Sonu, unpretentious and hushed in the delivery of his sentences, hoped I found Kathmandu to be homely.
We had met earlier that day; he stopped me abruptly as I shuffled languidly through the sultry heat of the afternoon. He had strong definition in his cheeks, the thinnest of frames and an earthy, crooked smile. I was beyond suspicious as he protested that he wanted to practice his English with me, but despite my reservations I felt strangely comfortable around him. Though I was sure that my naivety was about to cost me either some money or an apology, I agreed to walk with Sonu. I wanted the meeting, I wanted the story, and I wanted lunch.
We went to a kitchen nearby and sat on a broken bench. Crimson paint was peeling from the walls and a dense fog of heat remained constant. It became my favourite restaurant. We were the only patrons, and the chef would come and sip banana lassi’s with us between stirring buffalo stew and sweeping the unkempt road outside. Over several plates of steaming momos, delicate and intensely spicy, Sonu loosened noticeably and became more expressive, more personal. He wanted to talk all about his family, his lifestyle, his work, his city and his beliefs. I wanted to listen.
He didn’t veil over the sense of simplicity about his lifestyle, driven by beliefs that came as a refreshing tonic to the bleak undertones of poverty and deprivation that were so evident on the streets of Kathmandu. Sonu dropped his head and smiled tentatively through his own confusion as we mused about the chances of stability and unity in Nepal. Lost and enmeshed in the complexities of politics, Sonu asked me to walk with him after we finished eating. Dutifully, I followed.
We strolled lethargically through Thamel. An overwhelming number of street signs clung to the dominant buildings of the narrow streets like lichen, and the occasional monkey danced across loosely hanging, knotted power cables. Competition between senses can be relentless in Thamel; be it frenzied roosters, the regular wails of rickshaw drivers, the husky monotone whisper of drug sellers, or the dal bhat traders who infuse the dusty atmosphere with the intoxicating, pepper-rich lure of spiced lentils. A casual glance furthers the glazed absence of reality; skipping children would attempt to fly kites as shopkeepers playfully brush at their feet, while other children positioned themselves down the thinnest and dimmest alleys to quietly sniff the solvents to which so many of them are savagely addicted.
Thin clouds were spreading over darkening skies. As I tried to take in as much of the environment as I could, Sonu spoke more about his ‘simple living, high thinking’ mantra, asking more than once what I thought about the future of Nepal. I was representing the entire West to him, and I noticed his disappointment when I stumbled in answering. Most of what I knew about Nepal back then he had taught me.
I shuffled through an improvised statement about how his optimism made me feel heartened about the future – his future, and the future of his country. He breathed heavily as he digested those thoughts. He didn’t seem sure, and we walked for a few more steps. I said no to a drug seller. Then again to another.
“My family don’t believe like I do.” Sonu whispered. “But I don’t give up!”
We both smiled.