Don’t go quietly into the night
Hundreds of children had been walking past the gaping open drain outside the gates of Laboratory School in Kirtipur every day for the past six months. Teachers had repeatedly asked the Kathmandu Valley water supply utility to cover the ditch. A parent who complained recently was told by workers: “Mind your own business.” A shopkeeper across road has lost count of the number of motorcyclists injured trying to avoid the gutter at night.
On 27 October, yoga instructor Shyam Sundar Shrestha was spending the Saturday evening at his home in Chagal with his mother, Sabitri and sister, Shoba. He told them not to let his little nephews waste time playing with mobile phones.
Shyam Sundar had dinner, checked his laptop, washed his face, and said he was bicycling out to Chobhar. His mother wondered why he had to go out into the dark streets, but did not say anything because her 41-year-old son had criss-crossed Nepal on his bicycle.
Shyam Sundar was an introvert since childhood, his mother remembers. He lived frugally, ate little, dressed simply and had a passion for spiritualism and bicycling. He loved the great outdoors, and had followed his guru on a walking pilgrimage from Kathmandu to Kanya Kumari on the southern tip of India, a distance of 4,000km.
When he did not return till late that night, Sabitri Shrestha tried unsuccessfully to call her son on his mobile. Even though she was not unduly worried, she called around to relatives who reported a missing person to the Police.
The call from the Police came early on Sunday morning: a pedestrian had found Shyam Sundar’s body inside an open drain on the road to Chobhar. The family was in complete shock, as weeping neighbours gathered around. At the site, Police extricated Shyam Sundar’s red bicycle and shoes, and sent his body to hospital for an autopsy.
It was just the latest tragedy that brought into sharp focus the death trap that Kathmandu’s road have become, with open manholes and drains, gaping ditches on dark streets without pedestrian sidewalks, and the lack of warning signs.
Shyam Sundar’s death occurred down the road from where renowned conservationist Pralhad Yonzon was killed almost exactly six years ago. Both were avid bicyclists, and their deaths have exposed criminal state negligence about road safety and the lack of bicycle lanes that the city promised.
Friends, relatives, colleagues and bicycle enthusiasts gathered on 10 November at the spot where Shyam Sundar Shrestha died for his 13th day remembrance. They paid tribute to a quiet, spiritual man dedicated to helping others. Away from crowd, weeping silently was Sabitri Shrestha.
“I cannot describe to you what a decent man and devoted son he is,” she sobbed, still speaking in the present tense about her son. “He never says an unkind word to anyone, never raises his voice. He does not take sugar or white rice, eating only fruit and buckwheat, and has few cravings.”
After his two sisters got married, Shyam Sundar was taking care of his mother in their Chagal home, his father having died when he was young. He worked as an English tutor and a yoga instructor, but never felt the need to make much money.
Shyam Sundar’s five-year-old nephew points at a photo of him and says, “Pau.” Carrying him on her arms, Shobha Shrestha says tearfully: “He had just started recognising his uncle, and has been asking where he is. What do I tell him?”
The ditch where Shyam Sundar died has now been covered with concrete slabs. But the night before the commemoration, an ambulance that had tried to avoid another pothole had rammed into the side of the road, just next to the white ghost bicycle chained to a tree that serves as a memorial to Shyam Sundar.
As the small gathering observed a two-minute silence, Nepal Sambat revellers on pickups roared past, there was the sound of fire crackers going off nearby. An ambulance rushed past siren blazing.
Advocate Sunil Ranjan Singh’s son goes to Laboratory School, and he had complained many times to the authorities about the dangerous open drain. He said: “This is a failure at all three levels of government. They are all guilty, and the responsibility goes right up to the Prime Minister.”
Singh wants to set a legal precedent by taking the matter to the courts so it will set a landmark decision on responsibility and compensation for such negligence in future.
On Sunday after Shyam Sundar’s body was found, the Kathmandu Valley water utility (KUKL) covered up the open drain in half-an- hour. “If it was so simple to cover it and make it safe, why didn’t they do it earlier? Did someone have to be killed?” advocate Sunil Ranjan Singh asked.
The police released the autopsy report over Tihar, it was as everyone had suspected: Shyam Sundar was knocked unconscious after falling off his bicycle and drowned in sewage half-a-metre deep.
Despite the people consoling her, Sabitri Shrestha looked alone and forlorn. She joined her hands in prayer, and said softly: “I used to tell him don’t go where there are no roads, but he died on a road, right here in the capital. I hope no more Nepalis have to die like my son.”