Print Edition - 2018-12-29  |  On Saturday

A tree grows in New Road

  • Kathmandu’s pursuit of a more beautiful and ‘smarter city’ has robbed New Road’s iconic peepal bot of its cultural and historical significance

Dec 29, 2018-

It was the late 1950s. The 104-year despotic Rana regime had come to an end and there was newfound freedom in the air. New Road, formerly Juddha Sadak, was where Kathmandu came alive, and down near the statue of Juddha Shumsher, opposite the ancient Ranjana galli, a stately peepal tree spread its canopy, shielding a motley crew of poets, writers, activists, politicians and layabouts from the sun. Among the crowd were politician-writer-statesman Bishweshwar Prasad ‘BP’ Koirala, poet and playwright Bhupi Sherchan and poet and lyricist Ratna Shumsher Thapa and playwright Bal Krishna Sama, all shining luminaries of Nepali literature.

Into the 60s and 70s, when Mahendra’s Panchayat had taken root, a new crop of artists began to flock to the peepal—poet Bairagi Kainla, singer Narayan Gopal Shrestha, music composer Ambar Gurung, essayist Shankar Lamichhane and budding poet Abhi Subedi. There was something about this peepal bot and the place it occupied in the imaginaries of Kathmandu’s literary circles. Poets dedicated stanzas to it while singers devoted choruses. For decades, the tree stood silent witness to all of the country’s upheavals, providing a gathering space for its dreamers and dissidents. 

Five months ago, in July, the Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) decided to put up a metal fence around the peepal, isolating it from the free-flow of pedestrians that passes New Road every second. The decades-old open air book vendor, where poets and writers once purchased their books, was shrunk to half its size. This iconic cultural space was truncated and reduced to a shell of itself, a far cry from its heyday as the ‘ground zero’ for activism, poetry and literature. 


Humble beginnings

During the Rana regime, when dusk started to settle, at 6pm sharp, a roll of the drums would announce a curfew. Most locked their doors and called it an early night—Juddha Sadak empty except for patrolling soldiers and stray dogs. But 1951 brought a semblance of democracy and a new space began to proliferate—the public sphere, a space where ideas could freely circulate without fear of censorship or reprisal. 

The decades following the Rana regime were no bastion of free speech—there were numerous restrictions, especially after Mahendra’s Panchayat took hold in the 60s. But under the peepal  tree, politics, sports, arts, literature and business flourished. This was primarily due to Bishwa Keshar Maskey, who owned a small bookstore called the News Depot, opposite the tree. During the Panchayat era, Maskey was the sole supplier of popular Indian national dailies and magazines to the Nepali market. Although his first store, Sandesh Griha, located in Bangemuda, Asan supplied the same materials, there was more buzz at New Road’s News Depot. 

Eventually, attracted by the host of readers milling about the peepal bot, another budding entrepreneur started to sell Nepali books, newspapers and magazines around the tree itself, giving birth to one of Kathmandu’s most vibrant public spaces. 

“I give all due credit to the News Depot for creating a space for like-minded people to come and discuss ideas,” says veteran poet and lyricist Ratna Shamsher Thapa. A resident of Kamalpokhari, Thapa had just finished his Matriculation exams from Durbar High School when he began to visit the peepal bot. Thapa is now in his 80s and fondly recalls his early years of reading, writing and conversing around the tree. “It was there that I made the friends who influenced me to get into literature,” says Thapa. 

It was mostly in the evenings that the crowds would grow around the peepal, says Thapa. Daytimes were spent at Tundikhel and when evening hit, Thapa would head to the peepal bot and one of three restaurants around it—Rashmi, Uttam and Indira—to sit and drink some tea with his friends. Among his close circle of friends was the poet Bhupi Sherchan, a number of whose poems speak of New Road and this particular peepal bot. 

