The gray dust of Kathmandu and its neighboring “suburbs” is ubiquitous. It is everywhere. I remember now with fondness the red dust of Rwanda that used to drive me nuts. It had a rich depth to it that the gray dust of Kathmandu does not have. Now the black shoes that were always tinted red are now a tired gray. I am sure that my skin is probably streaked with gray the way it was with red, I just can’t see it.
Midst all this dust is a sweet little homestead, just one door down from my apartment building. The day watchman at my building says it is the home of his brother, a wizen little man always eager to enchant me with a broad smile and namaste greeting whenever I pass. If I were to have ever dreamed of the ideal grandfather I never had, he would be what I would have imagined. Invariably he is out in front, tending to his property in a variety of ways, often singing to himself as he putters about. In this, he reminds me of my father, who was always puttering around our house, making some improvement or neatening up the yard or his tool shed in some way.
The building itself is set back from the sidewalk, with split face, half of which is a courtyard, half of which is a small storefront selling a variety of snacks in brightly colored packagaing. In the courtyard, I can see the top of a clothesline perpetually host to a colorful variety of of clothing. The courtyard is separated from the sidewalk by a high cement wall that has been painted red. It has elevated patterns in the cement that look like sweeping branches with leaves to add texture to what would otherwise be a flat cement wall. The design is the same as one in a wall hanging in the furniture shop housed on the floor below my apartment, although there the background is brown, the design green. It is apparently as standard design of some sort, although I haven’t seen it anywhere else but in these two locations. The branches and leaves on the red wall are painted a slightly darker shade of red than the wall, rather than green.
The top of the red leafy wall arches over the entrance, an unassuming brown metal door, quite in contrast to the celebration of color and artistry that surrounds it. The half-circle of cement over the gate is painted blue with white trim. To the left of the gate is a picture of Shiva (the all powerful god of transformation and change) Parvati (goddess of love and romance and consort to Shiva), and Ganesh (god of prosperity), set on a cement panel of bright yellow which begins at ground level and extends up about three feet. The picture if place in the upper 1/3 of the panel with red Nepali lettering below. I don’t know what the text means. A mini-roof trimmed in green to protects the picture from the weather. A string of plastic marigolds hangs down from the two corners of the roof extending below the picture to form a necklace around it.
The celebration of home with cement artwork does not end there. To the right of the door, is a red square cement pedestal, with yellow lettering, that houses a red cement pot containing a large dusty jade plant. To the left of the jade is a small garden, perhaps only a foot deep, separated from the sidewalk by 4 inch thick cement border which is painted bright green on the exterior, yellow along the 2 inches top closest to the sidewalk. The inner two inches are painted white and with red English letters that stretch horizontally along its entire length that say S E R V E D B Y S U N I L K H. The scrawny, dusty plants inside it are protected by a bright yellow fence of crisscrossed sticks.
To the right of yellow fence, just next to the edge of the shop, is another cement pedestal, painted blue with white lettering that says, in English: Patience is the greatest virtue. It supports a more ornate circular cement tower with tiny steps climbing upward. The bottom tier is yellow, followed by a series of progressively smaller red tiers that culminate in a brown tier upon which rests what I presume to be a solid blue cement bowl. The bowl serves as a platform for yet another cement container, a planter, which is painted white, trimmed red red along upper edge and green tree-shaped designs on its side. The pot contains another dusty plant, whose identity I do not know.
The shop front, like the house to which it is attached, is painted yellow and has a big wood and glass display counter reminiscent of those that I have seen in pharmacies in movies set in the early 1900’s. I suspect that it might be worth something to an avid antiquer. On the far side of the shop front, are two more square cement pedestals, hosts to two more planters with plants. One is blue, with while Nepali letters. The other is is red sitting on green legs with a blue block of cement between them; the legs and blue block are sit on a thin half-circular cement yellow base. It has no lettering. Next to that is a storm drain, painted sky blue. A small blue cement hill rests at the base of the drain, forming a small bowl with water from which passing animals (dogs, cows) can drink. Next to that, at ground level, is a wooden blue frame with a mini-blue roof above it housing another picture, also of Shiva and Parvati. Next to this, an extending the length of the wall of the neighboring compound up to the edge of its driveway, is another narrow mini-garden inserted between the wall and the sidewalk. This one is protected by a crisscrossed fence of red, yellow, green, and white sticks, and separated from the sidewalk at the bottom by a row of 7-8″ round stones painted white.
The neighboring compound is huge, protected by a tall red brick wall and sporting a gold plaque upon which are inscribed the names of the owners of the structures within. I can’t tell if it is one or two houses, or more, but I can tell from its sheer magnitude and style that it is a relatively recently built addition to the neighborhood and that its residents are probably much wealthier than their neighbors on either side. I wonder if the owners of the big house are friends with the family who have the red-walled homestead or if, perhaps, the sidewalk garden and fence hail to an earlier time when there was another more modest square cement house with neighbors collaborating to decorate their little corner of Nepal together. The latter is more likely.
The love does not stop where the happy fences meet the sidewalk. At the street edge of the sidewalk, placed facing each other at the the base of each telephone pole are yellow hexagonal cement bases, each of which supporting a larger square cement block. One is painted white with red letters, the other is blue with white letters. On some sides, the lettering is in Nepali, other sides are in English. The English offer various proverbs to passer-bys; I assume that the Nepali does as well: Man can make the deserts bloom. Mother and motherland are greater than heaven. May peace prevail in the world.
Each cement square sports a yellow top which, again, holds a pot containing a plant. These differ from the others because they also have English lettering on their sides: Let our future green up. Let’s construct green Nepal.
The entire stretch of sidewalk between the two cement phone poles are maintained by my smiling neighbor. Presumably his name is Sunilkh, or he is his relative of someone bearing that moniker. He clears all the garbage out that accumulates in front of the curb. He touches up the red paint on the wall or on the little red ramp in the curb right in front of his door. He repairs the cracked cement along the edge of the sidewalk and repaints the black and yellow segments of the curb. He splashes water across the sidewalk, I assume to clean the sidewalk. Certainly any steaming gifts left behind by wandering cows who apparently do not realize that they are walking across a pristine section of sidewalk do not remain there long. I think that the colored fences are there, at least in part, to prevent the cows from rubbing against the shrubs as I have seen them do further down the sidewalk where the plants in front of the walls to the fancy house are not protected by a fence. He waters the plants. Everything is spotless beneath the gray sheen that never leaves us.
What strikes me the most is how much one can express using only the simplest of tools — cement and paint. This is a home that is deeply loved, a place where family must feel protected not only by the gods and goddesses that decorate the entrance to their house and their tiny shop, but also by the man who spends his days making sure that everything is lovingly maintained midst the dust that settles out of the air to cover us in a thin veil of gray.