The taxi drops me off at the junction of the Rajpath, the King's Road, and the narrow lane that burrows its way into the heart of old Kathmandu. Little has changed in forty years. The bicycle rental shop is still there on the corner, but the bicycles have given way to scooters. I enter the bazaar exercising just enough force to propel myself slowly through the throng along the narrow artery that will eventually discharge me into Durbar Square. Glazed eyes set in the raw head of a goat stare at me from a butcher’s display slab. The butcher chops at a leg with his khukuri,
the all-purpose Nepalese knife, and a fearsome weapon in battle. Next door, a small girl in a tattered off-white dress sleeps on a wooden platform in her father’s drapery stall. Bundles of cotton and silk cloth, their primary colours illuminating the shadows of the alleyway, lie stacked on the shelves around her. A cow saunters slowly towards me and I ease myself into the entrance of a barber’s kiosk to let it pass. It turns its great head to the vegetable stall opposite and casually takes a generous mouthful of spinach from the meagre pile on display. The shopkeeper strikes out at the animal with a stick kept for such occasions and angrily berates it. The cow turns its head from the blows and moves off chomping methodically like an uncouth tourist chewing a wad of gum. The barber, whose shop I have taken refuge in, taps me on the shoulder and waves his cut-throat razor. I decline the offer with a shake of the head and a smile and move on towards my destination. It’s all so familiar as though the sun has burned away the years like the winter mist that drapes itself over the valley each winter morning.
The alley opens up into an ancient square of temples and palaces. This is Durbar Square, the heart of old Kathmandu. Black Bhairab, a fearsome, destructive, manifestation of the great Hindu god Shiva, with staring eyes, and necklace of skulls, stares bloodthirstily at me, as he used to do more than forty years ago. At an upper window of a pagoda temple, ashen white Shiva and his consort, Parvati, the divine lovers, still lean out and gaze at the crowds below, like a honeymoon couple taking a rest after their amatory labours. Down the struts supporting the overhanging pagoda roofs are carvings of exotic and improbable couplings. I pass the miniature temple dedicated to the elephant god, Ganesh, son of Shiva. It remains unchanged, but is now dwarfed by the modern concrete structures that have replaced so much of the time-mellowed red-brick dwellings of old Kathmandu. The faithful still do their clock-wise tour around the temple, clanging the bells as they go, and tend the butter lamps. This is where Sunita and Frank often parted after their encounters, she homewards and Frank... anywhere his fancy took him.
I turn a corner, searching now for the entrance. Which gate is it? Now my memory is failing me. I tentatively enter one, but there is nothing familiar here. Another gate looks more promising. Through it I can see an old palace with a familiar profile, looking the worse for wear. I enter the courtyard and a young woman approaches and asks me what I want. I tell her, and then, before she can stop me, continue round the side of the building looking for the garden. The woman follows me not knowing what to do about this elderly foreigner with a proprietorial air.
The garden has shrunk, but half of it remains unbuilt on. The entrance to the ground-floor flat is reached up a short flight of stairs and then left along a veranda. Passing the window that Frank had to remember to screen when Sunita was visiting, I push the door open and peer in. His bed-sitter is now a store-room. I suppose someone had decided that it was too damp and unhealthy to continue to serve as accommodation. The great double bed, that played such an important role, is gone. The plaster on the wall where the big topographical map of Nepal was displayed is mildewed and crumbling. I can see rat droppings all over the large sheets protecting the items beneath. No doubt the rats, who are the permanent tenants of the palace, continue to find their way between the gaps between the ceiling joists and the wall. There's no-one there now to hinder their unwelcome intrusions by stuffing newspaper into the gaps. It's a depressing sight, and I turn back and descend the veranda steps into the garden. My escort has grown bored and, seeing me retreat from the building, slips away leaving me to my own company.
I sit on the decrepit garden bench, and closing my eyes, turn my face to that silent witness of times past, present and to be, the reincarnating sun.
Tot: 2.703s; Tpl: 0.05s; cc: 8; qc: 53; dbt: 0.0545s; 2; m:saturn w:www (18.104.22.168); sld: 5;
; mem: 1.4mb