Early morning. Street dogs are barking, Tikki growls from her place of privilege on the sofa. A car, then a motorbike drives by. The local dogs are silenced, but further away there is a brief outbreak of barking from a pack further away. A chained dog yelps. A bell rings. Pigeons coo. Somebody is making a rattling noise with something metallic. A muffled sound of banging, perhaps an axe on wood. Two women talk loudly as though they are on the verge of an argument. The chained dog yelps. Tikki yawns, curls up, her days on the street long since forgotten. Our shared front gate clangs open. The women have arrived with their brushes to sweep next door’s yard. The day begins. I open the curtain. Light streams in. In the garden across from us an older woman in a red sari potters in the garden, cleaning her teeth, toothpaste white against her light brown skin.
This is Lakshmi the Hindu goddess of wealth, and wife of Lord Vishnu. Today is Lakshmi Puja (celebration) when people clean their houses inside and out and decorate them with lights, candles and paint intricate mandalas on the street outside their front doors with a red stripe (sometimes candle lit) leading into the house to encourage Lakshmi in to visit her devotees. People leave offerings of sweets and other delicacies for her. The happier she is with her visit the more likely she is to bestow wealth and happiness on the family.
The narrow streets around us are ablaze with lights strung from houses, lights are also burning inside. Everywhere the power is on. A band is playing down the street, firecrackers are bursting here there and everywhere, dogs are barking. Groups of young people cruise the streets singing and shouting, bands come to houses and play a few tunes, the girls scream when a firecracker set by mischievous boys goes off. And outside the shuttered shops and leading into houses are the offerings and encouragement for Lakshmi to bestow her blessings and wealth on those within. Walking our local streets this evening was riches enough for me.
There are times when Kathmandu feels a long way from anywhere. This city built on an ancient lake bed and cradled by hills it squats alone in the darkness. The first chill is in the air, the clarity of light growing richer at dusk, clouds still stacked, their nooks and crannies, valleys and billowing mountains sculpted by the light of the setting sun. Light is what Tihar is about. In a stuttering economy and irregular power supply suddenly there are lights, curtains of them, blue and white, red and yellow, falling like waterfalls down the sides of office blocks, warming the dark streets. Once, just once in the year Kathmandu will be lit up, all the lights in all areas of the city will be on at once. From a passing aircraft high in the sky this city will look like a jewel, light refracted, lying like an offering at the feet of the Himalayas. Sacred, inscrutable, grey, ethereal they stand like ghosts in the moonlight.
In August this year a massive landslide killed scores of people, destroyed homes, fields and a hydroelectric power station about 90 miles outside Kathmandu. It also took out the road (the main and pretty much only trade route) into China. The Dashain and Tihar festivals occur close together and it is a time when people buy stuff — everyone gets a double months pay for the holiday and the shops are well stocked to meet demand. But backed up at the boarder were something like 1000 trucks full of Chinese exports unable to get through to Kathmandu. Just before the start of Dashain a new track was opened through the landslide and the goods started to arrive. By then it was too late and there was nowhere to put anything. The chaos remains as witnessed in a local store and much arrived too late to be sold, hitting the stores very hard.