When does a place become a home?
How long does one have to live there?
Amir has lived in Kathmandu for 50 years and still when he talks about the valley, it has a strange tint to it. He talks about this city like he is talking about those rare cheesecakes from high-end confectioneries in Durbar Marg he liked to splurge on every time he managed to earn around Rs. 5000 a night.
Amir talks about his cab more fondly. He talks about his white beaten-down Maruti 800 like he talks about the blanket that his mother stitched when his father had first dragged him to Kathmandu, many decades ago. Amir's father had returned empty-handed from India then; losing all the money in a few months. But the old man hadn't lost hope so had anyone in Amir's family.
The winter in Phulgaum, Janakpur was cold but his mother had heard stories about the chilly hills. She warned him about the harshness of the hills and how people froze mid-snore in their sleep. He still remembers his heartbeat while listening to her tales and how they had cried as if they would never meet again. He was 11 when he first came to Kathmandu. Hills lined the sky of the valley so clearly then that Amir felt a little dizzy. He could see the top of the mountain above the hills which seemed so close that he tried to reach for it. The tallest thing in his village had been the two-storey Durga Mandir that he used to visit every day with his mother.
That was almost 50 years ago. In the next 15 minutes, Amir would turn 61. There was going to be no celebration except for the single cigarette in the glove compartment of his old beaten-up Maruti 800 and hopes of picking up decent customers. The cigarette was going to be his first in a year- an easy-on-the-pocket ritual cum celebration. The cumulus of the smoke was the only cloud and the bright sun at the end of the cigarette was the only star he could see that night. Kathmandu had managed to pollute even the lights. But he didn’t care much for it.
Tonight, at least, he had nothing to complain about. Tonight he was grateful with a tint of remorse only for the inevitable: ageing. His family was healthy and happy. Fifty years of saving every single paisa he could and he finally had a solid roof of his own in the capital city. His parents were well taken care of. And yet he was back to working nights. The day shift was enough to keep the family expenses afloat but these night shifts brought a certain peace. It brought a smile to his face, one that only once in a while cheesecakes and cigarettes could bring.
He felt a little light-headed from the nicotine rush. He had been smoking one cigarette a year for two decades now and every year on this day, the buzz hit him almost exactly like the time he had smoked his first cigarette. Amir drove past the haunted temples of Ason filled with Gods that should have been strangers to him. He smirked and nodded at those painted statues as if they were old friends. He felt a kinship with these wide-eyed effigies. The Gods of Kathmandu had favoured him much better than the Gods of Janakpur had. They had, he was sure, looked after him as he struggled to put a roof over his head. Tonight at 61, Kathmandu felt like a cold foggy morning after a hard night he believed he would not survive. There was nothing but gratitude.
Amir brought the cab to a slow halt beside the sky bridge at the Jamal intersection with a goofy smile on his face. The fountain underneath the bridge had broken ages ago. The shallow water reservoir was full of dust. The thing was barely keeping together and yet, sometimes, like tonight, the fountain lit up teasingly, giving the illusion that everything was alright. Amir stared at the flickering orange light with his head resting on the window. Ash, from the forgotten cigarette, fell like the ghost droplets of water in the once working fountain.
“What are you looking at, Amir dai?” Krishna’s voice boomed like a slap in the silence of the night.
Amir turned around to see the smiling face of a fellow night dweller. Krishna was a shopkeeper; if one could call the candies and cigarettes spread out in a nanglo (flat woven tray), a shop.
“Amazing how durable those lights are… they turn on despite the decades”
Krishna looked at the bridge and laughed as if the entire night was his to keep. He didn’t care for the sleeping residents or passersby as he laughed at the old colourful lights flickering on their way to fitsy death.
Krishna’s laughter snuck up on Amir. Looking at the man that Krishna was- a huge pot belly, a thick moustache on a chubby face and his signature dhaka topi, Amir after all those years still had trouble digesting the fact that the man laughed like a 5-year-old kid. Biting his tongue, letting the air pass through the sides of his lips with spit splattering left and right, Krishna could laugh for 5 minutes straight. Amir watched him wanting both to stop and to let him laugh his heart out. But he intervened when Krishna started coughing and getting red in the face.
“Pugyo pasa pugyo…” Amir said to stop the human replica of the laughing Buddha from choking on his chortle.
“Testo hasnu parne kuro pani thyena.” Amir scolded him for laughing too hard too fast at something so irrelevant. Krishna, despite coming from a different caste, different world, felt like a brother .
Krishna walked over to Amir’s cab huffing half from the laughing exertion and half from the cold. He handed Amir a cigarette with a throaty “Hyappy Burt-day pasa”.
They exchanged no hugs, no thank yous. Amir accepted his gift even though he had no use of it anymore and walked back with Krishna to share a cup of warm thermos tea that bhauju (sister-in-law) prepared for him every night.