A resident of Pokhara, it was mandatory for Sherchan to drop by the peepal everyday whenever he was in Kathmandu, says Thapa. “Stopping at the peepal bot, connecting with people and exchanging ideas over a cup of tea was like attaining salvation for Bhupi—he loved conversations that had humour and wit,” he says. 


From poets to politicians

Over the years, the peepal bot began to attract the who’s who of Kathmandu—Bal Krishna Sama, Purushottam Basnet, Abhi Subedi, Bijaya Malla, Krishna Bhakta Shrestha, Tulasi Diwas, Mohan Koirala, Keshav Bista, Bimal Nibha, Narottam Shrestha, Nagendra Thapa, Bairagi Kaila, Narayan Gopal Shrestha, and many others.

It was in the early 60s that Abhi Subedi, a veteran English professor and writer, started visiting the peepal bot. Subedi was young then and was only visiting to buy books with his pocket money when he was drawn in by the passionate people around, who conversed in topics jumping from one tangent to another. 

“During that Panchayat era, there were hardly any medium for communication, but nonetheless, it was obvious that someone or the other always had to be around the peepal,” says 74-year-old Subedi. “We used to gather there in a greed and hunger to grow our knowledge.” 

The atmosphere around the tree began to attract not just the literary-minded but also the politically conscious. Nepali Congress stalwart Krishna Prasad Bhattarai would often visit the tree to discuss political issues, says Subedi. Even BP Koirala took an interest, says Purushottam Basnet, editor of the magazine Mukut and a regular at the peepal bot with Subedi since the 60s.  

“A writer himself, Koirala was intrigued by these people who shared ideas and knowledge in a public space. He admired our thoughts and would say, I’ll come visit you guys someday,” says Basnet recalls. The day did come when BP Koirala himself made his way to the peepal bot. Everyone at the nearby Indira Coffee House was starstruck, reports 73-year-old Basnet. “Koirala’s presence only increased the peepal bot’s attraction,” he says.

Basnet would partner with Subedi at the peepal bot and head to the nearby Indira Coffee House to discuss poetry and writing. While Subedi was a free bird, Basnet was passionately political, a loyal follower of BP Koirala and his movement against the Panchayat. Basnet himself was imprisoned several times during the Panchayat, but that never stopped him. As an editor, he demanded freedom of speech and recalls visiting Koirala at the Sundarijal jail to deliver newspapers and magazines bought from the peepal bot. 

“When I visited Koirala, an army of soldiers would extensively check what I had brought along from Kathmandu,” says Basnet. “Thankfully, they allowed magazines, but every conversation was recorded in a book.” 

The peepal bot had taken on a life of its own. Word got around and everyone who had an interest in the arts, music and literature would flock to the peepal bot to buy newspapers and sip tea and coffee, hoping to catch a glimpse of literary and political icons of the time. But growing popularity also meant undesired attention from the state. The intellectuals who gathered there were always under the scanner. The peepal bot was ‘zero ground’ for everyone but many were spied on by the Panchayat government, says Subedi. 

But it was always easy to tell who was spying, says Basnet. They made speaking to friends uncomfortable but one sign could alert everyone. “The code word for spies was ‘mama’,” says Thapa. “Mama aayo hai, mama is here.”  

Basnet too recalls sipping a cup of coffee all by himself at Indira when the cops caught him by the collar and hauled him off to jail. “At that point, I didn’t care what happened to me, I was only concerned about my motorcycle that stood beside the peepal bot,” Basnet jokes. 

Despite the spies and increasing intrusion of the Panchayat government, tables banging, loud laughs and jokes were part of the daily scene. There was a bond among these men, as they gaped at the beautiful Kathmandu women who would walk by New Road, says Subedi. 


Fading glory

In the twilight years of the Panchayat in the 80s, the appeal of the peepal bot began to wane. As the country began to modernise, newspapers and bookstores started to open elsewhere, the peepal bot slowly began to lose its lustre. 

