I left Brussels on a cheap Slovak bus, a 15-hour journey to Vienna. I had arrived in September to my first European city and in the five or so months that I was there, I experienced the travails of living in the heart of Europe. Brussels was a contradiction, a meticulously bureaucratic city that was split along linguistic lines, along ethnic lines, and along administrative lines. In one small city that could be crossed in a day, there existed numerous fault lines, each uncrossable by the mandarins who ran their separate kingdoms. Brussels was an enigma, a diverse city that had suffered much from the opening of its arms and yet, refused to be cowed into the reactive paranoia and suspicion, so unlike the United States. It was a city that loved to live, relishing its heavenly deep fried frites that the rest of the world maligned with the sobriquet of French. And its beers, oh its otherworldly beers. [I have dedicated an entire column to the Belgian beer so I will refrain from singing its praises yet again.] But Brussels passed pleasantly, as if floating languidly down a slow-moving river.
The 15-hour ride on a grossly uncomfortable bus was eventful, to say the least. The woman in her sixties sitting next to me was Austro-Hungarian, like the empire, and she attempted to strike up a conversation in halting English. As a hubbub began from the Eastern Europeans at the back of the bus, she leaned towards me and said confidentially, I understand everything. I nodded back, not quite comprehending. She explained that she could understand their language and leaning even further in, with a hand around her mouth, she whispered, ‘Gypsies.’
Later, as I attempted to sleep, a baby in the front of the bus awoke screaming. I was mildly annoyed but over the years, I have gotten accustomed to the hazards of travelling. I smiled wanly at the woman next to me and pointed to the baby. She smiled back but went further. The baby was ‘mixed,’ she said. ‘The mother is there but the father, question mark?’ She smiled evilly and I did not know how to respond. Much later in the bus ride, she would speak at length about how ‘mixing’ was not a good idea because cultures were just too different. Perhaps she was attempting to communicate something to me. Perhaps she just needed an outlet for her subtle racism. I smiled awkwardly and made no more effort at conversation. She persisted but not always with prejudice. I had a cold and she offered me tissues. She told me of her son who had just passed his Masters in London. She told me how she lived by herself and is often alone but sometimes goes out to drink beers with her neighbour. I listened politely, not contributing much in return. I did not know what to make of her casual bigotry.
Partway through the trip, somewhere near Frankfurt, we were stopped by the German police who proceed to select a number of us at random for a full body and luggage search. I was surprised when they did not select me at first, given my brown skin and my full beard. When a young policeman tells me step out, please, I was finally relieved. Bodies and bags were checked. The policemen were polite. One came up to us and remarked in English, ‘So he is the one from Nepal.’ I acknowledged my country of origin and the policeman checking my luggage said apologetically that it was not every day that they see someone from Nepal. After two hours, when the checking was over, they handed back our identity cards. The policeman did not call out my name like he did for the others, simply yelling ‘Nepal’ with a goofy grin. I did not mind. Better this than a host of others.
At the end of that 15-hour journey, I arrived in Vienna, my home for the next five or so months. It is a grand old city, majestic and awesome, built on the spoils of empire. Every street is lined with massive buildings that dwarf your human frame. There are gilded eaves and intricate ornamentation. This city does not seem to have been built for its citizens; it is a city that was built to project power. Compared to this, Brussels seems unabashedly provincial, like a runt from the village pretending at being a city boy. Vienna is imposing. But it is also the one of the most livable cities in the world. It has cast aside its imperial pretentions and has embraced a socialist bent. It is now known the world over for its social housing.
In the days since, I have been walking Vienna’s many strassen and gassen. Just like every city has its own smell, its own taste and its own ambience, each city has its own rhythm, a tempo that can range anywhere from the languid to the frenetic. This tempo is purely experiential; it cannot be described, it must be lived. Kathmandu is frantic, New York is feverish but Pokhara is leisurely, Brussels is deliberate. I have yet to make up my mind about Vienna. I have been trying to lodge myself into its rhythmic flow, trying to fall in step beside two young Viennese going to university or a young girl walking an impossibly beautiful Golden Retriever or an older construction worker smoking on the job. At the Der Wiener Deewan, I eat Pakistani food to bursting while rubbing elbows with a crowd. This pay-as-you-wish restaurant serves Pakistani food that is bland but comforting. I eat Krapfen and schnitzel and kasekrainer. I ride the U-Bahn. I walk the Gurtel. A new city is like a new lover. She reveals herself to you slowly, at first in the dark, when the lights are out.
