>> Tuesday, January 15, 2008
By Ajay Pradhan | January 15, 2008
When I was a boy growing up in Kathmandu, my family rented out part of our main house, the front yard, and the entire second house fronting a street to several businesses. Three that I will mention here included a newspaper publishing business that operated a printing press in the basement of our house, an electric appliance and parts store, and a hardware store.
I grew up playing many different sports and games with my siblings and cousins and, on occasions, with neighbourhood friends, on our property—football, hockey, cricket, basketball, badminton, tennis, table tennis, other ball games like 7-Stones, hide-and-go-seek, marbles, you name it. If there was a game that could be improvised, we did it. We rarely went anywhere else to play. When we had a real football, we played it. When the football went missing, we kicked large, unripe grapefruits that we picked from our orchard garden that occupied half of our front yard, to the protest of our grandmothers. Yes, grandmothers. I had two of them on my dad's side. One was the mother of my father. The other was my dad’s aunt, the wife of my grandfather’s younger brother. I never saw my grandfather or his brother. They had both passed away when my dad was still a boy himself.
Ours was a joint family. We all lived together in the same house. It was a large, joint family. But the house was large, too; with 8-foot walled backyard and front lawn, a garden, a small orchard with apple, pomegranate, persimmon, guava, pear, plum, grapefruit and fig trees, berries, annual banana plants, and seasonal vegetables. I didn’t feel it then, but now I think that in the middle of the town center, our residence was a sheltered oasis. And so was my childhood; sheltered and protected.
Things were different then, though. Ours was a family that was educated and urban and politically conscious. My father and uncles were freedom fighters before I was born, before all of my siblings and most of my cousins were born. They were among those who liberated the country from the 104 year-long autocracy and, thereafter, were members of the ruling party. An uncle became a minister in the government. Dad became a Bada Hakim (chief officer) of Birgunj, where coincidentally my mom was born and raised. Years later, mom told me and my siblings that before she and dad were married, dad would be in plane flights, dropping leaflets over Birgunj during the revolution, canvassing against the autocracy. As the plane flew over my mom's family's house, mom’s family would say, “Congressis are dropping leaflets from the plane.” Mom, a teenager at the time, would look up in the sky with awe, little knowing that she was destined to marry a man in that plane, who was dropping leaflets over her head. For her, the leaflets perhaps carried more than the message of freedom; they probably carried the message of love.
Before I digress, let me come back to the story of my family house, because this is not so much a story of my family as it is of my house. I remember the printing press quite well. It was an old technology that used hand-set printing blocks using lead slugs sorted in a type case. The lead slugs had to be recast frequently as they wore out during the printing process. Each slug or type had an inverted, embossed letter, just like the old typewriters. A technician would have to set each and every word and sentence using one type at a time—quite laborious. Outside the typing room, out in the open, a worker would melt lead in a cast iron wok. With childhood curiosity and amazement, I used to watch it from close. The molten lead, which looked like mercury, would be poured into typecasts and left to cool and set. To increase our amazement, the technician would pour some molten lead onto the ground surface, let it cool, and award us for watching them do their work with solid, round block of lead. Now as I think back to those days, and with appreciation of the consequence of lead contamination, I can’t help but wonder how much molten lead must have been poured onto the bare ground surface and what would be the concentration of total lead in soil.
Lead wasn’t the only thing that amazed and amused me. My siblings, cousins and I played around in the lawn and yards. One favourite thing for us to do was to hide and let others seek. The hardware store tenant frequently had stacks of corrugated asbestos sheets used as roofing material at a corner of our yard. Often the asbestos would be quite easily frayed and broken, releasing asbestos fibers into the air. Not any of us knew then that asbestos was a health hazard and could cause serious health effects just as we didn’t know that lead contamination was a health hazard as well. We hid behind the stack of asbestos sheets. We sat on the stack. We pulled the asestos fibers with curiosity.
When the printing press moved out, the space it occupied was rented by an electric appliance and parts dealership. They used the space for office and storage purposes. Whatever damaged electrical parts they had, they stored it outside for disposal. I wonder now if any of those damaged electrical parts contained PCB or if any PCB had leaked into the ground. We did not know what PCB was, nor did we know about its severe health hazards and cancer-causing properties.
Is my old residence in Kathmandu a contaminated site? If I were to do an environmental site assessment of my residence for any potential contamination, I’m afraid I’d likely find contamination that ought to be remediated. But, I am not sure if Nepal has any regulatory framework for requiring such an investigation for any kind of property. Who would be liable for the cost of assessment and any remediation work, my family or those business tenants from the past?
Am I concerned about my health and that of my family members due to potential lead, asbestos and PCB contamination in the past? I don’t dwell on it or lose sleep over it. But, yes, I do feel uncomfortable when I think of this small aspect of my growing-up years in Kathmandu. Mostly I try not to think about it because there are innumerable good memories from my childhood that I’d rather reflect upon.