This question struck me at various points in literary, academic and political discussions for nearly half a century. The answer to this question is not as simple as you might expect for a variety of reasons. Whatever the answer, this question brings up some topics of cultural, literary, educational, intercultural and economic importance. I will insist on the cultural and literary aspects of this question. The history of reading books in English coincides with Nepal’s openness to intercultural and literary consciousness which took off in the 1960s in the Western world, and through the English language spread to other parts of the world.
Some countries translated the books into their language immediately after publication in English. When I was researching Monk Ekai Kawaguchi’s trip to Nepal and Tibet (1899-1902) at the University of Tokyo, I discovered that almost every English book that had made me tickle up to os in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Kathmandu had all been translated into Japanese.
This culture of reading books in English and discovering the fields of arts, literature and epistemology through them has had a strong impact in Nepal. I was impressed by the efforts of some young researchers and journalists to uncover the genesis of reading books in English in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Kathmandu. I was surprised when a young freelance writer named Prawash Gautam, tracing my hippie associations, came to ask me about a second-hand bookstore called The Spirit Catcher opened and run by hippies then in Jhochhen of Kathmandu. I don’t want to discuss it here because Gautam has already published his report and analysis in Kathmandu Post (December 22, 2018).
The question of who reads English books in Nepal cannot be answered in definitive terms. As a requirement, I relied on my empirical method, my memories and my conversations with a few well-known booksellers and readers based in Kathmandu. Mandala Book Point, Educational Books, Vajra Books, Ratna Books, Ekta Books, Pilgrims Books and a few booksellers were busy saving books from the flash flood that entered their stores at night. When I took stock of the situation, I found that even this double whammy of crown scourge and rainfall hadn’t held back their minds from keeping the English book trade alive.
Reading books in English – its tradition, its historicity and the temporal awareness that such practices foster in Nepal – is an important topic of discussion. A certain degree of historicity dating back to the late 1960s in Kathmandu, and somewhat later in Pokhara Lakeside, should be mentioned in discussions of reading English books in Nepal. I must make it clear up front that I did not include reading manuals. Nor did I dwell on the English teaching productions promoted and created by the Nepalese Association of English Teachers with which I am associated in one way or another. The English-language books mentioned here cover various areas of interest, including some political, socio-economic, and historical topics. But they include books on literature, culture, art, and philosophy, mainly Buddhism. A significant number of books on Nepal are written by Western visitors and some Asian visitors. Tourism subsumes the philosophy, a certain Shangri-La imaginary that inspired people to visit Nepal and write books about its culture and the “exotic” places of the valley of Nepal and the culturally and architecturally rich Himalayan region.
The reading culture promoted by The Spirit Catcher represents a strong tradition of reading books in English in Nepal. I belong to this Spirit Catcher reading heritage, I have to admit. Many of the academic and literary cohorts who read books in English and my college students and colleagues belong to this group. A culture of reading literature and the arts, along with associated philosophy such as Existentialism and Marxism, and later postcolonial and Indian subjects, make up the bulk of these readings. India has remained, and continues to remain, the primary dynamic for reading books in English in the tradition of The Spirit Catcher. The Indian tradition is very productive in terms of themes and areas of interest that span literature, arts, culture and philosophy. India is also a hub for British and American publishers. The British Council Library and the American Cultural Center Library have given The Spirit Catcher a boost. It is also worth mentioning here the activity of now-defunct bookstores that sold Russian and Chinese literature in addition to propaganda guidance books. They too encouraged reading books in English.
Madhablal Maharjan of Mandala Book Point has revealed a secret about the constant flow of freshly published books from famous publishers from America, Britain and India to Kathmandu. Booksellers keep stocks of published books and publish them everywhere on the same day. That’s the reason we get the same day titles here. This means that a few weeks or days after the news of the books being published in America and Britain we can get them here easily. Govinda Shrestha of the famous Ratna Pustak Bhandar once intrigued me by asking this question, “We bring in thousands of books in English at regular intervals bhansar or customs in Nepal. Where do you think they are going? “He indicated that there are a large number of readers of English books in Nepal. He did not include any textbooks in these stocks. Madhablal Maharjan believes that the pedagogy of the language English in schools through simplified literature is largely responsible for the development of adult reading habits in Nepal.
The tradition of The Spirit Catcher did not end with the closure of the second hand bookstore in Jhochhen in the early 1970s. The Spirit Catcher was the metaphor for a reading tradition established by visitors that gave continuity to this tradition by bringing books and leaving them behind, but also by buying books here and selling them in second-hand bookstores. But the tradition of reading books in English continues through a strong practice of buying and reading books in English by a diverse group of people in Nepal.