Europa

“Most of the stories in Nothing to Declare are located in a Kathmandu as experienced by young people. They go to school, drink and smoke, have sex, go abroad, and come back and get married. But the final story “Valley of Tears,” is a millennial conceit that seeks to wipe out all that’s gone before, particularly the mad contradiction present-day Kathmandu has become. The Kathmandu Valley used to be a massive lake until, the legend goes, the divine priest Manjushree cleft the mountains with a sword to let the waters out; “Valley of Tears” floods the city to restore it to its primordial state. I suppose you could call it the ultimate expression of frustration.” — Rabi Thapa [1]

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It was the longest, hottest summer anyone could remember. Even the oldest grandmothers, who could remember the great earthquake of 1934, had never known such unrelenting heat. By late June, the Kathmandu valley began to seethe and boil like a cauldron. The blinding blue of the skies belied the monsoon rains, expected mid-month, and the mountains shimmied in the noon haze. The hot, thick air clogged with the fumes from the rust buckets wheezing through the narrow streets and alleys of the capital. Workers slumped home with limp, blackened collars and blew soot out of their noses as they freshened up for dinner. The Bagmati River dried to a trickle. In recent times it had begun to resemble an open sewer, and this year it simply choked up, leaving fetid, green pools along its length that evaporated as the days limped by.

Tempers flared. Taxi drivers took to leaning out their windows, vocalizing to their insistent tooting. Riot police chasing down the usual suspects wielded their staffs with more than usual fervor. Packs of mangy dogs tore at each other on dusty street corners. Politicians were brusque and journalists were bitter. Girls teased while going about their business whirled around and harangued their tormenters in such language the boys turned tail and fled.

The government had plenty on its hands. The viciousness of the summer and the delayed rains had stunted prospects for the millions of farmers in the countryside. Bad yields would mean rising prices and a desperate populace demanding to be fed on the cheap. The rebels would gorge themselves on the harvest of discontent.

But what could you do about the weather? It was up to the gods above. Villagers across the country sought to propitiate them. Two giant toads were dressed up, dusted with vermilion and married off with a full brass band. A hundred women danced naked in the forests to placate the elemental forces. The heavens fixed their supplicants with an implacable stare, forcing them to turn away, eyes watering.

In the middle of July, the rains finally came—but not in the Kathmandu Valley. The rest of Nepal sighed in relief, skins cooling in the downpours, but the monsoon had forgotten the King’s backyard. Meteorologists consulted their charts frantically, farmers went down to their local drinking holes and staggered home in drunken despair. Citizens wandered the streets by night, unable to sleep, and swore at the hazy, blind sky. Visitors were shocked to see the dusty fields and cracked riverbeds after having braved the slick, twisting roads into the Valley, slashed red by rain-sogged landslips. The mountains, stone giants with improbably luscious emerald capes, scowled down at those crouched at their feet.

Halfway through July, and not a single drop of rain in the Kathmandu Valley. What could this mean, the streets muttered, disgruntled. In the absence of any science to explain how there could be such a thing as the ‘eye of the monsoon’—for this is what the satellite charts seemed to show—the hot and dusty denizens of the Valley turned to those purveyors of culture, superstition and general quackery, the astrologers. They had plenty to offer and an audience ready to swallow the wildest stories.

It was said Indra, lord of the heavens, was punishing the people of Kathmandu for their wicked, selfish ways. In their complacent profiteering over the years, they were responsible for the sufferings of their country brethren. But the king was as culpable. Over two centuries ago, his ancestor Prithvi Narayan Shah had laid siege to the Valley, finally tasting success with a brutal attack while the locals were busy celebrating the festival of Indra. Astrologers and priests suggested offerings. As one wag put it, cheques and Visa cards were quite acceptable.

The rebels, ascendant everywhere but in the Kathmandu Valley, were delighted by the havoc the reticent skies were beginning to wreak on the capital. The bastion of feudal power in Nepal, so far impervious to their persistent sniping, was looking decidedly shaky. Even the most godless among them began to wonder if divine providence had not switched sides.

But just when it began to look like the parched brown mountains would simply crumble to dust and bury the city, late one night at the very beginning of August, a great formless racket was heard resounding through the Valley. People rushed out of their homes, wondering what was in store for them. The sound was everywhere, a great croaking and creaking as if from a thousand throats, swelling up from the earth and saturating the air, all of a sudden hung with humidity. People realized with a shock that all the frogs and toads of the Valley were giving voice to their intense love of water, and praise the lord, it was going to rain! There was not a star to be seen. The skies were knit black with thunderclouds and the moaning wind rose and fell deliriously with the hymns of the faithful. As great masses of clouds ground against each other, electric streaks of white flashed across the Valley, illuminating awed, upturned faces before thunderclaps broke upon them, bounding from mountain to mountain. As if the gods themselves were seated in a circle smashing their fists into the earth. It was a terrifying spectacle, but when the first drops of rain sizzled into the dust at their feet, people laughed and jumped for joy. It was all over.

