‘WHERE ARE YOU ORIGINALLY FROM? Where is your home?’ These are Nepali questions you usually encounter in friendly, jovial dinner parties and wedding receptions in Kathmandu when a newly acquainted person tries to make break ice.
If the questioner is an elderly, he or she will ask you about the community, the caste you belong to, and your mool ghar in an attempt to learn more about your ancestral home.
And if you don’t blow them off by giving one word responses, even though such personal questions make you want to be brusque, this will almost always lead to another question: ‘You have a house in Kathmandu?’
Most Nepalis aspire to build a house in the capital. It is a benchmark through which Nepalis gauge the financial status of their countrymen. It is indeed a cultural quirk, which can perhaps be explained by a scene in Samrat Upadhyay’s novel, ‘The Guru of Love’, in which the protagonist is hounded by his in-laws for not owning a house in Kathmandu.
‘You must build a house, Ramchandra babu,’ they said to him at family gatherings. ‘Without a house of one’s own in this city, it doesn’t matter what you do.’
It is universal: A house becomes a home when an individual or a family lives in it. It is where you store your personal property and return to for warmth, comfort, and rest after a long day at work. It is where you feel you belong; it is your address, an important part of your identity. No matter what part of the world you go to, people are seen putting their hard-earned money towards building/buying the house of their dreams. A home is a person’s emotional desire for refuge in a given physical location.
Like the dilemma faced by the character in Upadhyay’s book, life of a majority of Nepalis is defined by whether they have managed to build a house in Kathmandu or not. If they have, then they must be successful; if not, then they must be a failure, it doesn’t matter what they do.
A Nepali can have a house in other parts of the country, but nothing adds to his or her pride (and of course prestige) like having a house in Kathmandu. And, why not? Kathmandu is the nation’s capital, the largest city in the country. Since ancient times the city has been a center of power, culture, religion, and economics — not only in the country, but the whole Himalayan region. After King Prithivi Narayan Shah laid the ‘foundation’ of the Kingdom of Nepal by conquering the Kathmandu Valley in 1769 and started the campaign for a ‘unified’ Nepal, it was from Kathmandu, as the capital city, the past kings and despots ruled the country with iron fists. Due to this tendency, power and money were centralized in Kathmandu and it started behaving as a city state. Like colonized subjects, people from outside the Valley called Kathmandu “Nepal khaldo”. Many older folks in villages and remote areas of the country still use the word Nepal for Kathmandu.
Today, no matter how much we complain that the city is becoming unbearable to live in, and even with its appalling pollution level, uncollected garbage, bad traffic, haphazard construction and rising population, the Valley’s urban cosmopolitan character still grips the nation’s imagination.
No wonder, building a house in Kathmandu is a cherished Nepali dream. When that is fulfilled, your status suddenly changes. You are no longer an outsider. You are now a Kathmandubasi, a city-folk. The village or town you migrated from and which you still regularly visit during festivals now seems like a distant place. You will leave behind your past. Kathmandu becomes all that is real, the present as you get sucked into the mythical valley, once a serpent lake made habitable by Manjusri by cutting a gorge at Chovar to allow the lake to drain.
DURING THE PEAK of the Maoist insurgency in the late 90s, Kathmandu’s population suddenly saw a marked increase. Violence and conflict in rural parts of the country drove people out of villages and into towns, and from there, to Kathmandu. With a continued influx of people, the population of the Valley (which grew from tiny villages and settlements of yore into the cluttered, cramped city of today), passed the two million mark . Although not built to cope with rapid urban expansion, more houses were needed to accommodate the internal migrants as small townships filled with houses emerged in places where only a few years earlier, there were mustard or paddy fields.
This put immense pressure on the city’s infrastructures including roads, sewer systems, water supplies, garbage disposal and a host of other essential services, such as electricity, which eroded, broke down and added to the city’s problem. There was also the immense environmental degradation resulting from economic and human pressures.
