Backstory: Kathmandu's rooftop respites

In the Himalayan 'roof of the world,' urban heights provide temples of calm amid turmoil of politics, traffic, and uncertainty.

Believe it or not, there wasn't a lot of noise up there. The six stories between Mohan Krishna Mulapati and the helter-skelter streets of Kathmandu are a filter, leaving below all the kamikaze taxi horns, inconsiderate motorbike engines, and anything else - like this nation's recent political upheaval - that would get between Mr. Mulapati and his peace of mind. After all, he takes his garden seriously.

As in all global trouble spots, life's prosaic aspects go on - the beauty of the commonplace a palpable triumph over uncertainty. During the weeks of bloody protests that ultimately forced King Gyanendra to give up power last week, citizens like Mulapati found stability in the normal.

After morning puja - a religious offering at the local shrine - Mohan heads to his rooftop garden. Leaving behind the cares of tax payments and other business matters a hotel owner must deal with, he lovingly tends to his plants, meticulously watering each one, adding organic fertilizer where needed.

At first, his wife was upset with his executive decision to invest 500 rupee ($7) in worms for his compost buckets. But as the worms multiplied, so did the fertilizer and the flower count: roses, birds of paradise, pansies, snapdragons. "Now she's happy with the flowers because she can use [them] for puja," Mulapati beams.

It seems his three hours of work each morning in the garden has paid off for other family members as well. Though his children don't like to touch the slimy critters or help out in the garden, they use bouquets to make gifts for their teachers. "Then they say the flowers are from their garden," Mulapati chuckles.

He loves his garden like family. "Like kids, these flowers," he says in broken English. "I love my flowers like this ... every day you need to give time."

But as I sit in Mohan's Himalaya's Guest House rooftop garden, sipping sweet Nepali tea and gazing out over the centuries-old city, it becomes clear to me that rooftop solace-seeking extends far beyond this building. Under a big sky that surges with vagabond pigeon flocks, high-soaring kites (of the feathered variety), and curious sparrows I see more gardens.

One distant rooftop looksto be growing an entire forest. Beside it I can see an old woman bent over, quietly sweeping a grass broom over an already spotless square roof lined with perfectly potted plants. Just beyond her, three tiny children toss a ball back and forth over a laundry wire, giggling at the risk of sending the ball over the edge. Below me, two buildings over, a young woman hangs laundry, humming a sweet folk song as the breeze dances across the line.

In a country whose economy has been on major downshift ever since communist rebels took up armed insurgency against the king, I speculate that these rooftop spaces serve a greater purpose than drying clothes and growing flowers for puja. They're an escape from the reality below; yes, the blaring horns and narrow misses between rickshaws and unsuspecting pedestrians, but also from the reality of a country in political turmoil and beset by corruption.

The Buddhist temples, shrines, and stupas that pepper the city are places of quiet devotion, but, as Mohan tells me, "everyone has a small temple [shrine] in their house."

For my dear, dedicated guest-house owner, that temple is his rooftop garden.

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