Business stirs, tents begin to come down in quake-devastated Nepal

Workers string flowers amid Katmandu's quake-toppled ruins

Her name means "sweets," but Mithai Malatar let her annoyance show — just briefly — one morning last week.

She was sitting cross-legged on a patch of canvas amid the toppled ruins of Katmandu's most famous plaza, stringing flowers on a garland. The pale yellow petals were almost obscenely vibrant against the debris of Durbar Square, its centuries-old temples and pagodas reduced to a dun-colored wasteland of bricks and dirt.

This was her job, but the mother of four had stayed away for more than a week, since the earthquake that turned so much of this ancient capital to dust.

Wearing a colorful sleeveless top and faded red tights, along with the surgical mask that has become something of a Nepalese national uniform, Malatar worked methodically alongside her husband. Their customers were returning — worshipers paying respects at temples that were still standing — and they had orders to fill: garlands for weddings that finally seemed to be resuming, despite the devastation.

"There is nothing to do at home but sleeping and eating," Malatar said. "I had to work."

Just then, a man in a uniform appeared.

"You have to move," the soldier said. "The army is coming to clear out the rubble."

Malatar and the other women selling flowers outside a shrine to Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god, murmured with disapproval. As much as they grasped for normality, no one could escape the effects of the earthquake.

"If only they'd let us stay a couple of hours longer," Malatar said, dumping her flowers into a large wicker basket. "We could have earned a little more."

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Two weeks after the April 25 earthquake left thousands dead in Nepal and damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of buildings, there are signs that Katmandu is regaining its footing.

The sprawling tent cities that sprang up immediately after the magnitude 7.8 temblor have thinned as residents slowly decide it's safe to return to their homes.

Shops and restaurants have gingerly reopened along Durbar Marg, one of the city's main thoroughfares, where pedestrians peer at bakery displays and enjoy Baskin-Robbins ice cream cones in the brilliant sunshine.

In the courtyard of the stately Hotel Annapurna, a haven for well-heeled tourists for five decades, a team of groundskeepers was back on the job, pruning hedges that had grown unruly since the quake sent most workers home to their families. An emergency response team from Singapore milled about the white marble lobby, its cracks hastily covered by rugs.

As the Singaporeans filed out to a waiting vehicle, they passed a display case featuring photos of foreigners still unaccounted for after an avalanche in Langtang, a trekking destination north of Katmandu. Nepalese search teams have recovered the bodies of scores of climbers in the snow and ice.

Reminders of the quake are everywhere, not least surrounding the flower sellers of Durbar Square.

Behind Malatar's spot was a mound of bricks that once was Kasthamandap, a beloved 16th century temple with a triple-tiered roof, legendarily constructed from the wood of a single tree. A blood drive had been taking place nearby on the morning of April 25; at least 15 people are believed to have been crushed by the temple's wreckage.

"I feel like I got a new lease on life because of the quake," Malatar said. "I'm not dead. But I still feel like I'm living in a cemetery."

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In the mornings now, before the security forces set up cordons and haul away debris, residents take walks in the square. They stroll past Mama's Tea Shop, which reopened this week after the owner, a genial, round-bellied man who goes by Mama (which means uncle), decided he was tired of waiting for building inspectors to come around and give their verdict on his ground-floor stall in an old wooden building.

"There are no cracks anywhere," Mama said as he stirred a large pot of milky tea, adding enough sugar to satisfy a class of first-graders. He coughed a few times, apparently from the dust, then appeared sheepish when he realized he hadn't covered his mouth.

Before the quake, Mama would serve 200 customers a day, but that number has dwindled to fewer than 50. With schools closed, the two young boys who work for him in the afternoons were hanging around, trading tales of earthquake bravado.

"I wasn't scared," said Moes Tamang, an impish, gap-toothed sixth-grader.

His older brother Sandeep stared at him. "Yeah, right," he said.

The boys' mother had called right after the quake from their ancestral home in Dhading, a district west of Katmandu, which had suffered extensive damage. A fire had broken out in the village, and though family members were spared, the boys had not been told that their home was leveled.

The flower sellers moved to another spot a few hundred feet away, in the shadow of an old pagoda that was still intact, surrounded by vegetable vendors and narrow food stalls. Their group was larger now. Amina Khatri, 65, had sold garlands there since she was a girl.

"We have to be thankful to be alive," Khatri said. "God kept us here so that we can toil a little more."

"But still we're afraid," Malatar said. "Look at me. I'm sitting down and I still feel like the earth is shaking."

They chatted away like that for what felt like an hour. One woman bounced her grandchild up and down. Malatar's husband, Ratna Bahadur, worked quietly on his garlands and puffed away on a cigarette, occasionally looking up to offer a smile.

Then a hush fell over the group. Eyes turned in one direction. A large group of uniformed soldiers filed past, toting shovels and pickaxes, ready to begin a grim new shift.

Twitter: @SBengali

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