The money sent by millions of Nepalis working mostly in low-paying, sometimes high-risk jobs in the Middle-East, South-East Asia, South Korea, Japan, and war-torn countries like Iraq and Afghanistan also went into purchasing land in Kathmandu and other parts of the country. The demand for land increased and the real estate boom sprang to life.
With the Maoists coming into the Peace Process, ending their decade-long insurgency in 2006, there was a feel-good factor in the country’s economic sector. Banks and financial institutions (BFIs) saw opportunities in real estate and started investing. They started issuing loans for micro-credit in the form of “home loans” – to customers. Housing companies took hefty loans from BFIs to build multi-storied apartments, housing colonies, and luxurious gated estates to cater to the people’s hunger for modern, high-end accommodation.
Due to difficulties in constructing one’s own house, readymade houses were such a hit that they were purchased even before the companies started laying the foundation for the building. Land prices sky-rocketed. A piece of land anywhere inside Ring Road started to cost four or even six times more than what it used to be. Those who invested in land, or had large ancestral estates in Kathmandu, became millionaires overnight.
Newspapers were awash with advertisements of new planned plots, apartments, readymade houses and luxurious condos. Indian and Chinese housing and construction companies joined the fray.
As lands became increasingly scarce in the core areas of Kathmandu Valley (or just too expensive for a common Nepali to afford), land developers began plotting lands in semi-urbanized regions in the outskirts of the city. However, buyers didn’t mind. As long as the land was inside the Kathmandu Valley investments never went in vain.
Other urban centers of the country soon saw the ripple effect, leading one politician against federalism to complain that the whole country was being broken up into small plots and sold to individual buyers.
But many planned plots in the outskirts of the city started to violate government set guidelines. Land developers didn’t care about easy road access to the plotted areas or to the housing blocks and individual houses. Similarly, access to drinking water, sewerage, electricity lines, telephone services and other facilities were simply a non-issue.
Such was the land plotting craze in Kathmandu that there were news about developers plotting public lands and protected areas, even those near the river (on one instance, even burying them to create the effect of “parks” to make their plots look more attractive to potential buyers). Even dangerous looking slopes in hilly areas of the Valley were not spared, as they were leveled with big bull-dozers to begin plotting work. And, amazingly, despite the hazards of building a house on them, they all went under the hammer. All this took place right under the nose of the government and municipal officials. It was clear that they too were getting a cut from the millions the land developers were making.
IN ONE PLANNED PLOT A FRIEND bought a piece of land just big enough to build a house for his family. He had come to Kathmandu from a remote part of the country a decade ago. He worked two jobs while still pursuing his higher studies. He was diligent, got quick promotions and saved money. He had progressed a lot from the time when he used to share a rented room with his college buddies. But the land he bought cost him a fortune – the entire savings of his family, plus some additional loan from the bank. Despite that, he said he was fortunate enough that the land didn’t have a sandy base like the one recently purchased by his friend. He was also better off than another person he knew who had mistakenly purchased a small house built just below high voltage power lines.
There were consolations too. As the place was located at a good altitude, he could savor a scenic panorama of the Valley. Though it was a little far from the city, the place was not fully infested with houses like in the core areas of Kathmandu. There was still some empty space. One could see trees, the nearby hills, and even get an unobstructed view of the sky and landscape for miles without random buildings or electricity wires in sight.
At the Swayambhunath Stupa on the top of a hillock overlooking the city, the same friend said, “Look at the sheer number of houses huddled together in this city. They look like matchboxes to me, placed one against the other. So unplanned!”
Taking in the view of the city, all that can be seen are houses stretched from one end of the valley to the other. Everything seems to be consumed by the mass of houses. Kathmandu: A city of bricks and concrete indeed.
“But no matter what, I have to build a house in this city,” he continued, his eyes focused somewhere far away. “This is my city, this is where I live. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
-This essay was published in your blogger’s first book titled ‘Journalism & Journeys’ (Pg 152, Rs 400, Vajra Publications-2012-13). If you want to purchase the book you can visit vajrabookshop.com, homeshop18.com or visit the leading bookshops in Kathmandu.