After my first trip to Delhi in January 2023, I told myself I needed to romanticize the alleys and courtyards, houses, and shops of Kathmandu more than I was doing. During the Delhi trip for the student exchange, I kept reminding myself not to romanticize the alleys and the courtyards, the doors, and the buildings of Old Delhi. As a writer, who longs to live in the spatial memory, the weeklong exchange was an eye-opener. Interactions with my fellow students from the University of Heidelberg and the School of Planning and Architecture helped me detach from my dreamy self and listen to what the people of Dharampura had to say, how they lived, and what was happening on the ground. The discussions with the faculty helped me to focus and keep track of the work. Having an interdisciplinary approach to the fieldwork, where we brought in maps, techniques, and research questions, isn’t something I am used to applying for the work I create. Using them for this project helped to substantiate my work and give it a foundation. The comments we received from the faculty also brought me to reality, expanding my thought process on observing the surroundings. Learning from this exchange is a big help to my academics and creative career.
The following piece is inspired by how the street of Dharampura is slowly changing with time, the locals moving out and migrants moving in, while a few houses and havelis are emptying, others are being turned into business complexes. This is a story of Dharampura, what it has seen, and what it has felt with the change.
I was empty before they moved in. I was born when they settled. And before I knew it, I grew as they mapped out their streets, their chowks, their courtyards, and their buildings. And as they built their havelis and their temples, with their chabutaras and their jharokhas, my children were born. And with them came the papers, the textiles, the languages I didn’t recognize till I learned that it was Marwari and Gujarati and businesses here and there.
With time, I began learning and understanding a bit of their languages. I learned through their talk amongst themselves that they came from far but not that far places from here. That they were at first invited by the Nawab. That they were good with accountancy and business.
Slowly, as I observed their everyday life and listened to their gossip, I learned and remembered their stories, memories, and history as if I were their archivist. As if it was my job to document, record and remember everything about them.
In my youth, my children flourished. You could hear their children playing inside their homes and outside on the streets, their men drinking chai, and their women cooking, washing, and cleaning during the daytime. During the evening, the family would come to the rooftops, the children screaming and crying, the men flying kites, and the women making pappads and mixing spices. You could also hear and catch sight of them talking to each other, sometimes shouting from one house to the other, other times laughing at some jokes from the terraces. In the night, the whole street fell dark and silent. The only light shining was that from the moon. The only sound was that of crickets chirping. And the next day, as the sun slowly became brighter, the volume of the town would also slowly rise. The women making chai and nasta, the men getting out of the house for grocery shopping. You couldn’t hear the kids till the sun was warm enough.
And while it started with one stretch of street, my children and I slowly took over the area as their community grew. We saw an influx of people every day coming from their regions. Some were chachas from their villages, others were mamas, and some others were fupas and mausis. As their community expanded, they named and renamed my children, dividing them into streets, chowks, temples, and clans. I was still the long stretch of the road that joined them to the main town. My children became the capillaries, connecting me with the other side, slowly branching out.
But now, my children are dying. And in some ways, so am I.
My children are dying because their children no longer play in the streets. And we don’t hear the kids playing inside the house as well. My children are dying because very few men come out to have chai and exchange friendly banters. Those who come are old themselves. I know they would stop coming after a couple of years as well. My children are dying because we don’t hear women cooking, cleaning, washing, or feeding in some houses. With time, rooftop rituals are also disappearing as people don’t spend time on the terrace. There are no silly jokes or waves of laughter we hear. While the streets are still noisy and filled with people, these faces are unfamiliar.
Some houses are turning empty. Emptier than who I was before they filled in. Instead of warmth, love, and happiness, the houses are now haunted by the ghosts of the past. Their walls are colored with abandonment, faded, and cracked. Instead of the aroma of their cooking with turmeric and cardamom, cumin, and cloves, their kitchen now stinks with dead rats and cockroaches as if the only thing that gets cooked are these pests. And with each empty house, one of my children dies.
But me? I know I will still be here for a long time. I can no longer keep track of these new faces who keep showing up every day here. Every day I hear a new language I cannot speak. I see a new ritual I do not follow. I smell curries I never tasted, smelt, or heard of before. And every day, I learn a new name, a new business, and a new profession with them. And I know that as long as they keep coming, I will keep living, even when I don’t want to. Until there is at least one person who shows up every day, till there is at least one house still standing here, till there is at least one temple that gets worshipped, till there is at least one soul who remembers my name, I will not die.
And that my friend is both a curse and a blessing. To live long enough to see your children dying, to see your people leaving, to see the changes you could never imagine. And still, be learning. Still, be breathing.
Shuvechchhya Pradhan is an enthusiast of everything heritage, history, and old houses. After working in media for two years, she has been working as a research writer for independent organizations and projects. Currently, she is involved in Tumbahalaya, a creative community space where she focuses on organizing workshops, events, and screenings. She can be found on social media as @suvpradhan