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Tear down the house

March 12, 2016: My grandfather had a sword he would brandish to us kids if we nagged him long enough. It was a rusty old thing and it stayed stowed away in the dark buigal with the stray cats and the things that had little use left in this world—dusty pots that once brewed homemade moonshine, deep sanduks that could fit in all his grandchildren and the junk that had once been useful but were now merely taking up space in his attic and his mind. When he took us to the buigal, he headed straight for the sword. “This beauty defended the Valley when it was attacked,” he would say, his demeanour suddenly proud, as if he had himself been at the vanguard of an inebriated battalion that night of the Indra Jatra so long ago. It had been passed on to him by his grandfather and though it was in want of upkeep, it always filled him with childlike awe.

He never talked about the pots.

***

I grew up in a large, extended joint family amid the crumbling chowks of Asan. Our family home had been built in the years after the 1934 earthquake and incorporated neo-classical elements that were in vogue at the time. Its whitewashed facade meant it stood out from the other houses in the tolle which were, save the few concrete matchboxes, built in the Newari design—intricate bay windows and all. It also meant the house towered over the rest of the neighbourhood and made for a great vantage point during Holis and Dashains. As a kid I was enamoured by our house. Back then, I wanted to grow old peering out into the town from its carved windows and dining in the kitchen with 30 other people. I wanted to inherit the buigal, fill it with more junk and someday spin tall tales to bright-eyed grandchildren of my own.

I would eventually move as studies took me away to a boarding school and then abroad. Yet, in all those years away, Kathmandu, and particularly Asan, always occupied a sacred space in my mind. When the vast open fields of Godavari made me lonely, I longed for the squalor of the tight-knit old town where at dinnertime you could count the sittis of pressure cookers of all the houses down the road. When the cold Iowan winters froze my limbs, I thawed them with the warm memories of a childhood spent basking in the sun on prickly sukuls. And no matter where I went, I drew comfort and strength from my roots that spread deep under those crumbling chowks, even if at the time it remained strictly in the foggy realms of my mind.

Yet, that is the very problem with imaginary homelands: they are imaginary—so brittle they shatter upon first contact.

When I eventually moved back to Asan, having had been away for 10 years, much of it, surprisingly, was still the same. True, the old houses were a tad more decrepit, the streets slightly more crowded and there were several concrete structures that had come up, but in essence the neighbourhood looked much like it had done in the 80s.

And yet something had changed. Something had been irrevocably broken. One by one, the families I grew up with had moved away into bigger houses with greener lawns. The courtyards were no longer party to gossiping grandmothers. The alleys no longer home to spontaneous cricket matches. An eerie silence had descended on this once bustling community and without the neighbours; the neighbourhood was slowly dying, one indifferent day at a time.

It was only a matter of time before we moved on too—mentally first, then literally. In truth, Asan was still a wellspring of fond nostalgic memories, yet without anyone to share them with, these memories became irrelevant—stowed away in our minds, like the junk in my grandfather’s buigal.

And perhaps for the first time I began to realise why he kept the pots in his attic but never talked about them: We would never truly understand their value, even if we understood what they were for. His memories of homemade moonshine had died with his mother—the last brewer in the family. Without her, they were exactly what they were: just dusty pots.

***

After the April earthquake last year, our house still stood but was no longer habitable. The decision to pull it down was swift and unanimous. We had all moved on.

When the time came to divvy up the contents of the house, like raccoons we first went for the shiniest things. The heirloom jewellery, then the Licchavi-era coins, then the silver puja thalis. I staked claim to the sword—now rusted beyond recognition—and no one objected.

It now rests under the mattress on my bed. It keeps away bad dreams I am told, and I suppose it works most of the time.

The other night, I woke up from a vivid dream about my grandfather’s attic and realised that no one had lay claim on the dusty pots.

And no one seems to know where they ever went.