With the winter retreating, spring will arrive soon. The trees and flowers in the Prater and the Augarten will begin to bloom. With the air warmer, I sat by an open window in my apartment in the ninth district and I listened to the Blue Danube and Mozart’s Requiem. It seemed fitting to inveigle Vienna with two of her most favoured sons. It is only a matter of time.
[Published on The Kathmandu, March 4 2017]
The city is a wholly human-made creation, the most brilliant and most sustained attempt at refashioning the world. In creating the city, humankind provided a proximate space where all social, cultural, economic, religious, technological and aesthetic values would play out. Since the very first city in history, the polis has been an intricate organisation of space, often overlapping, often exclusionary. Tied thus to the idea of the city is the idea of the citizen. In Greek, the polis is the city but it is also citizenship—there cannot be a city without citizens.
Neither citizens nor cities are homogenous. Cities, like citizens, are composed of multitudes. Each city is a microcosm of the grand differences that make up humankind. These differences are amplified in cities from the Global South, especially in underdeveloped countries like Nepal. Cities like Kathmandu are host to the richest men and poorest women. Mega corporate towers and gated residential communities stand cheek-to-jowl with the shabbiest of squatter settlements. You only have to stand on the southern bank of the Bagmati and look northwards. A cursory look at Kathmandu may end up concluding that gross inequality is its most explicit characteristic.
Cities have changed their character or perhaps their latent inconsistencies have now been brought to the fore, plain for all to see. Prodded by neoliberal capital, cities have turned into sites of consumption, catering to those with the greatest purchasing power. Cities are not public spaces of diverse interaction anymore; they have become regimental and compartmentalised. There are more and more places where the poor cannot enter and more and more places where the rich will not enter. There is no clash of class, no encounter where one sees the other and is forced to acknowledge each others’ inherent humanity. Instead, gazes are avoided, walls are built up and windows are tinted. Out of sight, out of mind.
The question, then, is: who is the city for?
Kathmandu has recently been blanketed in dust. It is now among the most polluted cities in the world. For those who cannot afford the comfort of an air conditioned car, travel is a nightmare. Whether on foot, bicycles or motorbikes, a sojourn in the city brings one home covered in a fine film of dust that flakes off with each rub and tug to form a hazy cloud. When the inevitable sickness descends, those who can afford it trudge to the hospitals and those who can’t have one more condition to live with.
Kathmandu is inhospitable to those at the bottom. It is fast becoming a city where a healthy existence is impossible for those without the means. The rich can always move farther and farther away, to the outskirts and to hills in an endless suburbanisation. The poor will have to stick it out in the city centre, huddled together in deplorable conditions. Just take Kathmandu’s roads, which are always in a constant state of being expanded. The major thoroughfares and the Ring Road are all wide lanes now. And yet, there are no proper footpaths, no properly marked, sheltered and lit bus stops, no attempt even to reign in the lawlessness of Kathmandu’s thousand microbuses. So who exactly are these roads for?
Marcello Balbo, who teaches urban studies at the University Institute of Architecture in Venice, writes that the city “is splitting into different separated parts, with the apparent formation of many ‘microstates’. Wealthy neighbourhoods provided with all kinds of services, such as exclusive schools, golf courses, tennis courts and private police patrolling the area around the clock intertwine with illegal settlements where water is available only at public fountains, no sanitation system exists, electricity is pirated by a privileged few, the roads become mud streams whenever it rains, and where house-sharing is the norm. Each fragment appears to live and function autonomously, sticking firmly to what it has been able to grab in the daily fight for survival.” Sound familiar at all?
The argument is that the city has become a repository for the needs and demands of the powerful. The right to shape the city is reserved for a few; everyone else gets little say. In recent times, take the road expansion, the aftermath of the earthquake, the planned demolition of Singha Durbar, the rampant breaking of the city roads to install pipes, all that dust in the air. The city has been co-opted; it has become the preserve of a few.
