Saturday, September 11, 2010

On the Road in Kathmandu

One afternoon a year ago, I received a call at my office in Kathmandu. The voice at the other end sounded familiar but I could not recognize it. Sensing my anxiety, my friend introduced himself: He was Saroj Thapa, my roommate in early 1990s when both of us were new to the capital city.


Like many young people of our generation, we had moved to Kathmandu to further our studies. I was seventeen and he was a few years older than me. We lived in a dark one room basement apartment at Ghattekulo neighborhood,  a ten-minute walk from our college. I relied on a meager monthly stipend sent by my father who taught at a school in eastern hills. His father had left his family. Therefore, Saroj was on his own, studying and eking out a living as a helper in a printing press.

He had chanced upon my piece published in a magazine. I was happy to hear his voice after nearly ten years. "Let's meet some time and talk about these past years," he said. The idea fascinated me and without a second thought, I promised him I would manage time. He hung up.

The time never came. Or, so I thought until one recent day, he called me up and asked if I was free.

In fact, I wasn't.  I was giving the final touch to  the weekend youth supplement I oversee. I had a tight deadline. The layout person was in the throes of designing the pages. But, I also thought I had lingered too long. I was tired. I badly needed a drink. I also wanted to take some rest. I thought: there's nothing wrong in sneaking away for an hour. A while later, I left for the intersection where my friend would be waiting in his car.

The dusk was falling. I negotiated the potholed road outside my office building. Upon crossing the road,  I found myself in the crowd of people heading home or waiting for bus. My friend saw me from a distance and stopped his car.

We drove towards Sinamangal neighborhood near Nepal's only international airpot. I had suggested to him a new restaurant with a good menu and green lawn. The monsoon rain had washed the road clean. The evening felt incredibly lovely. The road had a light traffic.

We found out that the entrance to the restaurant was under construction. My friend, who's been driving for five years, decided to park the car on an empty space beside the road. I suggested him to rethink his decision but he was adamant.

We mostly talked about the time we spent and struggled together. We recalled how we managed to survive the saddest phase of our life. I reminisced how at college I would attend both the day and night classes, how watching a movie was a luxury.  I told him how I relished a plate of momo, a Nepali dumpling, which at the time was the most delicious food on earth. .

He recalled his infatuation with a girl who stayed next door to his office. "We used to wax eloquent about our love affairs," he said. We laughed at our naivety. I felt sorry for our humble beginning.

A wave of nostalgia  engulfed us as we sipped beer. We concluded that our initial foray into the urban landscape had been pathetic. Past had been unkind to us.

At around eight, we left the restaurant and climbed up to the road. We were still talking, unable to detach ourselves from our terrible past.

A little tipsy, we boarded the car. He was turning it right in order to drop me at my office. Right at that moment, a motorcycle hit the car. All I could hear was a bang! Then, I saw a man thrown up in the air. We looked at each other, trying to figure out the problem. He said: "This is how things end up!" We got off the car and started to assess the damage.

The motorcycle was badly damaged. It's headlight was broken. The car's fender was hit hard, creating a niche. The pillion rider was writhing in pain. A gaggle of passersby gathered in the scene. People silhouetted against the evening's dim light, inquired, "Ke Bhayo? Ke Bhayo?" (What happened? What happened?). Their faces were unrecognizable, lending an eerie feeling. I felt as if I were looking at apparitions.

My friend and I rushed headlong on to take control of the situation. In Kathmandu's accident prone roads, anything can happen. I recalled witnessing incidents in which drivers were beaten up immediately after the accident, without judging whose mistake it was.

A tall, thin, sad-faced traffic police man arrived. He identified the drivers and took their licenses. The motorcycle driver turned out to be heavily injured. But he was very quiet. His friend, who was crying, sounded like he was badly hurt. But he wasn't. Blood was dribbling from the driver's shin. He had another injury in his chin. The helmet's glass might have torn it.

The pillion rider told me he was speaking on his cell phone when the bike hit the car. Later, someone brought back his cell phone which was already battered.

My friend offered to take them to the hospital and pay for their medical bills.

We drove in silence towards Kathmandu Medical College. The driver in his early thirties was admitted to the emergency. I found myself queuing  up at the drug store. The injured were returning from a house party. They seemed more drunk than us.

The pillion rider had come to Kathmandu on a business trip. The driver ran a small grocery on the outskirts of Kathmandu. It turned out that all of us came from the same region in eastern Nepal. Even though there appeared a chasm between us--the two on an old bike and we on a four-wheel--an unlikely camaraderie formed inside the hospital.

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