During the night, Kathmandu transformed. The messy alleys that barely fit his cab during the day looked bloated. A ship could easily fit there during the night. The crumbling path to Ason looked endless. The sky bridge looked high enough to actually touch the sky. The flickering fountain was beautiful. Amir and Krishna didn’t say a word. They would have probably stayed quiet, content in their passing euphoria for a very long time, but a girl diverted their attention.
The girl was clad in bright yellow kurtha suruwal and heels. From her attire and her made-up face, Amir could tell she was returning from a familial celebration. A party venue nearby that he had missed to scout. She was young, beautiful and uncomfortable in the nudity of the city. Amir wondered where her family was. Her discomfort was palpable, visible under the streetlights. Pointing at his beaten old cab, the girl asked if it was empty trembling in the cool night breeze. Amir asked where she had to go despite already having decided that he would take her wherever she needed to go. Years and years of working the night hours had made Amir see the beauty in the citylessness of the city. What was this place without the hurr-durr of the people, the whizzing vehicles, the crowd, and the noise? Looking at the sheer fear in the girl’s eyes reminded Amir of how vulnerable he had felt at the strangeness of it all.
The first night he had started driving a saahu’s taxi, Amir was fidgety. He was horrified to stop anywhere where other cabs had not felt comfortable enough to stop. He took no customers the first week because he refused to stop for any of them. He would notice some shady details in the people waiting for a cab. That man had an abnormally bulky pocket, he probably had a knife there. That woman looked unnaturally pale, she cannot be human. He heard ominous sounds of screeching tires, barking dogs, and echoes of inhuman wails from everywhere. Every single one of them was more horrifying than the last. Amir had driven around letting the petrol turn to fume like it came free until he could no longer afford it.
He got used to the nights in Kathmandu only because he had to. This poor girl, he decided, could use someone exactly like he had needed someone then. She did not have to get used to the nights. The girl said she needed a round trip to Bir Hospital after making a few minutes stop at Samakhushi.
“Ghar bata kehi saaman liyera aaunucha,” she said as a way of explanation. Aah an emergency, thought Amir. Usually, this hint would have been a cue to hike up the price to double if not triple the normal night rates but Amir felt munificent.
He offered to do the entire trip for Rs. 300. The fare was ridiculously cheap considering the distance and the time. The raised eyebrows suggested that the girl was expecting way more than that. She got in the passenger seat without another word or glance as if worried that he might change his mind any second.
Amir and Krishna smiled at each other. The two of them loved witnessing city people react to kindness. Kindness was so rare here that people mistook it for good fortune, mistook it for a mistake.
If he were in front of a confectionery shop he would have purchased not a meagre slice but an entire pound of cheesecake for himself that night. He felt like the king of the city.
Inside the cab, the air changed. The lingering evidence of his birthday treat was long gone. There was only the faint aroma of roses and disinfectants. She had spent a good amount of time in the emergency room. The girl reminded him of the day his first daughter had been born. Maya was born on Valentine's day when the whole town was painted red. On a cheesecake-like whim he had spent Rs. 1000 on a rose bouquet and held it in his arm as if preparing to hold something delicate and precious for a lifetime. Amir smiled as he steered towards the unpaved roads of Lainchaur. As the turn started downhill, Amir passed by the alley leading to the house that he had built two decades ago.
The taxi started rattling but his 61st year was starting on a nice note.
“Where are you from, Bhaiya? ” the girl asked, turning a bit towards him.
Aah there it is, Amir thought. Just when the city started to feel like his home, some stranger like this woman would other him away. Just like that, he became a non-Nepali brother, a bhaiya instead of a dai.
Where was he from? Which country did he belong to?
Amir allowed the silence to settle between them. The warm fuzzy feeling from a second ago settled cold in his belly.
“Oho Amir dai, I get to see you twice in the same night! What a darshan,” Krishna welcomed Amir once more, pouring two cups of tea from his thermos.
The familiar hush settled between the two once more.
“I’ve decided, Krishna bhai. I should return back to Janakpur. Maybe, it’s time,” Amir said after a while.
It’s a thought that often makes its way back to him on his birthday. Amir can’t remember when he stopped referring to Janakpur as home.
Krishna didn’t say anything for a while before starting to laugh his old hearty laugh.
“You will ride your taxi in Phulgaum pasa?”
Amir laughed along, the idea already dissipating in his head.
He couldn’t picture himself there anymore. Phulgaum wasn’t home anymore. He lit up his second cigarette of the night-- the year and thought to himself that Janakpur probably didn’t have any good cheesecakes, anyway. He let embers of the thought disintegrate once again like the ashes falling on his feet.
The lights on the broken fountain continued to flicker on.
About the writer:
Ritu Rajbanshi( Instagram- @ri.tutu) is a writer and reader of fiction. Her writings have been published in The Kathmandu Post and La.Lit magazine.