What comes to mind when I risk my life careening through the narrow streets and congested through ways of Kathmandu, is children’s building blocks scattered in wild abandon across the valley, as if the deities that we worship here, lead of course by Brahma, god of creation, had, during a moment of lila (divine play) in their childhoods, tossed them from the heavens to create a new playground in which they could recklessly cavort for centuries.
Obviously, the gods weren’t anticipating modern traffic patterns when they threw their play things to the ground. Who would, after all, if you moved around the cosmos on celestial beings? Why would Surya, the sun god, worry about installing traffic lights when his golden chariot, pulled by seven white horses, can simply float above it all? Or Agni, the god of fire. His ram also doesn’t need to set a foot on the ground to transport him from place to place. And Brahma, bless his soul, he flies on the back of a swan; sometimes he is even carried by seven of them.
Durga, mother of the universe and the warrior princess, understandably, is escorted by a lion, while Ganesha, the huge elephant-headed, god of prosperity, mounts a mouse who was, apparently, a god in a previous life, named Kroncha. Having accidently stepped on the toes of saint Vamadeva, another god, poor Kroncha was cursed for all eternity to be a mouse. Stepping on a spiritual being is considered a cosmic blasphemy. However, when Kroncha begged for forgiveness, Vamadeva decided he could be — still a mouse — a vehicle for Ganesha. It was the best he could do since undoing a mythical curse is impossible.
Indra, god of rain and storms, rides the white elephant, Airavata, while Kartikeya, god of war rides a peacock. I am curious as to why he doesn’t ride something more exciting, such as a tiger. That is what I would ride if I were the god of war. However, Ayyappa, Shiva’s son, rides the only celestial tiger around. The tiger is the national animal of India.
Shani, who wards off evil spirits, travels in a chariot pulled by a crow. Shiva, the destroyer, rides a bull; Vishnu, the preserver, rides through the heavens on an eagle-like bird named Garuda. Yama, lord of death, and also the god of righteousness, rides a black buffalo. This celestial mount is said to be strong enough to transport two armored gods. Vayu, the wind god, rides a horse, presumably not a white one. Varuna, the water god, rides the celestial waves of a crocodile, and Yaruna, the river goddess drifts through the heavens on a tortoise.
You would think that, with all the celestial activity going on above us that they would need a heavenly control tower to manage flight traffic. I assume that this is one of the many roles that Indra plays in their cosmic playground in the sky, since he has sole authority over the sky.
When I look out from the roof of my apartment building, I see hundreds of the deities’ scattered playthings. All are blocks, of one size or another. Part of me expects to see letters on their sides – A, B, C — as one would find with on of those set of wooden blocks designed to help children learn the alphabet. Some of the blocks are stacked one upon the other to form towering buildings; others are only one or two stories high. There does not appear to be any pattern, and while there are a few major roads that cut a wide swathe through the town, the overall impression is one of dynamic chaos that is always climbing higher. Apparently, people simply put another layer on their homes in order to accommodate the growing extended families.
Most buildings in Kathmandu appear to be built in more-or-less the same way, of the same materials — cement and brick. Each is comprised of square blocks made with four square concrete pillars in four corners of a square concrete slab. The standard size cube looks (from a distance) to be 15-20 feet square. Ocasionally narrower, occasionally taller, the are fit neatly together like the pieces of a lego set when they are used to create a larger building. Each cube will have a concrete slab to form the top as well as the bottom, which probably accounts for why I can’t hear anyone above me. More often than not, walls are formed by filling the space between the pillars with brick. Blocks are stacked upon blocks. Sometimes the exterior is covered with stucco, or something similar. This hides its individual blocks resulting in what appears to be a whole building. But it is really still just a stack of cement and brick cubes.
My first apartment was on the street side of the building. There was a constant din of traffic below me and, because it was on the east side and the entire wall overlooking the street was made of glass, the sun came bounding in to turn it into a sizzling oven. The dust, of course, was noticeable, and I could never open the window for fear of more drifting in. I had to use the air conditioner constantly but it was either too cold or too warm. The wooden furniture in the bedroom had a terrible smell that bothered my sinuses immediately. So I had to move the mattress out into the living room and use the bedroom as a storage room, the result being, more-or-less, a studio apartment with a separate kitchen. The kitchen-dining area was huge.
One day, I had the good fortune to notice that the apartment across from mine was empty. I went to take a look. It was on the back side of the building, without any streets behind it. There was no sound of traffic at all. It was larger, two bedrooms and two baths and, although I didn’t need that much space, it felt more airy and open than my apartment despite the fact that the living room, was in the center of the building and only vaguely lit with light coming down one of three white brick-lined ventilation (?) shafts which I can see through the windows in the living and kitchen room that open into them. But the light in the bedrooms at the back of the building was glorious. Better yet, ff one of the bedrooms, there was even a tiny cement landing which was right next to the bed, so that I could sleep with the evening air wafting across my face.
I happily paid the increase in price, and moved in the same day. Someone else is looked at it already and and has promised to tell me at the end of today it they will take it, I was told. True or not, selling tactic or not, I wasn’t taking any chances. Money changed hands and it was mine. It does cost more, the exact sum that the DOS allocated for my housing but, since my contract says that they will recoup any money saved if I my rent is lower than what they budget, I figured I might as well live in a better space.
Because the building behind mine is a single story, I look out into open air; the tin roof of the building is below my mini-veranda. Beyond it, and to the side are taller buildings, but still shorter than the floor of my apartment. I can see a family through their window on the far side; they have a new baby. I can see the laundry area on top of the house outside my second bedroom, with plants peeking out into the light all along the edge of the domed roof, shaped like a long tube that had been split down the middle, that sits above the laundry lines. If both buildings behind the house had been as tall, it might have felt a little claustrophobic, although even then it would have been better than the street noise and dust.
When I go to bed at night, I am comforted by the blue line of lights that trim the top of a high rise that is some distance away, punctuated by red lights. It reminds me of a square cake trimmed with blue frosting and red glowing candles. I have always liked the colored lights of Christmas and these lights appear to be permanently on throughout the night. They seem to say to me All’s well in the world tonight. I can see the balconies of each apartment beneath the cake, and imagine who is living there.
Best of all, there is another four story building, next to the one with the family with the baby, whose end faces my windows. On each floor, there is a wooden door that opens into nothing but space, a free fall to the ground were anyone to open one and walk through it. No exterior stairs connect them, nothing but air. I wonder what their original purpose was that never came to be. I wonder if Peter Pan, Wendy, and the boys of never never land will open one of the doors and fly away. Or perhaps Alice and the Mad Hatter will decide to have a tea party at a magical floating table outside one of the doors. Every morning when I wake, I can imagine some new purpose for the four doors that open into nothing. Aren’t doors always supposed to go somewhere? Perhaps they are the doors that the gods and goddesses use to launch their celestial mounts. Certainly, it would be easier to leave from a door that opens into the sky than to heave oneself up from the ground. Perhaps all the celestial beings of the universe have earthly apartments next door to me and I don’t even know it.