I was going over some writing from my time in Kathmandu, Nepal with fellow photojournalist Josh Crupi. Thought that this would be a good place to share some of it.
There is no sordid secret dirtier, no fantasy more perverse, no ordeal more trying, than the river that slithers and slimes it’s way through this city.
I have known smells of such gentle and lithe beauty, that the lightest reminiscent accent will linger with me in soft nostalgia and slow purposeful grace. Simple things, and complex recollections. The physical sense, and the minds extrapolation. This is what smell has been for me.
Of course, I have smelt disgusting things too. All manner of bodily expulsions, vomit, piss, shit and sweat. The unmistakably vile smell of purification of food and the lingering stagnation of drink.
But these are the necessary balances to the pleasurable experience of smell. They are the disagreeable stench to the agreeable scents. We must be able to ‘agree to disagree’ and vice versa as the saying goes. A Spanish friend I’ve made here one told me how much trouble he had with this idea when he was learning English. “It’s ridiculous.” He laughed. “We have no such saying in Spanish. If no one is right, we simply yell until someone gets tired. That is the person who is wrong.”
I’m not sure why, but that’s all I can think about when I cross the river here, which is often. I think it’s because until now, I’ve never found the antithesis to the rich and completely fulfilling smell of nature.
Picture a man on a long journey. Sticking out from the city this man walks roads of untold distance searching for something. He crosses fast rivers, he shoulders forcefully through forests and climbs mountain ranges. Finally he arrives at his destination. Standing upon a modest grassy knoll he plants his feet and places the balled fists of his hands on his hips. Slowly surveying the Nature in front of him that he has journeyed to find. And with a satisfied look on his face, what is the very first thing that he does?
He breathes in a great big gulp of air through his nose. And in that influx of sudden indulgence is the lush green of Nature, and freedom. I’m not just talking about the smell of a rolling meadow and grass, but also the smell of a sun baked beach and salt water, the thick damp of a rain forest, the eye watering crisp of snow in the air, the smell of rain and mud. All elicit the same heady sense of peace and Nature.
Someone once said that Great Good exists only so that we may recognise True Evil. Or was it the other way round? I don’t know. What I do know is that what I have smelt of this river can only be described as True Evil.
As you near the Bagmati river, murderous barbs of scent rip into the soft tissue of your sinus. Millions of years of evolutionary instinct cause it to run trying to block out the smell, and you know that you should follow the same advice. But stoically you move closer. With every step you search for the source of the sensuous brutalizing you are receiving – but from this distance the only discernible indication that the river is ahead is the eagles wheeling over the heat of stink it expels.
The physical experience overwhelms any capacity for imagination and like a black tar; it fills your head with a stinging pain. Eventually a stupid denial renders you numb, nothing could smell this bad, uncontrollable tears sting your eyes as you approach.
You want to vomit. Dry wrenching leaves sickening bile in your mouth that pools with saliva. The automatic reaction is to swallow, and finally in that one vile grotesque moment as you do, a sudden flash of nightmarish imagination fills you. You just drank from the river.
The Bagmati screams in such lewd volume to me that the faded smells of beauty in nature become as nothing in my memory. In the face of that all I can do is tire. The river has won.
Ironically one of the worst things about it is how ignored it is. The river is the heart of the city, the crushed heart of a prisoner devoid of hope. The people ignore it like a diaper heavy with waste. They trudge along with it without so much as a cursory second thought.
I’ll be crossing the river tomorrow over to see the children at the early learning centre on its bank. The first building I’ll pass will be the single brick room that serves as the buffalo slaughterhouse. The skulls and thick hides will be casually thrown to the river. Their blood will trickle past a house being built closer to the high water mark. Then I will try to hold my breath while walking across the swaying suspension bridge avoiding the scraps of flesh and bone the eagles drop while scavenging. I’ll do this while mutter a prayer to every god, demi-god and dead celebrity that I know.
“Please. If someone has to fall into the river, let it be Josh.”