Minket Lepcha 

Minket has been documenting stories and folklore based on ethnic communities of Darjeeling and Sikkim for a few years now. She received an opportunity to direct a film on River Teesta through SOPPECOM titled ‘Voices of Teesta’. She traced the river from its source until it leaves the mountain and documented many communities living along the riverbanks. Having always been inspired by Lepcha folklore, she tells stories and conducts workshops based on the folklore of Himalayan communities. She has been travelling for the past two years narrating stories of the rivers, seeds, birds, mystical creatures to school and college students across India, Bangladesh and Nepal. 

 

She received the Young Green Filmmaker 2016 award at the Woodpecker International Film Festival for ‘Voices of Teesta’. This film also earned 10th position amongst 110 films in the World Water Forum, Brazil in 2018. She recently received the Third Pole-Oxfam Shared Water Media Grants as part of the Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) project funded by the Government of Sweden and produced a three-part photo series of Women’s relationship with the Mahakali river. 

Image I

‘Good fences make good neighbours.’ - Mending Walls by Robert Frost

 

I've been living in Kathmandu, Nepal for seven months and under lockdown for over three months. I live near Boudha Stupa and this picture explores the surroundings of the famous tourist hub, observing the lives of common women who reside here. COVID-19 is an interesting time when neighbours seem to be falling in and out of love with each other. I once heard that love only grows in times of crisis. This visual depicts a casual chat between two neighbours across a wall. Chats of uncertainty. Chats which might blossom into a stronger bond someday. Maybe the sparse green field will outgrow the encircling concrete. And the cemented wall will be replaced with a bamboo grove someday, hopefully.

Image II

One may wonder, what if COVID-19 was spread through water? Would rules like social distancing, shelter in place and washing hands regularly still prevail? How would we clean ourselves if the coronavirus was spread through water? Water—the life-sustaining force of nature is an often neglected and abused entity, with springs, rivers and lakes drying up at an unprecedented rate. The filter bottles in this image also depict a subtle class structure—of people who can afford the bottle and those who can’t. Inequity exists even in the case of a basic human right such as access to clean water.  

Image III

This used to be a very busy entrance of the Boudha Stupa. Thousands of Buddhist devotees from far-flung areas of Tibet, India, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar visited this pilgrimage site every day before the pandemic. Another set of visitors flock the site simply to find peace, solace and harmony. Now, two guards stand watch and restrict anyone from entering the Stupa while the still 'eye' silently witnesses these changing times.  However, a white bird is seen flying across the entrance unabated. If all non-human species were given the respect and freedom to co-exist alongside humans, COVID-19 would have never happened. Only ‘if'.

Image IV

Kanchi Tamang has been working in a carpet factory in Kathmandu for more than 10 years and her ancestral village is four hours away from Boudha. Kanchi was married young and is the only bread earner of the family. Every morning at 4 am she used to get up and head to the Boudha Stupa where she sold ’gau’ (wheat grain). The devotees purchased the wheat grains to offer the crows flying around the Stupa. With the COVID-19 lockdown, she has lost this means of income. Her two eldest daughters are married and she wishes to provide good education to her son and youngest daughter. She lovingly cooks for her children and never forgets to smile. Kanchi’s kitchen is very small so she has placed an 'angeti' outside her house where she can sauté her delicious tomato chutney—‘rambera ko achar' without causing anyone to choke with fumes inside the house. 

 

Image V

Boudha was once a marshy land containing soil that was conducive to all kinds of vegetables. With massive concretisation and commercialisation around the Boudha Stupa and tourists flocking the area, the marshy land has now been replaced with buildings. During the COVID-19 lockdown, Kanchi Tamang has lost her usual income from selling wheat grains to devotees at the Boudha Stupa and has resorted to kitchen gardening. In this picture, she is seen plucking coriander leaves in a small patch of land where she grows few lentils together with a few of her neighbours. Kanchi plans to sell vegetables so that her family has some source of income.  

Image VI

This river is called Dhobi Khola. It goes on to join Bagmati, one of the holiest rivers of Kathmandu. Another important river is Bisnumati. There are many stories which revolve around these rivers weaved by our elders who came down to fetch water for their homes. It would be a fascinating sight to see these rivers running through a bustling Kathmandu Valley.

 

This picture was taken during the month of April when the lockdown was at its peak with stringent rules. I was told that in order to make the road wider, the river was narrowed with cemented embankments. Since the river was narrowed, the river bed arose. And during the lockdown, contractors have been mining sand from the already dying river. This made me rethink perspectives on anthropogenic development and urban planning. I was told that the mud/sand collected would be used to make houses nearby. Whose gain is it and whose loss? 

 

Image VII

April and May are the months when trees alongside the roads of Boudha start bearing fruits. And who would know this better than the children! With the lockdown in place, they cannot frequent the nearby shops to buy sweets as they used to. In this picture, a brother is seen plucking plums for his sisters, from a tree within the compounds of the plush Nobel Peace Guest House which remained shuttered. Since he was the tallest he could lunge upwards to pick the fruits. His sisters wait on patiently as he struggles. I am glad to see children going back to plucking forbidden fruits during the lockdown.  

Image VIII

Grandmother and grandson, Khangjum Lama and Nawang Lama respectively, hail from Humla, one of the farthest regions of Western Nepal. They stay in Boudha in one of Khangjum’s son's house. During the COVID-19 lockdown, hospitals and clinics are not easily accessible. In this picture, the grandmother is employing a traditional method of relieving headaches. She is dabbing hot mustard oil with cotton on her grandson’s forehead. Traditional practices are neither always futile nor have they completely disappeared.   

 

 

Image IX

This shed turns into a vegetable shop in the mornings from 6 am to 9 am and quickly shuts down when the police van patrols the area at exactly 9 am. This shed then turns into a safe haven for these women who come here every afternoon after serving lunch to their families at home. They sit and chat for many hours and a few more women join the conversation in the evenings. They live just beyond the shed where they take care of a small plot of land and grow their own vegetables and lentils. This shed had never welcomed a gathering of so many women and is a rare sight indeed. The shed listens to their stories and giggles as it becomes a unique space for subverting patriarchal restrictions. 

 

Image X

Boudha is an area where tourists, devotees and migrant workers, working for various factories, restaurants and monasteries, reside alongside the Stupa itself. After the lockdown was announced by the government of Nepal, all the restaurants, factories and shops in the area closed down leaving many migrant workers jobless. Some of them have returned home while some are in search of alternate livelihood. The alleys are eerily empty and the graffitis on the walls of restaurants have a dead stare. This menu card lying on the floor must have had a similar story. How many people have become homeless, how many of them had to walk miles to reach their village and how many have been fortunate to find a new lease on life? 

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