Melamchi River Blues
Melamchi River Blues
While I lived in Kathmandu, I regularly visited the American Mission Association. Members call it Phora, while some Nepalis call it “mini America.” It’s a club, and expatriates with the right kind of visa can apply to become members. It has a pool and tennis courts, a small gym, a field for baseball and soccer, a children’s playground, movie rentals, manicures and massages, a commissary and wifi café, and very polite Nepali staff. It has a certain colonial feel to it, which bothered me at times: yet it was also a haven where on a weekday afternoon I could exercise, read the papers, and eat lunch. Phora refers to phohara durbar, which in Nepali means “fountain palace.” The extensive, welltended grounds where dozens of expats and their children gather for hours on weekends was once the site of a Rana palace, a place for parties and dances, performances and cinema. It got its name because there were fountains throughout the gardens as well as inside the building. The ornate, neoclassical palace is long gone. In serious disrepair by 1960, the palace was demolished and the land sold to the American government. But phohara durbar has other claims to fame. It was also the site of the first piped water in the Kathmandu Valley. To explain how this came about, I’ll tell you a little more about the valley’s history and culture. The Lichchhavis and Mallas kept the city from growing beyond certain limits. They prohibited building outside a ring of shrines to various mother goddesses, like Kali. They knew that disturbing the land beyond that ring would be “killing your own food, your economic base,” says Sudarshan Tiwari, the architect and cultural historian who has reconstructed aspects of ancient life in the valley. There is still some agriculture in the Kathmandu Valley, because a few of the old landowners stubbornly hold on to their fields even as a sea of “wedding cake,” multistory, pastel houses engulfs them. But daily the green plots of rice and vegetables shrink as the valley succumbs, like the ancient water channels, to unplanned urban development.
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