Print Edition - 2015-01-24  |  On Saturday

The other Kathmandu

  • The city I fell in love with is hardly picturesque—it is, instead, a dizzying medley of smoke and dust
- Wong Shu Yun
The other Kathmandu

Jan 23, 2015-

I know a place so grimed with the dirt from brick kilns and the exhaust from rackety motorbikes that the rains find difficulty pouring themselves in.

Kathmandu is a beast of its own kind. Sui generis. In its belly, dust, pigeons and smoke churn in overdrive.

Apparently, there is a name for such things. The architectural theorist David Gissen coined the term ‘subnatures’ to describe the denigrate forms of the environment. The subnatural, the ‘Other’, belongs neither to the natural nor the supernatural.

Forced to nowhere, subnatures thrive in a city’s underbelly—on the streets, in the corners, and then underground. At other times, driven out of place, they constantly move.

I often find myself chasing after them. Even after encountering formidable Everest and wandering through heady spiritual festivities, I dream not of Nepal’s magnificence, but of the messy and mundane.

Has it got anything to do with the fact that I come from sterile, smoke-free Singapore?


I sometimes feel the loneliness in my own city from its lack of grime, as if I have been robbed of good company.

You see, subnatures do make strange bedfellows for the secrets and histories they tell.

I have heard some in Kathmandu whisper a few of their mysteries.


In 2007 I arrived in Nepal for the first time to a hard winter’s morning.

A layer of cloud had marked its territory above the Valley, trapping soot. Whatever was left of sunlight was scattered throughout the city, such that Kathmandu glowed with a restrained grey-orange.

Intrigued by the hazy, pseudo-romantic atmosphere, I once followed its source, sniffing my way into an itta-bhatta.

Inside the brick kiln, men, women and even children were moulding, carrying and burning clay.

At first glance, this might look like a terrifying cauldron; many advocacy groups continue to speak about the dangers and exploitations in brick kilns.

But the anthropologist Michael Hoffmann tells a slightly different story. In 2009, for five months, Hoffmann practically lived in a brick kiln in order to make his observations.

Though he was researching in the western district of Kailali, I’d like to believe that the lives of the brick people he wrote about are, hopefully, no different from those in Katmandu, and elsewhere in the country.

Hoffmann noticed that despite its harsh conditions, the brick kiln has become a site of liberation for workers.

At the kiln, workers are not bound by contracts, which was the case in their past agricultural work. They earn according to the amount of bricks they work with, and in this flexible piece-rate structure, the brick people sometimes vacate work in the middle of the day to fish, drink or mice-hunt.

The kiln also encourages such togetherness that workers would buy identical work shirts and visit each other in their homes, although this camaraderie did not transcend ethnic boundaries.

The women have their own ways of entertaining themselves, too. They compete against each other in brick-carrying, ironically contributing to their own exploitation and increasing the factory’s productivity to the ‘malik’s’ pleasant surprise.

After the Maoist insurgency, the brick people grew emboldened. By night, they asserted their rights when they turned the sandy grounds into a party floor. Hoffmann witnessed dancing and drinking as the dust began to settle.

I can imagine the magic, if only it could come true, all over Nepal: in Nepal’s 700 brick kilns, the grounds are claimed by the brick people who celebrate under the moonlight. Around them, dust reaches out to dust, mingling this time not with pain, but pleasure.


My own secret indulgence lies more openly in the city’s squares.

I make a point to visit the home ground of Kathmandu’s most ordinary birds each time I return to Nepal. Nothing feels as close to power as the act of running into an assembly of nibbling pigeons, which sends them hurtling to the sky.

I especially like to do this at Basantapur Durbar Square, where the grounds feel wider and airier. From there, one can watch Kathmandu stir to life with them birds, birds, birds.

While cities around the world debate the sanitation of pigeons, Kathmandu simply worships them.

It is in pigeons that two of Nepal’s major religions meet: on any given morning, both the Hindu and Buddhist arise to feed the birds—for one, this is a way of serving God; for the other, kindness to creatures brings good karma.

Materially, these pampered pigeons have the Malla rulers to thank for a roof over their heads.

The Malla dynasty, which reigned from the 10th to the 18th century, built many of Kathmandu’s multi-tiered Newar buildings that have intricate roof nooks, where the pigeons enjoy roosting. These birds know one thing: Kathmandu isn’t called a city of a thousand golden roofs for nothing.

In fact, the Malla’s dramatic tier system was said to have inspired the Ming emperor’s pagoda style. Back then, the Newar architect Arniko brought a group of assistants to Peking, bringing the Newar design across the Himalayas to East Asia.

But history is never quite sure what the Malla rulers felt about the pigeons they so attracted in their architecture.

Yet, they would have impressed the Italian polyglot and architect Leon Battista Alberti, who, in the 15th century, wrote a treatise with instructions on constructing buildings for pigeons. In history, these birds were cared for and beloved. The pigeons do know more: they have persisted, far longer than most civilisations, through time.

These days in Kathmandu, as tourists throng the cafes around the temples and locals sip tea on stools perforating the square, the birds gather for their free lunch.

Abandoning the open skies, the pigeons meet with uncles, aunties and children who have come to scatter seeds across the earth.


Nothing about smoke is poetic if you live in a city known to be one of the most polluted in the world.

Fortunately, by the time I made another trip to the city in 2013, it seemed people were already taking things into their own hands, or legs: Kathmandu was abuzz with cyclists zipping alongside diesel-chugging motorbikes, the former trying to outdo the latter.

I discovered that numerous cycling initiatives have blossomed over the past few years. One of them is Kathmandu Cycle City, which is aiming for a cycle-friendly Katmandu by 2020.

But there is another kind of smoke that is just as vehement: the domestic smoke from burnt cigarettes and cannabis, which help the young and urban stay restless or tranquil, depending on which they choose.

The Nepalis enjoy their roll-ups. As 2014 came to an end, I asked a friend in Kathmandu how he was counting down to the New Year. He said he would want nothing more than those few kindly moments where he could roll a good joint and smoke it past the last hour.

‘Is that all?’ I asked. It seemed so. His was a quiet, almost self-assured way of celebrating, and I took comfort in the fact that although smoke does make a strange bedfellow to the body, it nonetheless ‘is’ company.

Still, the most fascinating smoke-filled air in Kathmandu ascends yearly from

the Pashupatinath Temple during the Shivaratri festival.

On this day, the ‘babas’, themselves covered in dust and ash, puff cannabis on the banks of the Bagmati River.

The occasion in honour of Shiva invites the supernatural, the natural and the subnatural together in a spectacular display. What does one make of the wise men, who seem to hail from all three natures as well?

The photographer Thomas Kelly suggested: nothing and everything.

In his documentation of the babas and their practices, Kelly came to a final realisation. The people and lives he had been photographing will remain unknowable. “A living question,” he described of them, “that people have forgotten to ask.”


It is not that subnatures deserve glory.

Rather, when we turn our attention to them, we remember the forgotten: the brick people who rise above the dust; the alternative forms of life that commune with us; the friend seeking solitude; the ‘babas’ who choose dispossession. Forever on the way, the forgotten are neither really on earth nor in heaven.

Subnatures remind us of our paradoxical existence: of creating and destroying, of owning and losing, of living and dying. In them are our hopes and fears.

A long, long time ago, Horace understood.

“Pulvis et umbra sumus”, he wrote. We are but dust and shadows.

Published: 24-01-2015 09:43

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