In order to counter this state of affairs, it is necessary to resurrect an old philosophical concept and apply it to how we see Kathmandu the city. In the late 60s, the French Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre proposed ‘the right to the city’ in his book Le Droit a la Ville as a radical demand to the production, access and use of social space. The Marxist geographer David Harvey puts Lefebvre’s conception of the right to the city as thus, “The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanisation.”
There is therefore a need to reshape the way we see our city. Kathmandu is not just a canvas to be drawn on and it is not just the planners, bureaucrats, politicians, businessmen and the wealthy who get to do the drawing. A city that is resilient, brilliant and sees all as equals reflects the values its citizens cherish. A city that privileges cars over public transport does not have everyone at heart. A city where one cannot walk for fear of respiratory illness is the worst kind of city—a city where one cannot breathe, a stifling city, a city of smoke, a choking city.
The right to the city is inalienable and it is collective. It is ours, as residents of this char-bhanjyang khaalto. But more than that, it is a recognition that in making the city, we make ourselves. As the city, so its citizens.
[Published on The Kathmandu Post, February 4, 2017]
Fantastic review. Thank you so much!
I wanted to read Pranaya Rana’s City of Dreams since it was published. So, when Balu sent a copy of it as a gift from Nepal to Pravat and Pratima, I took the opportunity to read it quickly before passing it onto its rightful owners. And, here are some thoughts on it:
All works of fiction have descriptions of things and narratives of events, but City of Dreams not only has ‘stories’ to tell but also ‘art’ in it. The finely woven surreal tales told in flowing prose full of intricate details tread along that thin grey line of human existence that divides the beautiful from the ugly, bravery from cowardice, good from bad, and salvation from doom. It is not that these stories cannot be narrowed down to an issue or theme: for instance, “Dashain” is a coming of age story, “Knife in Water” is about marital violence, “Maya”…
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This past year was great for Nepali music, both in terms of the number of quality songs/albums released and the many creative accompanying music videos that were released. What follows is a short list of the singles that I’ve enjoyed over the year, songs I’ve listened to countless times for various reasons, none the same. It is by no means an exhaustive list of the ‘best tracks’. I am no musician, just some guy who likes to listen. I have my biases, given how many of these musicians I know personally, so these are my favorite tracks, in no particular order.
What can be said of this song that it doesn’t say on its own. This is a track I listened to a lot, often while in a kuna of a sajha bus, staring aimlessly at the world passing by. The guitars and driving drums take a backseat to Bartika Rai’s soaring vocals, sung with abandon. Its a finely crafted song, the parts all strung together to showcase one thing – Bartika’s songcraft. In the melody, she is unexpected, enjambments abound and her vocals lift and fall when you least expect them to, all pleasant surprises. In the accompanying video by Sworup Ranjit, Bartika sits off-center, facing off to the left, glancing occasionally at the camera. During the final act, when she swivels and faces the camera directly to repeat the first stanza, it is striking. You are caught in her gaze, as she sings directly at you. Not to you, for this is not a paean, it is an entreaty – save yourself while you still can.
Kapase Badal builds slowly, layering sound over sound, melody over melody, its steady rhythm hypnotic, the clap-beat almost like a metronome. It begins to crescendo and just when it seems to crest, it pulls back, like a breath inhaled. All the while accompanied by the most beautifully natural of melodies, a bird song. When the other instruments take their exit, when Ashesh Rai’s delicate vocals depart, all that is left is the bird song, echoing against the lingering aural screen of raindrops. Kapase Badal, like its name, is the stuff of clouds, a soft, soothing, song best listened to on headphones while watching the world go by.
Jerusha Rai’s voice is a breezy whisper. What she sings is confidential, spoken into your ear, dark things, secret things. This song juxtaposes Jerusha’s breathy vocals with a jarring ‘say, say’ refrain that almost ruins it. But on repeated listens, the chorus belies the darkness in the song. Taken from the album ‘A Dark Place to Think’, Sirens is brooding and introspective. Jerusha is more poet than singer, more whisperer than crooner. Sirens reminds of the times you lay in your bed in the black, staring up at nothing, willing a sleep that never seems to come, only dank thoughts that arrive like pacing cats mewling on a nighttime fence.
