The lure of green
When I’ve had enough of the smog, barking dogs, crowds and cacophony of Kathmandu I seek out my ‘oasis’, a small piece of green real estate that, I’m sure, slows my heartbeat and lowers my blood pressure on sight in — Dilibazar.
Yes, that’s right, Dilibazar, one of the oldest suburbs of 20th-century Kathmandu, once known for its sweet shops and the derelict Charkhal Jail, but today recognisable by the educational consultancies and their billboards — ‘Study in Australia, Canada, Cyprus, England, Greece, Ireland! — that have spilled onto its streets from Putali Sadak. It’s definitely not the first place that comes to mind when you think of Kathmandu and nature.
My paradise is small and tranquil, wild but constrained by the boundaries of private property. On its fringes is an old, intact Nepali brick house and surrounding it 1960s-vintage concrete homes, one of them belonging to my in-laws. It is from my sasurali, the dining room windows to be precise, that I gaze onto the neighbours’ pocket-sized ‘jungle’ with its plum, pomegranate, pecan and avocado trees, small copse of bamboo and a barely visible path, fringed by wild flowers in warmer months, which passes by a tiny temple.
If I step back slowly from the dining-room window, holding my gaze, I soon reach a point where the brown frame is filled with green only. Marvelling, I approach again, push open the glass and breathe deeply, in wonder that this tiny piece of nature remains and can draw me so strongly, while all around it the concrete jungle grows.
Research in recent years has tried to quantify how trees affect human health. By filtering air pollution, trees averted $6.8 million yearly in health costs in the US, a 2014 study in the journal Environmental Pollution found. In Toronto, having 10 more trees than average on a street was comparable to a $10,000 increase in personal income, and moving to an area with a $10,000 higher median income or being 7 years younger.
Nature has long drawn me. When I was about 10, my family spent the weekend on an island a short boat ride away from our town. While the adults talked inside, I wandered away, towards the ocean, hopping from stone to stone to avoid the mud and pools of water left behind by the retreating tide.
Bending to peer into one of those tidepools an entire, tiny world emerged: orange crabs crawled out from under stones, the movement sending up miniature clouds of sand that obscured the scuttling crustaceans. Tiny fish darted, and the long-legged bugs we called ‘water skimmers’ zoomed across the surface. It was only when I heard a voice calling me that I realised I had been lost in my new world — until my brother arrived to make sure I had not passed out, or worse.
Years later, an earnest student in Vancouver, I passed far too many hours peering into books under the stark lights of university rooms, but then waiting for the night bus to take me home I would fall under the spell of a row of giant poplar trees that on windy nights swayed in the street-lit shadows above, their leaves rustling like running water.
Fast forward to our first move to Kathmandu, searching for an apartment. We turned the corner of a galli not far from the Charkhal Jail and a magnificent camphor tree rose at the T-junction ahead. I knew then that I wanted to live on that alley, and soon after we signed the contract.
Back in Toronto seven years later, we were visiting another possible rental in the heart of Canada’s biggest city. At one end of the delightfully long apartment was a former balcony, converted into a room for four-season living. Outside its huge windows a stand of maple trees rose above the parking lot. Here’s a future office, I thought, and we were lucky enough to rent that apartment too.
Today, I am again fortunate to live in a relatively green section of Kathmandu, with a backyard that hosts guava, mango, avocado, and other fruit trees. Unless the neighbourhood dogs are yapping, birdsong wakes me in the morning and frogs call insistently after a nighttime monsoon rain.
I have been luckier than most people to live so often next to nature, which bestows enormous benefits often in small, simple ways. I could spend hours soaking in my Dilibazar jungle, but I get the same pleasure from hearing raindrops hit the leaves of the trees outside my open window.
Postscript: The owner of the Dilibazar jewel died in mid-August, before I could go and ask how he managed to preserve a natural paradise amid the steadily shrinking ‘empty’ spaces of the neighbourhood. I dedicate this article to that man I never met, for withstanding the pressure to sell out and cash in.
I am not exactly sure what motivated him to conserve his patch of land, but hearing that just before he died he had asked one of his children to bring him seedlings from overseas, I’m confident it went beyond simply keeping the valuable property in the family.