Nepali Times
The 'people ’ tree


On Kathmandu 's New Road,one of the city 's busiest shop- ping centres where the foreign goods are,is a large peepal tree. In its shade are a platform and several small votive shrines, mostly Buddhist that probably date to the time when an old Newari bahal or community courtyard,that collapsed in the devastating earthquake of 1934,occupied the area.The engaging old Rana general who had been responsible for clearing the earthquake damage,described it as \'ruins,ruins everywhere,piled right up against the old palace walls and as far as one dared to look.Like a warscape.' It was he who had planned the New Road and the modern complex about it,but he was not sure about the bahal of the peepal tree.

Perhaps there had been one.Perhaps there had been a temple. He would have to consult his old photographs and plans.Though we met again,the subject of the Peepal Bot,as the place is called, was forgotten,and then the wonderful old gentleman died,taking his secrets with him.

Today,Peepal Bot is Kathmandu 's most popular rendezvous and viewing stand,a place where if you loiter long enough you will almost certainly meet or see people you wish to.Like editors of local newspapers.Street politicians.The relative or friend of somebody who knows somebody in high places;perhaps just the person who might help you find a job.

Here,on occasion,descend singing and pamphlet-scattering devotees of ISKCON,contrasting with those who gather to mildly demonstrate for some reason or another.Here one might meet the self-styled Global Emperor,dressed in an antique black overcoat, black Nepali cap decked out with beads and badges and carrying a tattered file filled with dictats written in his own hand on the backs of gods ' pictures..Rumour has him an agent of some sort or another, a government spy keeping tabs on traffickers in drugs and black money or visa-less foreigners,or,and this is the story I like best,the deranged Romeo who was denied the love of a high-born lady.

He himself,claim some of the legends about him,came from a leading family of Kathmandu.He often stops me and in the most gentle of confidential whispers tells me that Krishna has the veto.At each meeting,I am enriched by a vivid god picture and one of his messages to mankind which he begs me to publish in the world press.

The Peepal Bot attracts shoeshine boys and hawkers of every- thing from cigarettes to snacks.Worshippers come at all times to make offerings or pray when there 's no one about or to fight their way through the late afternoon and evening crowds.The platform is often used for Newari bhoj or feasts,participants suddenly squatting in circles under the tree,oblivious of the crowds passing by.Here people come not only to see but to be seen.Like the dying breed of New Road cowboys who wore natty denim outfits,high-heeled boots,hats or eye shades,transistors and Walkmans,and subcon- sciously affected John Travolta habits.One of them featured in a BBC television film -banned in Kathmandu -to the music of Saturday Night Fever .

That phase is done.Today 's New Road cowboys,if indeed one can call them such,and a cautiously emerging breed of New Road cowgirls,prefer imported tee shirts,coloured neck scarves,and discreetly tailored clothes and hairstyles.In the winter it is down jackets or leather.

But mostly,the Peepal Bot is a meeting place for those who come to read the latest newspapers and magazines and discuss the day 's news.There was,until recently,a convenient and well patronised bookshop just across the street,which to the dismay of the confirmed Peepal Bot habitue,was torn down and replaced by a slender concrete highrise,innocent of newspapers and magazines. Nothing daunted the hawkers who moved in,so one can buy every
popular Nepali,Indian and foreign publication under the peepal tree and find an immediate and informed coterie to share or argue your views with.

For years,a cafe that looks almost like a tree house in the branches of the Peepal Bot,has endeavoured to attract the potential customers below.And perhaps in recognition of all that concentrated reading,there are a fair number of shops selling reading glasses about the small square,and just a reach away is the busy office of Nepal 's largest newspaper group.

Apart from being something of a Mecca to Indian tourists who on occasion can be seen picnicking in the Super Bazaar,New Road is the ceremonial highway to the old Royal Palace and Durbar Square.I have seen the present king,and his father before him,ride to their coronations in splendid horse-drawn carriages,escorted by mounted guards,flag bearers,priests,officials,military bands and troops in olden and modern uniforms,to return leading magnificent processions of elephants.Every year the king passes by in a more simple motorcade to witness the beginning of the Kumari jatra and receive the blessings of the virgin goddess.

An imposing bronze statue of the Rana prime minister who had the road built,occupies a traffic island to gaze down the length of his creation.How modern the street must have appeared to him then,almost too wide in its absence of traffic and today 's crowds.

One wishes he could have had a preview of New Road as it is today,with its policeman chasing away parking cars that narrow the Street,and its huge tourist coaches that require a traffic lane to themselves.Once they came overland from Europe,emblazoned with exotic signs and promising enchanted tours.The ghost of one still haunts the car park near the old palace.It was called the Chapatti Express.Whatever could have become of a coach with so unlikely a name?

(Excerpted with permission from In the Kingdom of the Gods , HarperCollins,1999)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)