It was still raining steadily when the good people of the Valley blinked out of bed and into their lives. The cruel summer was already a rapidly fading memory for many. Overnight, the Bagmati had become a river again and public taps were flowing freely. The residue of the city’s recent past was washed down the streets and into the drains. Thirsty fields soaked up the water like bottomless sponges.

For once, the monsoon—the lifeblood of the nation—was greeted with more than the usual relief. It was a mixed bag for the farmers. Those for whom the rains were too late headed down to the labor recruitment agencies for the Gulf. The superstitious bloodied their favored shrines, scientists wondered about climate change, and all the rest were happy enough just to cool down. Children ran riot in the streets and courtyards, splashing and shrieking through the first puddles of the year while their parents simply looked on and smiled. Politicians appeared on their doorsteps beaming loquacious and journalists jeered at them cheerily, huddling under shiny black umbrellas. The rebels cursed the fickle gods, disappointed.

The rain slowed through the afternoon to a drizzle. People heading home from work could see the transformation wrought by the heavens. The brown haze that had obscured the desiccated lumps surrounding the Valley had been scoured out of the sky. The mountains were alive, a deep and vital green soft to the eyes.

But even the astrologers could tell another storm was winging its way down to the Valley that night. It broke at midnight, after an hour of disconsolate grumbling and growling punctuated by sheet lightning. After the excitement of the night before, many were lulled to sleep by the tattoo of rain on their roofs, a childhood dream drummed out on to the collective unconsciousness.

It was a rude awakening. The middle class, sitting down to hot rice and curried vegetables before driving off to work, switched on their televisions to pandemonium. They looked out their windows to confirm what they already knew: the rain was still pouring down in sheets, gusting across their front gardens and inundating their flowerbeds. Downtown, the Bagmati had broken its banks. The immigrants squatting along its silty wastes had had no notice. The entire shantytown around the Bagmati bridge between Kathmandu and Patan, numbering more than a hundred families, had been swept away by flash floods in the early hours of the morning. This might have been foreseen, but nobody ever expected the dozy, befuddled authorities to do anything before it was too late. The hundreds living on the margins of Valley society were at the beginning of its end.

It was frightening enough for those high and dry in their bedrooms with comfort cups of milky tea. Footage from army helicopters surveying the scene revealed a rampant river, a churning brown lick of fury swelling up and over its banks. The settlement had been decimated—all that remained were a few tin roofs and lengths of timber flung out onto the banks. Of the inhabitants there was no sign. It seemed no one caught in those wretched shacks trussed together with plastic sheeting and rope had survived.

Nobody really cared about the slum, but as the rains continued that day and the next, all were compelled to sit up and take stock of what that initial disaster presaged. The river did not subside; the reality was far worse than anyone could have imagined. In their haste to leave the Valley, the inflamed waters had rammed into the narrow gorge of Chobhar to the south, dragging the limestone cliffs down. Locals from the nearby village, gathered on a rise under umbrellas and plastic sheets, were horrified to discover that the river had formed a not unsubstantial lake below the gorge, studded here and there with the swollen bodies of the hapless slum dwellers and fragments of their shelters.

To the army engineers on the scene, this was a worst-case scenario of divine proportions. If the gorge wasn’t cleared of its gruesome plug of bodies, rocks and mud, what would happen? It was too awful to contemplate. Everybody knew the Kathmandu Valley had been a lake in prehistory. It was only when the Bodhisattva Manjushree had cleft the hills at Chobhar with his sword that the waters had flowed out. Blocked, the river would simply double back on itself and rise into the Valley, submerging all until it rose high enough to find an outlet. By the time this happened, everything in the Valley would be under water, except perhaps the hill of Swayambhunath—the light of which had drawn Manjushree to the Valley in the first place.

The solution was straightforward. Unplug Chobhar. But how? Earth-moving equipment, even if it could access the erstwhile gorge through the floodwaters, would be pitifully inadequate. The gorge was corked with millions of tons of earth. The distracted engineers, eyes on their endangered Valley properties, could not decide on a course of action. Belatedly, they wired India for an emergency consignment of ammonia gelatin for submarine blasting.

Events outstripped those thinking to influence them. People did not need to be told records were being broken by the day: the evidence was all around them. The low-lying center of the municipality of Kathmandu had a few problems every year as water funneled down from the mountains through the Valley. This year the streets were completely deluged within days. Kathmandu was paralyzed as floods engulfed the city, devastating commercial neighborhoods—and the country’s economy—overnight. The state, faced with the enormity of the catastrophe, dithered, then threw its hands up in despair. The impassive façade of government quivered and disassociated itself into a flurry of family men packing bags to leave. Apart from contingents of policemen and soldiers assisting rescue operations, filled with fear for their own homes and families, no coordinated action was taken, and no royal proclamations reassured the public. Once the headquarters of Nepal Telecommunications went under, there was no news save the rumor mill, that hive of furious whisperings.

