watchful gaze.
During day time, the square is full of people, alive and vibrant, a cacophony of sound. At night, there is only an owl’s baleful gaze, the streets yellow under the jaundiced glow of the streetlamps and the temples ominous and forbidding in the dark, Kal Bhairav looming like a mountain, seemingly grown taller in the gloom. It is only at night that you feel it, the steady throbbing of the city as it sleeps, its hearbeat, its breathing. And from Kathmandu Durbar Square, the heart of the city, you breathe in as the city breathes out; you begin where the city ends, or is it the other way around?