Spring days in Freak Street are short. Around 10pm, when even the most steadfast sellers have long packed up shop, only stray cats prowl around the crumbling stone buildings with their intricately carved wooden gables. At 7am, however, you will have to search a bit longer for an open chai stall. Power cuts are frequent in the mornings and evenings – and even more so in between. While I am sipping steaming hot chai at a street corner, waiting for Bijay to turn up, a few shop owners are slowly starting to open their doors. You will find everything here: glittering Rajasthani style cushion covers, Nepalese purses, colourful accessories for marijuana aficionados and the occasional, dusty Shiva statue. In short, anything that pleases the western tourists who like to stay in this winding little street of Kathmandu’s old town. In the 1970s, Freak Street was an important stop on the opium trail of the hippies and dropouts, but today everything has reverted to normal.
“Let’s drink another chai, okay?” Just as I have given up hope of seeing him, Bijay leisurely ambles down the street, sits down on a plastic stool next to me and orders tea. Days in Freak Street are obviously slow in coming. “Originally, my family is from Santhal in Gujarat. That's near Ahmedabad”, Bijay tells me in between sips of chai. But by now his parents, his six siblings, their families and himself have been living in Nepal for many years. His father is one of many Freak Street shop owners, selling scarves, bags and other knick-knacks. “It’s this funny pseudo-Rajasthani style that foreigners like so much.” Bijay laughs. He himself is a tailor’s apprentice, which earns him 6000 Nepali Rupees (around 44 Euros) a month. This isn’t necessarily his first choice, but he is happy to have found a place. How much are you prepared to sacrifice to your family?
Before he can answer my question, Bijay steps through a small window at ground level, behind which lies a dark alleyway. As we crawl out of the blackness on the other end, we find ourselves in a small inner courtyard in front of a Hindu pagoda temple. “The Newar, who are the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu valley, invented this roof structure and exported it to countries as far away as China.” While an ageing priest with a little oil lamp in his hands is marching around the temple, celebrating the pooja (a Hindu prayer ritual), we are sitting on a small bench, licking sticky lemon and nut ice cream. Just as the courtyard is being drowned under a musical wave of gongs and bells, it starts to drizzle and Bijay mentions that he isn’t that religious after all. “Shall we go to the cinema?”
At midday, most seats in the big cineplex around the corner are empty. On the way, we have collected Bijay’s sisters Poonam and Rajani who also wanted to watch the action thriller Aurangzeb (2013), starring Bollywood actor Arjun Kapoor. As we step on the escalators leading up to the second floor, the girls giggle and hold onto each other: Automatic conveyor belts are new to them. While Kapoor rides around Gurgaon in posh cars in this modern adaptation of the life of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (1618-1707), bringing down corrupt policemen, Bijay’s sisters don’t stop laughing even during the bloodiest, most violent scenes, rustling merrily with their popcorn bags. “Haha! This is so stupid!” Bijay is having a ball, although he doesn’t really like Bollywood films. Sometimes, he sounds like a little misanthropist, but it would probably be more correct to say that he prefers being serious. “That’s just me. I don’t like all that superficial fuss on Freak Street.”
Back in the winding alleyways, Bijay explains his family ties to me. While a lot of European languages don’t differentiate between relatives on the mother’s or the father’s side, such distinctions are vital in a lot of Indian languages. After all, family ties are much more closely knit here, often but not only due to living circumstances: “We all sleep in the same room, although we are nine. It’s a bit crowded sometimes.” When I ask Bijay if he doesn’t sometimes yearn for a little bit of privacy or a room of his own, he looks at me startled. “That would make me feel very lonely I think.”
Pagodas, chai and family ties
Living arrangements aside, there is not much privacy in Kathmandu. With a burgeoning mass of 976,000 inhabitants, most streets are permanently jammed with cars, pedestrians and motorbikes. Especially the latter are a pain in the neck, says Bijay. As we slowly we make our way through the traffic jam, we finally reach a less picturesque part of Kathmandu where we visit Bijay’s tailor’s shop. Right next to it looms a tall, red and white temple underneath a bodhi tree. As prayer bells start chiming in time for pooja, the sky changes from greyish blue to light purple. But the near perfect picture is disturbed by an intense stench of dirt, death and cold ashes. Bijay points at the rubbish tip on the other side of the river. “On very bad days, the stench is almost unbearable.” On the way back to Freak Street, we stop in front of a small shop to drink chai and smoke a cigarette. What to do with one’s life? Bijay is unsure.
“I think I’ll finish my apprenticeship first. This month I even got a raise!” Bijay smiles happily because this means he will be able to support his family more. Rents for shops and flats in Freak Street are high and at some point his three sisters will have to be married off. “First we’ll have to find an Indian husband, then enough money for the dowry, the wedding and so on – the full monty.” Bijay himself would prefer to remain single. “I don’t want to get married, you can’t really trust girls.” His Nepalese friends only ever tell him sad stories about unfaithful girlfriends who break every man’s heart. “I don’t really want that”, Bijay laughs.
Back in Freak Street, most shop owners have already started packing up. Bijay quickly buys some chocolate before the last window is shut. Prowling around my legs, a stray cat starts meowing loudly, in tune with the chimes of the temple bells. “When you come back, I’ll show you a lot more. The side streets of Kathmandu are beautiful.” And Gujarat even more so! After all, the desert state is the most beautiful place in the world. Nevertheless, Bijay is happy to be in Kathmandu. “A big city is always more interesting, I suppose.” Even if you like neither girls, nor motorbikes nor Bollywood films.