By the mid-80s, people were already dispersing as magazine and newspapers were accessible all around the city, says veteran poet Bimal Nibha. At 67, Nibha claims to be the last generation that flocked to the peepal bot. The opening up of the country to the outside world brought in the combined forces of modernisation and commercialisation, dispersing the crowd gathered at the peepal bot. The coffee shops and restaurants that surrounded the peepal bot too have closed down, giving rise to newer spaces with a different atmosphere. New Road went commercial and the poets began to abandon it in droves.

“When we hung out at the peepal bot, there was no class division, no conspiracies and no war,” says Subedi. “But with new sophisticated coffee houses and restaurants, there has passed a quiet breeze of class division.” At Rashmi, Uttam and Indira, everything was affordable and no one bothered who owned what, says Subedi. But with time, everything changed.

One element, however, that persisted was the open air bookstore, clustered around the base of the tree. In reality, there were seven separate book stalls at the peepal bot, selling a wide range of magazines from Hindi, English and Nepali. Raju Chitrakar, one of the seven, has been selling newspaper, magazines and books there for over 35 years. He recalls meeting Nepali Congress members, Abhi Subedi, Krishna Bhakta Shrestha, Bairagi Kaila, among many others. But with changing times, Chitrakar has had to adapt. Sales have reduced by 60 percent, says Chitrakar. “There was a time when customers came to us to buy all sorts of papers but now, there may be only about 40 to 50 customers a day,” he says. 


A smarter city

The biggest blow to the peepal bot came when earlier this year, in July, KMC decided to put up a metal fence around the tree, isolating it. Most of the booksellers were uprooted and metal benches put in for people to sit on. The KMC has attempted to sanitise the space and in doing so, has ripped away the peepal bot’s charm. 

“I understand that people’s sentiments are attached to the famous tree and it has some sort of historical significance, but you also need to keep up with changing times and move on from the past, focus on the present and think better about the future,” says Hari Kunwar, department head of good governance at KMC. Kunwar says that it was necessary to do what they did as the crowds were disrupting pedestrians. Furthermore, the booksellers may have been around for decades, but it is still illegal to sell things in a public space without permission, he says. 

Most veterans do not buy Kunwar’s line of argument. “The KMC has no vision,” says Subedi. “How can you butcher such an iconic place in the name of modernisation? The peepal bot is not just a tree but a historical monument for all of us.” 

But for others like Nibha, the peepal bot was dying anyway. A younger crop of litterateurs now gathers at the Sankata temple in New Road, says Nibha. This consists of Nayan Raj Pandey, Sneh Sayami, Purushottam Subedi and Narayan Dhakal, among others. However, they still sit and get nostalgic over the peepal bot and the golden era of Nepali literature, Nibha reports.

There is no such nostalgia with Kunwar. “People like to play the blame game with the government all the time, but the citizens too need to get rid of their sentiments and think of how the city can become better. If we have such good thoughts, why can’t people think the same way?” says the KMC’s Kunwar. 

Only Chitrakar’s book stall remains at the base of the tree, a shrunken existence from its expansive offerings in its heyday. “The reason we still choose to be available despite the KMC is to hold on to the sentiments we have of this place,” says Chitrakar.

Nostalgia is all that remains. Even 58 years later, Subedi still visits the peepal. “I go there to relive my memories,” he says. “I try to locate the building where our ever favourite Indira Coffee House stood, where I first tasted coffee.” The space is a shadow of its former self. “It is just dead,” says Subedi. 

Sixty-eight-year old Pritam Shrestha, who lived a few houses away, remembers the peepal bot and how lively it was. “I was a child when many men sat next to the peepal with a glass of tea next to them, chit-chatting the entire day. I once saw Kishunji [Krishna Prasad Bhattarai] too and wondered what made this tree so special.” 

Shrestha is of the opinion that since the KMC ousted most of the book stalls and built its fence, the peepal bot holds no significance. “That little child in me hopes that the golden era will return someday, where men hovered around the tree.” 

Published: 29-12-2018 08:27

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