I’d first come across a woefully short ditty by Pahenlo Batti Muni on Soundcloud that was sweet and beautiful, a pleasant earworm that warranted constant replay. Their first single is in the same vein, simple in its instrumentation and arrangement, soulful in its vocals. Rochak Dahal’s voice is angelic, as if he is once again singing a lullaby. It cajoles and draws you in, all warm and inviting. It is not one-of-a-kind but it is a good thing and contrary to folk wisdom, you can never have too much of a good thing.
I have written about Rajan Shrestha’s (phatcowlee) Achal before: “a song of stillness, a perfect amalgam of form and content. Minimal and moody, it does not rise and fall, it does not soar and dip. It does not stir. It is still. And in that stillness, there is a profundity unbecoming of something so simple… Rajan’s stillness is generative; it produces quiet in the mind. It coaxes you to close your eyes and surrender yourself, like the best kind of meditation.” All of this remains true. As the days get shorter and colder, the stillness of Achal becomes a necessity, one essential piece of a winter puzzle that includes warmth, love and idleness. With the body still, let the mind wander.
There is something otherworldly about Shreeti’s voice. It seems to take wing effortlessly, rising above the noise like a siren, and then, lilting, folding into itself, like a wave. It is a real singer’s voice. Baaja’s instrumentation is a perfect foil to Shreeti’s voice, as I discovered to my pleasant surprise in a song tucked away on Youtube, a set from her composition for Dhon Cholecha. That short tune is magical, her voice echoing in the empty chambers of the hall they’re performing in. That aside, Gondhuli is a gem of a track, each part complementing the other. Released as part of a Yomari Session (a Nepali version of the Take Away Shows by Katha Haru), this track showcases just how comfortably two very talented sets can intersect.
From that rolling bass to those teasing guitars, Anautho Mann is a good time. Playful and energetic, its a track that makes you want to sing along with its catchy-as-hell refrain. The song recalls many others, as influences and inspirations, but that only seems to add to its infectious groove. Propelled by Brihat Pahari’s vocal urgency and Nishan Siddhi’s guitar energy, Anautho Mann is a track that keeps you afloat and at ease. (Salil Thakuri is sorely missed!)
Ankit Adhikari and Prabisha Adhikari rework Coke Studio’s reworking of the Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan track. Coke Studio’s reinterpretation, with Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Momina Mustehsan, is arresting. Rahat, after all, is the heir to uncle Nusrat’s legacy. In Ankit and Prabisha’s cover, there are hints of the originals, both the Nusrat and Rahat versions. You keep expecting one of the singers to burst into a qawwali but the track refrains. In not rising to meet expectations, the cover keeps itself original.
This track is not from this year. In fact, it was released in 2014 but I’m including it here since the video for Reflection was released earlier this year. Haami is a band from the UK and boy are they fun to listen to. I have been listening to their EP regularly for the past year and it has yet to grow old. Although Reflection is not my favorite track off the EP (that would be Stars), it is an apt introduction. There are echoes of the band Toe in their music but that is a compliment. For someone who finds most post and prog rock boring and repititive, Haami’s songs are a deviation. There are flourishes – a slight tweaking of the guitar, a shift in pace, a vocal introduction, an unexpectedly sweet melody – that keep the songs from becoming boring. I imagine they sound great live.
This isn’t a great song. Kamero were fairly entertaining as a Tool cover band but their original leaves a lot to be desired. The lyrics are a hodge-podge of various metal cliches and the derivative composition just recalls other, better bands. The less said about the song and album titles, the better. What this song and its accompanying video do effectively is create a mood, deeply unsettling and bizarre, reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails project. While there is little sense to be made of the video, it is a bewitching visual spectacle realized very effectively by Jazz Productions. This track is best listened to with the video, each making the other half better.
Quiet is the Belgian night. There are no orchestral dogs here, no lone car horn echoing distant. No cry of laughter, anger or pleasure punctuates the night. Where I live, temporary and fleeting, the night is alien.
I take walks sometimes, aimless and wandering, no particular destination or direction in mind. And since there are no alleyways to explore, I trawl the boulevards and the side-streets like a vagabond with nowhere particular to be and no one waiting with the light on. I would call it a respite, if it were not so that everyday life here is not everyday life in Kathmandu. Sometimes, the pell-mell helter-skelter of Kathmandu is missed, sorely. The affect of it all, being buffeted from side-to-side, like a lone buoy in an endless raging ocean. They were times when I was reminded, every second of every day, what it felt like to be a living breathing body. Here, even the days are softer, passing easy like clouds. Now you are today, now you are tomorrow, now you are yesterday.
