I am on a walk through the Bahas (courtyard) around Itumbaha: in the older part of Kathmandu with the former Ambassador to the EU and to India Durgesh M. Singh. The man walks me through numerous Bahas, dropping insightful comments and trivia carelessly. I try to remember it all, an audio recorder would have come in handy I think but then again, it would have killed the candid nature of the conversation. And just like that, as we bowed our heads to walk into a small baha, Durgesh M Singh points out Rajamati’s house to me.
Now like many other Nepalese of my generation, I grew up listening to the song – “Rajamati Kumati…” – sung or mentioned randomly and I always thought Rajamati was a fictional Newar hottie. I mean in times where you had no TV or Internet, people would rely a quite a bit more on their imagination, no? It never occured to me that someone had written a song about a real person. Rajamati was apparently so beautiful that people would flock to her house to try and win her hand in marriage.
Other revelations followed in the neighborhood. Sites of historical shootings, important temples, the first cement house – incidentally the house he was born in, so on and so forth. I had grown up nearby all of this and I had never known of all this history around the corner. It really is sad how a lot of my generation is like me, where we know random dates from western culture and history but know not much about our own.
When he finally came around to sharing his project idea, I agreed instantly – developing all of these Bahas and including them in the tours that bring tourists for a heritage walk here and then limit them to the Basantapur Durbar Square is a brilliant idea. These narrow alleys seem to have retained in them the charm of living in a community; their quaint little shops are a far cry from mall culture, the roads that criss cross across and around them discourage motorised vehicles and their lifestyle is a definite throwback to an earlier, charmed era.
Once the area sees tourists, the logic is that locals who have left for better housing/water/parking facilities will want a piece of the pie and come back, if not to live here, then perhaps to open up shops or cafés maybe to cater to visitors. This wuld also meant that the houses that are close to ruin would be maintained. Maybe with time, the place could even have nice little shops selling non-kitschy souveneirs – maybe even select boutique stores selling Nepali products. Imagine tourists soaking in the feel of the place, spending time in one of these bahas while they munch on some sukuti and wash it down with aela.
One of the best parts of the idea is that even if people do not come back to live in these bahas anymore, the fact that the role of the bahas can be something besides housing and that they can become a self-sustaining part of the community in itself would be quite something. The only thing to be careful about that I can think of right now is ensuring the place does not turn into some place like Thamel.
Just last month I had met Jitendra Shrestha, a cultural expert who had argued that what we proudly but wrongly call our culture is but our heritage. Unless and until we tweak it to suit present time, add to it and make it our own, it will remain something we inherited and not “our” culture. Durgesh M. Singh’s idea to look at Bahas practically and to make them a self-sustaining part of our society seems like a solid step towards this transformation.