Mr. Jawed Ashraf''s book ,'A Day in the Life of Kathmandu' is not a political reflection of a diplomat from one of Nepal’s most important neighbors; it is simply an honest and a passionate photographic homage to Nepal.
The glorious madness of Ason at dusk; it hits you like thunder, embraces you like a friend, and even in an ocean of chaos, allows you solitude. There, in front of the temple of the goddess of food security, Annapurna, the evening commuter and the evening-produce shopper turn into one big rush that is inevitably forced to grind to a half every few minutes. The evening’s cacophony, punctuated by the temple bells rung by daily pilgrims, their flickering butter lamps adding a warm glow amongst headlights and taillights, and the cool blue of the twilight.
Like so many in this old market square, Mr. Jawed Ashraf, too, was coming to the end of a long day. He had spent the morning hiking on the familiar trails of Shivapuri, followed by several meetings all day. At least one appointment was still pending, for which he was now running late. Yet, as the Ason evening unfolded all around us, he could not resist pulling his phone out from his pocket and intuitively taking photos of scenes that he is in fact quite familiar with, and has most certainly photographed many times before.
Between 2004 and 2007, Mr. Ashraf served as a senior Indian diplomat to Nepal. Those were tumultuous and defining years in Nepal’s recent history and politics. He served as the joint secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office to both the former as well as current Indian prime ministers. He is now the Indian envoy to Singapore. In October, he was back in Nepal to release and promote his new book, “A Day in the Life of Kathmandu.” The book is not a political reflection of a diplomat from one of Nepal’s most important neighbors; it is simply an honest and a passionate photographic homage to Nepal.
Growing up in Bihar, the young Ashraf did not travel much. His professional life has been the opposite, with official postings in Europe, North America, and journeys around the world. Yet, in conversations, it is clear that of everywhere he has been and will be, nothing quite compares to his relationship with the cultural and natural heritage of Kathmandu and Nepal. “I was always very mystified by Kathmandu,” he mused. In some ways, it was a relationship that had blossomed in his mind long before he had ever arrived here.
“When you join the Foreign Service, you are taken to Missouri, and one of the essential elements of the foundation course is that they put you in a group of 10 strangers and send you on a trek for 15 days,” he said, tracing the roots of the person he is today. “You learn all kinds of things in the process, such as team work and leadership. But the important dimension for me was,” he says, a smile widening on his face, “that I fell in love with the mountains!”
It is not difficult to naturally submit oneself to the grandeur of the Himalyas. And, one can only resist for so long the charms and eccentricities of living in a city that so seamlessly shuffles between a cosmopolitan center and a living museum, with daily rituals that date back centuries. It is the combination of these two experiences that explains the excitement with which Mr. Ashraf arrived and lived in Nepal, the joy with which he explored it, and the fondness with which he recalls those years. His wife and he often did not let any opportunity to explore Nepal pass. “For all that we saw through the same eyes,” he has inscribed in the book.
“When you come to a place like this, you have to have an open mind, and that openness and curiosity has always been there with me,” he said. Within some weeks of arriving, he also met culture expert and heritage conservationist Anil Chitrakar through the reference of a former ambassador. “He was just so generous with his time and knowledge,” he said of Mr. Chitrakar, who helped him understand Nepal in many of its cultural layers and nourished his curiosity.
On April 25, 2015, as the powerful earthquake struck Nepal, he was at work in his office. “I saw the news flash, and within minutes, was on the phone with the Ambassador in Nepal,” he recalled. He led the briefing for Prime Minister Modi, who wanted the first relief flights into Nepal within hours. “As the images started to come in, I wondered, oh my god, is this going to be the end?” He arrived in Nepal the following week for India’s relief efforts.
Almost 10 years after his posting in Nepal ended, Mr. Ashraf is full of nostalgia, to the point it seems he can’t wait to see it and do it all over again, and discover something new constantly. And in Nepal this autumn, a little over a year after the quake, he marvels at the pace with which work has happened in Boudhanath and Swayambhu, and how the city’s life and heritage has soldiered on despite such tragedy.
“From a photography point of view, Nepal is a bottomless ocean, and of all the cities I have traveled to, Kathmandu always seemed to have so many layers. It was fascinating to experience the way things happened here,” he continued, speaking about the city. “And, the fact that so much of it happens in public spaces in an urban setting in a capital city, and all of it set against the background of some of the most magnificent architecture,” he marveled. “There is a soul to this city.”
“A Day in the Life of Kathmandu” by Jawed Ashraf is dedicated to the victims and survivors of the Nepal 2015 Earthquake, both the people and the places. In it, he shares glimpses of that “soul” with the audience.
Kashish Das Shrestha is a writer and photographer. He Tweets and Instagrams at @kashishds