Archive for the ‘the east and the west’ Category
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]
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]
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]
[Image: Molenbeek, the most notorious of Brussels’ 19 municipalities]
In line for customs at the Brussels Airport, my passport in hand, I wait anxious. As a brown man with a beard, I expect scrutiny and a barrage of questions. Never mind that I am not from a ‘sensitive’ country or that my religion is not that which evokes fear. But I know the ease with which perceptions take hold. I am dressed in a semi-formal blazer and cotton pants, large glasses and have trimmed my beard down to a stub. I have come prepared.
My turn arrives and I hand over my passport. The man behind the glass asks me if this is my first time in Belgium. I nod. He asks me if I’m a student. I nod again. He asks why I chose Belgium. I reply that the programme I am enrolled in is a fine one. He stamps the passport and hands it back, motioning me to leave. I am relieved and just a bit surprised that things went so easy.
Over the course of a week in Brussels, I discover that Belgians do not cower. After the terrorist attacks at the Brussels Airport and at a metro station in March, I had expected heightened security, armed guards patrolling the streets, a more visible ramp up in the security theatre. I spy heavily armed armymen in twos walking around the city centre and outside the Central Station, but they are less intimidating than I had imagined. As I watch, a presumably homeless man walks up to them and asks them for a smoke, gesturing wildly and laughing maniacally. The two armymen, massive rifles slung across their chests, only smile back and do their best to pretend not to see. I try to imagine just how this incident would’ve played out in the United States, or even in Nepal.
At the European Quarter, headquarters of the European Capital, anyone can simply walk into the courtyard of the European Parliament building, a couple hundred metres from where the head of the European government has his office. There are no security checks, no patrolling guards, no tanks and no heavy machinery. There is greater security outside Singha Durbar, I think.
But besides a few more guards, there is very little that would impress on a visitor that Belgium had just suffered its worst terrorist attack in history just half a year ago. Outside the Maalbeek station, the station bombed in March, there is light art on the walls that spell out in large white letters: ‘REMEMBER’. Right opposite it, on the walls of the station, the corollary: “FORGET.” It is as if to say, remember what happened but do not let it define you.
Brussels is a conundrum. It is as if it is always being pulled in different directions. Often literally. Belgium is nation with dual identities – the French and the Dutch. Half the country speaks French and the other half speaks Flemish. This divide is everywhere, from the top levels of government down to the communes and neighbourhood enclaves. As a capital, Brussels is spared the language divide somewhat, but even the universities that I attend – the VUB and the ULB – were once the same school; now they are divided along language and culture lines. It is not utopian. There are lessons here for Nepal but I am yet in the process of figuring out what they may be.
In Brussels, diversity is not overwhelming, like in New York. It is a quiet kind of difference, one that takes some searching to find. The neighbourhood of Matonge is one of my favourite areas, an African node that attracts people from across Europe and from Africa. It is not simply a black African neighbourhood in Brussels; it is a meeting point that stretches from the Congo all the way across Belgium, France and England. In Matonge, the air smells different, flavoured with African spices and exotic meats. It is noisier, with music shops blaring raucously rhythmic African music. It is also much more colourful, yellow, reds and greens abound on women’s dresses and men’s shirts. It is a welcome enclave in a commune that feels too clean, too sterile, too white.
I have now been in Brussels for a little over a week, during which time I have walked much and I have walked long. This is a city where walking is not a chore. I have rediscovered the inherent pleasure of stepping out of your door with no destination in mind and simply allowing yourself to be carried by the eddies of whim. It is possible here to be a true flaneur, simply observing, not taking part. Last week, when I visited the Ixelles commune town hall to register myself as a resident, an argument broke out between a white woman and a black man, both of them yelling at each other in increasingly louder French. Although they were arguing in public, I felt as if I was privy to something secretive. Perhaps it was that I couldn’t understand their words, and so, felt like a voyeur, peeping into a situation where I had no referent.
Exploring a new place, I feel like a cartographer, treading unchartered territory and drawing my own mental maps. I am starting once again to enjoy getting lost, the simple joy of the aimless wander. Walking is therapeutic for homesickness. It is easier to not long for the wonted while engaged in making a new place more familiar. To most, a new home is not easy to make but for the rootless, home is nowhere. But it can be everywhere.
[Published in The Kathmandu Post, October 1, 2016]