Where rivers are not the PhoenixWhen rivers are angry, they surge back to life again
Man Maya crouches on the steps of her concrete house. The house is covered in rough cement plaster. Stark grey now from years of weathering. The colour of the sky above her is a shade darker than her house.
“Don’t you feel cold on your legs?” she yells at me while putting her palms together to make the shape of a shell to return my greeting. Her hair is fully gray-- cottony. An imitation of the cloud accumulating above her head.
I laugh and pull the end of the sleeves of my jumper all the way down to cover my fingertips. Aja’s jumper, actually. I have been wearing it since he passed last month. How else do you cling to a dead person, but in their belongings?
I must make a weird image to Man Maya-- a woman in an oversized man’s jumper and no trousers. She probably thinks I have no trousers. The jumper hangs below my shorts but Man Maya does not know that. I am suddenly blushing because I am conscious of her age and experience and I kind of want her to know I am wearing shorts and that I am not being disrespectful. But I keep walking because the thought of walking up to her and telling her so is even more embarrassing.
I walk past her house and downhill towards the river. And always, the river brings me surprises. She seems to attract so much self-destruction. This time, it is the construction workers.
It has rained the entire week, but there is no swollen river below the bridge as is the rainy season norm. The river is fast downgrading itself into a stream. And like Man Maya’s hair, she too imitates the colour of the sky. The water has turned murky, as it does after rains, only, it has no might.
Against the twilight, construction men sit on wheelbarrows, sharing a cigarette, flanked by heaps of mud and rocks.
We are building a road that will connect to the main road, they explain. But isn’t there a road already that does the same, I want to ask. Then I hold back as the men start to sermonise about how roads are the key to development.
Upsteam, the Angel’s Trumpet plants lay wilting on the dirt. The men explain they cut it down to make way for the road. Next to it is a stack of bamboo shoots, slashed down to its roots.
We can still use the bamboo for building, one of the men says.
They have built a temporary shelter nearby for the duration of the construction. Downstream, they’re building stalls for what will be a vegetable market. They have torn down part of the hill to build. They boast about how much hard work it was and how they are stronger from doing that kind of work.
“Nani, go to the Shiva temple and kneel for blessings,” one of them says.
I nod and keep walking past the Shiva who now seems to lure only gentrification. My uninterrupted evening walks have run their course as the quiet pathways give in. Every other walk, there is one more fresh construction happening. Every other walk, there is one more creek that has gone dry (pictured, below).
My legs, now steeped in the muscle memory of this trail, might soon have to learn a new one.
My daily route brings me back in full circle before Man Maya’s house. She is still on the steps of her house, now, a cigarette clenched between her fingers. I take courage and sit down on the pavement near her. Her heels are cracked and she wears no slippers.
Before us stretches the last remaining open space in the village.
Man Maya is the talk of the village-- how she went from being the owner of half the village to now being slumped in debt.
“I sold,” she says. “The money seemed good at first, and then we couldn’t stop selling. I had to stop at the house.”
“What do you think of the Hijjya River?” I ask.
“Oh,” she says. “It’s a dying river.”
“But it wasn’t always like that, right?” I probe. “My mother talks about the days when she was a child and they would carry her in a basket to Budanilkantha temple and the river would gurgle angrily as they walked past it.”
“Indeed. Hijjya was the angry river. It was proud. It is where we all went to do our washing. In winter, it shone with clear water and in summer, it was always serene with the ducks, bamboo plants and the Angel’s trumpets thriving wildly on the banks. In the monsoon, always angry. Like the women in this village,” she lets out a laugh.
“But all women wither and we also die. And this river is also dying. Did you see those men? So excited about building, building, building. Men like that bought my ancestral land too, and look how many houses have grown here in the stead of trees? It is making me go blind,” she laughs aloud and a whiff of stale alcohol sweeps past my nostrils.
For a moment, I try to conjure the village of Man Maya’s childhood. A mud and brick house built by her ancestors, where we now sit, overlooking open grazing grounds for cows, green fields, tall trees, wild flowers and goats and cows and dogs and cats and birds.
Before us, in the small patch of green now, a black puppy chases two kids and the mother goat bleats away and stares.
“Are you okay, Man Maya Didi? I will be heading home,” I say.
“Huss, don’t worry,” she says. “The river will get angry again when it must. All we can do is to wait and live that anger.”
Suburban Tales is a monthly column in Nepali Times based on real people (with some names changed) in Pratibha’s life.