I pass by Siphal every day on my walk to work these days. But I always skirt around it and rarely cut through its narrow, claustrophobic roads. I do this consciously because Siphal is always alert, it feels like the old buildings are porous. They talk to me and listen to each other. They hold me by the shoulders and ask me to pay attention. On most days I don’t want to respond but I do. The route that I prefer and usually take encircles Siphal from the outside and leads straight to Mitrapark. Although only a few steps removed from Siphal’s cramped roads, this route feels deserted, it has nothing to share. Siphal is like an old friend I try to avoid and my alternate route home is a friend I am getting to know.
But old friends have a way of being that you cannot erase. They are usually dormant. These days they come alive when I give others a tour of their cycles, bumps and inroads. A few weeks ago, a new friend wanted to take the shortcut to Pashupati through Siphal. We’d walked from Gyaneshwor to Kalopul. I was going to stay quiet but just as we neared the pipalbot I pointed to the right and showed her Pushpanjali. Siphal doesn’t want me to stay quiet, she wants me to show her off. Siphal thinks I owe her this.
Pushpanjali doesn’t exist anymore, it was the first school I went to. My only memories of it are from photographs of my cousin and I wearing maroon overalls over baby pink shirts. We were snotty, or it was a fashion trend then, but we both have handkerchiefs pinned to the left side of our upper torso. I assume this is where I learned my ka kha ga and ABCs. A few houses to the left of the school I show my friend ‘Gurung ko ghar‘. A single room and shared kitchen and bathroom on the ground floor of this house was the second or third home my parents made since moving to Kathmandu. The first one was the first floor of one of the conjoined houses exactly in front of Patan Dhoka. As the legend goes, mum walked all the way to Patan Dhoka from Ratnapark while she was eight months pregnant with me. I think it involved an argument with my dad. The second one was ‘Mainali ko ghar’ somewhere in Baneshwor. The only reason I remember the Mainalis is because their son wanted a little sister and so for the first few Bhaitikas of my life he was in the lineup with my other Bhais. This surrogate Dai now lives five houses down the road to us but I’ve seen him once in the past fourteen years we’ve lived in Gaurighat.
I have a lot of second hand memories from Gurung ko Ghar. Apparently, the landlords’ kids loved me and still ask about me. They considered me family because of my round nose. My first hand memories are less happy. I had a birthday party in that house that I hated. I’m surprised how none of my memories of Siphal involve the chaur though, which has always been an important landmark in the area. We were always circling the chaur, moving house to house but never ran through it as kids.
I show her another house to the left, a few steps ahead of the pipal bot. That was where dad and his friends set up their first office. I learned from here that working with friends is usually a good thing. I didn’t know what to say when people asked me what dad did. He wasn’t a doctor or an engineer or a policeman or a shopkeeper. He went to office so I called him an ‘officer’. I realize dad’s friends asked this question a lot because they didn’t really know what they were either. But I remember this house most fondly. There were three rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. The floors had grass-green carpets. My dad and his friends came to office each day and did stuff, while I played outside alone on most days. I never strayed too far. I remember my favorite thing to do was to find and eat a tiny sour plant that grew wildly in the garden.
I think Siphal was good to us. Because my maternal grandparents decided that their first home in Kathmandu would be a conjoined house opposite the Bhandarkhal. This is where we met our life-long nimeses, the monkeys of Pashupati, who could reach my grandparents’ windows at an arms stretch from trees that hung over the Bhandarkhal railings. This is where I had my first plate of momos. My mum would send me with a five-rupee note to a bhatti opposite Jayabageshwori mandir every time I whined and watch me walk there and back from the terrace. And me, this usually timid four-year-old would brave my way there alone, ask for half a plate, and shove them into my mouth silently.
The path leading from Siphal Chaur to Jayabageshwori Mandir used to feel miles long when we were small. It’s hardly a two-minute walk now. I don’t have time to show her the little paati opposite Ganesh Mandir where I bought pau from the leftover change from buying milk. Once mum found out and smacked me with a kucho. I still think twice before buying pau or chauchau. One of my best friends lived on that road so I point and mention that quickly but there is no time to show her my other best friends’ house who lived in a galli behind our fifth or sixth rented flat in that area.
It seems impossible to cover everything. Almost every nook and corner leading up to Pashupati is peppered with sounds, smells and occasionally faces that force me to be awake.
It’s funny what places teach you about people. Maybe we forget old friends because remembering involves an exhausting two-minute walk through childhood. There is no room to begin all over. There are too many things hidden behind too many gallies.
I am trying to make friends with my alternate route home. Our only common ground is a laphing centre opposite Pashupati campus. But on most days we are out of sync. Sometimes I don’t have an appetite, and on days that I build an appetite on my way there, the shop is closed. And though my always reliable pau vendor at Siphal is probably open, I don’t want to go back there again.