The city contested
In heart of the city of Budapest, a ten minute walk from the iconic basilica of King Saint Stephen of Hungary, near the Arany Janos metro station at Szabadsag square, lies a monument ostensibly commemorating the victims of the occupation of Hungary by Nazi Germany in 1944. The monument is aesthetically garish, depicting a Hungarian ‘angel’ under attack from a German eagle, its talons outstretched. It is located in between two streets, on the edge of a park that already commemorates the Soviets for their role in liberating Hungary in 1945 and a statute of US president Ronald Reagan for the American role in bringing the cold war to an end.
The memorial statute, erected by the conservative nationalist government of Viktor Orban in 2014, has come under much criticism since its unveiling. Critics claim that the statue is an attempt to rewrite history and portray Hungary as a victim when it was allied with Nazi Germany during the Second World War as an Axis power. They say the monument glosses over Hungary’s active role in the deportation of thousands of its Jewish population to Nazi concentration camps. The majority never returned.
However, ever since the day work began on the monument, a counter-monument has sprung up. Directly facing the garish angel, photographs and documents have been strung along a line, below which are stones with Hebrew writing and the artefacts of every life. This ‘living memorial’ is an attempt to challenge nationalist rewriting of history with the bare facts of lived experiences and memories passed down. The photographs are of Hungarian Jews that the then government deported willingly; the documents are copies of papers that these Jews were handed before being forced to leave; the stones are symbols of every person of Jewish heritage murdered.
These two conflicting monuments are part of an ongoing conversation in Budapest over the city’s, and the country, identity. After being freed from the yoke of the Habsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian empire, after shaking off Communism and since being branded as a post-socialist city, Budapest has had to navigate treacherous terrain, picking and choosing what constitute its identity in the present. Nationalist governments, like those of Orban and now increasingly across the globe, tend to look at the past with blinkers on. Either the past is a hypothetical ideal, a time when all was well, or it was a past of victimhood and martyrdom, a time that the present must now avenge.
Kathmandu was once the jewel of the Newars, that beautiful shining entrepot. When it fell into Gorkha hands, it became capital of a kingdom that spread far to the west and east but the Shah kings of yore were in thrall to Newar architecture, even while instituting linguistic and cultural hegemony. It was the Ranas who wreaked havoc, constructing garish monuments that protrude like hideous pimples. The Gaddi Baithak in Basantpur is but one example, so incongruous and so ugly. Since then, modern times have ravaged the Valley’s urban landscape, hollowing it out. Neoliberalism, crony capitalism and the land mafia have all run amok. Tall rectangular monstrosities with glass-fronted facades have risen where green spaces used to be. Office buildings and residential housing complexes are all gated with uniformed guards to keep the rabble out. There is no space to breathe free in Kathmandu. It was in the 90s: we woke to the harsh fluorescent light of modernity and discovered that Kathmandu had been parcelled and sold off, driven by neoliberalism and an unmitigated desire to ape the Indians in their ‘opening up’ of the economy.
We never got to contest Kathmandu, like those in Budapest currently do. There is no living memorial to a Kathmandu that is true. The earthquake destroyed the last vestiges of whatever identity Kathmandu had left and what comes next will be rebuilt by the lowest bidder. Only the Dharahara will rise again, reconstructed by a corporation, a giant middle-finger to the rest of the city.
In Lalitpur, gentrification has begun, in areas like Patan and Sanepa, driven by expatriates and wealthy hipsters. Newars have learned to capitalise on their identity and while Patan is still home to bhattis where a meal can still be had for Rs 100, it is also host to restaurants where a meal will cost you no less than Rs 1,000. Eventually, the proliferation of renovated Newari bed-and-breakfasts and high-end restaurants catering to the INGO salary may drive out locals and businesses that have existed for decades. But then again, Patan is fiercely protective of itself (maybe not so much as Bhaktapur but certainly more so than Kathmandu). There is still hope.
The renovation of old homes into cosy motels and bed-and-breakfasts have brought in fairly well-to-do visitors. The Patan Museum has hosted numerous events and exhibitions and Photo Kathmandu did its part in turning Patan into a veritable art gallery. Such spectacles have brought Patan to the world and the world to Patan. Even in presenting itself to the outside, Patan somehow managed to keep its deepest embers alive and burning. Patan has put up a fight; it is not going quiet into that dark night.
Most of us who grew up in Kathmandu have a conflicted relationship with the city. The city was our first love and it held our heart in the palm of its hands. And now, even though its ever-expanding CBD and its lust for shopfronts and commercial space squeezes that fragile heart till it bleeds, we hold on. But there can only be oh-so-many malls, each a bewildering facsimile of the other, with the same brands, the same stores and the same theatres.
Even now, as we watch, the roads get wider and the pavements get smaller. All the hills and green spaces have been sold off. There are no parks anymore and the air in Chabahil chokes you with two hands around your throat. We lost Kathmandu, before we even got to ask whose city it was.
[Published on The Kathmandu Post, 1 April 2017]