My European friends marvel at the ‘chaos’ of Brussels. They do not know true disorder; pandemonium of the highest order can only be found on South Asian streets.
It was maybe three weeks ago that I encountered an unexpected island of disarray amidst this sea of placidity. I walked into a convenience store, the kind they call ‘night shops here, and I met a Nepali woman. I was looking for someone to interview for my urban geography course and she was more than willing to speak to a fellow Nepali. At first, she was hesitant, giving me a false name when I asked for one. Once she got comfortable, there was no awkwardness. She apologized for the false name, explaining that she didn’t have papers and was there because of her husband. She was voluble and ebullient, telling me how she had studied sociology back in Nepal and hence, knew what field work was all about. She offered her services, claiming she knew everyone from unemployed layabouts to 9-to-5 suited businessmen who frequented her store.
She made me coffee and I sat by the counter speaking to her as she dealt with customers in fluent French. She had never taken any courses, she told me, learning French simply by osmosis. She had arrived in Belgium two years ago and had immediately started working in the store, which was owned and operated by her husband. She had arrived her from Italy, where she had been for another two years. She spoke fluent Italian and fluent French. I was impressed. Italy is beautiful, she said, not like Brussels. But Denmark is even more beautiful, especially in the summer. And Germany. She had been around and she knew what she liked.
She looked to be in her late 30s, short and squat. She asked me to guess her ethnicity and I chose Magar or Gurung. She laughed. She was neither. The neighbourhood folk thought she was Thai and I could see the resemblance. But she was a Newar from Dhading.
As we spoke, a man came in, bearing a box of ice-cream. They conversed in rapid French and after he had left, she confided to me that he was a thief. He tried to sell her the box of ice-cream, which he had most probably stolen from somewhere. This was a regular occurrence, she explained. The neighbourhood where we were, Anderlecht Centre Wayez, wasn’t the best. It was a diverse place, filled with Moroccans, Turks, Armenians, Syrians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. Up until a year ago, the subway station in front of her store attracted the worst of the lot – unemployed hooligans who simply smoked pot and hung out on the streets, she said. The police had done a good job of cleaning the place up, but there were still ‘thieves’ around. I asked her to describe the neighbourhood to me and she gave me one word, ‘danger’. She brought me around to behind the counter and displayed a long, solid piece of wood. I use this to beat back the thieves when they get aggressive, she explained proudly.
She gave me coffee and biscuits. She invited me over for Bhai Tika. She also tsk-tsked at my physique and what I was wearing. She had some leftover dal-bhat in case I hadn’t eaten. It was instinctive, how quickly she became motherly. I asked her if she had any children and she replied in the negative. I didn’t push her.
We exchanged numbers and I took my leave, a half-eaten pack of biscuits in my hand. She had pressed me to take some more but I had refused, feeling self-conscious. Here was a woman of flux, moving from Nepal to Italy to Belgium, operating a night store in a shady part of the city, beating back would-be thieves with a piece of wood. She was welcome. The whole incident was welcome. I felt at home.
End of detour
Back in my no-nonsense part of town, where the residents are all white and the cars don’t honk at each other even when they narrowly avoid a collision, I listened to a piece of music that seemed to encapsulate everything I was feeling. Rajan Shrestha, friend and artist extraordinaire, has a song called Achal (under the moniker phatcowlee) and it is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have heard in recent times. It is a song of stillness, a perfect amalgam of form and content. Minimal and moody, it does not rise and fall, it does not soar and dip. It does not stir. It is still. And in that stillness, there is a profundity unbecoming of something so simple.
I miss Kathmandu’s bedlam but there is something to be said of stillness. The quiet of nights in Brussels lays like a shroud over a corpse. It is an unfeeling kind of quiet, a calm that does not breed, does not propagate. Rajan’s stillness is generative, it produces quiet in the mind. It coaxes you to close your eyes and surrender yourself, like the best kind of meditation.
So I lay, on the top floor of a nondescript house in Brussels, under a sloping roof, eyes to the dark and ears to the stillness. This is still. Quite quiet still.
[Listen to Rajan’s Achal here: https://soundcloud.com/phatcowlee/achal]
1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; 6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror, darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.
13 And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.