In those few days of mounting panic, no one really knew what was going on. The rains continued and the waters rose by the hour, and people accepted there was no sense in waiting it out in drier, higher neighborhoods. As the Valley filled with water, it emptied of life. The airport was off limits to all but the best connected, and an army battalion made sure none scrambled aboard but the most generous: politicians, aristocrats and the filthy rich. Those with cars and motorbikes loaded up with relatives, valuables and provisions and braved the waters at Kalimati to jostle up through Thankot, where another battalion of soldiers waved them through into the mountains. Here they were at the mercy of the rebels and robbers gleefully extracting what they could for safe passage to their ancestral towns and villages. Buses and trucks full to bursting with frightened passengers wound their way through carts, bicycles and tempos. Landslides and accidents took greedy bites out of the milling crowds but still they came. The poorest took to the mountains and camped in the forests and villages of Shivapuri, Pulchoki, Nagarjuna and Chandragiri. Thousands never made it out of their flooded houses, drowned as they dragged their lives around themselves, refusing to accept that nothing mattered but life itself. It continued to rain.

The rest of the country was in shock. Until the rebels had carved out their bloody counterpoint, the Kathmandu Valley had dictated life and death in the Himalayan kingdom. But within days only chaos reigned supreme. The endless streams of humanity sobbing through their towns and villages were testimony to the utter and complete dissolution of the old order. Where was the king? People said he had fled to Switzerland with his family and billions of rupees. But if Kathmandu could not be saved, who was to take charge of what remained? It was as if all power and influence had fled the country. The ranks of the army and police, harassed as much by the public as by the rebels and their own sense of mortality, were thinning rapidly. As their commanding officers jumped on to planes and helicopters, breakaway bands did what they could for themselves, looting and murdering as they saw fit to provide for their own.

So no one was very surprised when the rebels, a fortnight after the flash floods, overran the army barracks at Pokhara, the administrative center of the west. Half the soldiers, demoralized and terrified, fled as the first shots rang out. The rest were slaughtered. The very next day the municipality of Pokhara was in rebel hands. They wasted no time in proclaiming a Republic of Nepal. It suited them to declare the rains were a sign from the heavens. With the destruction of the ancient regime of feudal exploitation, a golden age of fraternity would now begin. All Nepalis were called on to join the republic, henceforth headquartered in Pokhara. In the aftermath of what was happening to the Kathmandu Valley, nothing seemed too absurd.

And what of the rest of the world? Aid agencies and foreign governments had offered to help from the very beginning, but with the disintegration of central authority and the menace of the resurgent rebels, had nowhere to go. It was impossible to set up operations anywhere near where help was most needed; and with the anarchy in the rest of the countryside it was unfeasible to risk personnel and resources. Nepal’s giant neighbors, India and China, cancelled each other out: neither would risk nettling the other. The country’s fate was discussed in the Security Council.

The monsoon continued to drown the Valley in tears. Very few of the inhabitants remained; those who had not left had perished in collapsing buildings and riverine streets. Palaces, temples, houses, roads and the fields of the ancient kingdom now lay submerged for the age to come. The waters rose around Swayambhunath. Anxious monkeys chattered in the trees as the monks banged gongs and chanted for the souls of the departed. But finally, the waters flowed over and above Chobhar, like an overflowing sink. The rains continued, but the lake of the Kathmandu Valley had plumbed its depths.

In late September, as American helicopter gunships began to engage the new republican army in Pokhara, the clouds dissipated over the Valley. The mountain villages woke to a clear morning, the sun streaming through the trees and glancing off terraces brimmed with rainwater, full of rotting cornstalks. Villagers stepped out to breathe the fresh, clean air and smiled up at the blue sky strewn with wisps of sheep’s wool. Clots of people up and down the mountainside looked at each other and headed for the closest lookouts. They knew there was now a lake in the Valley, but the rains and muddy skies had obscured the obliteration of their capital. All they had heard or seen was the ceaseless thunder and lightning, and the myriad noises of water ringing on their roofs, pattering onto their porches, sloshing along the paths, dripping into their houses, gurgling down the gutters and mingling with the sweat and tears of Valley refugees begging for shelter and food.

They gathered on mountaintops and outcrops or headed down to the roads, clawed to ruins by landslides. They gazed onto the vast expanse of water before them, where once three million lives had scrambled in the heat and dust. Those lives might never have been, such was the tranquility of the dull waters stretching out below them, a mirror mocking the empty skies. The lake of prehistory had swallowed its own past, its skin taut over the turbulence that had convulsed the Valley for millennia. All that remained was a bright morning sweetened by the twittering of birds.

The villagers looked on, quietly. In the distance they could pick out the great shrine of Swayambhunath, its massive dome stained grey by the very element it symbolized. The golden spire, its spiraling mast reaching through thirteen rings to perfection, glinted in the morning light, and the eyes of truth painted on the crown gazed impassively over the lake.

_____

Footnotes:

1 Nathalie Handal, “The City and the Writer: In Kathmandu with Rabi Thapa,” Words Without Borders, 2013. Read.

“Valley of Tears” first appeared in his debut collection. Reprinted here with permission.

Illustration Courtesy: Britney Schmidt And Dead Pixel Fx, University Of Texas At Austin

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Rabi Thapa
Rabi Thapa is a writer and editor from Kathmandu. He edits the literary magazine La.Lit. Thapa published a collection of short stories, Nothing to Declare (Penguin India, 2011), following a year as editor at Nepali Times. You can find him on Twitter: @RabiThapa