‘Enough critical discussion is not taking place’Bidur Dangol, owner of Vajra Books, talks about the publishing industry, the reading culture in Nepal, and all things books.
Bidur Dangol’s life has always revolved around bookstores. The earliest memory he has of one is his five-year-old self walking through shelves of books, picking up anything that looked interesting and sitting down in a corner with it for hours on end. His family owned one of the few bookstores in the city, back in the 70s, and every evening after school got over, he’d rush to the bookstore.
“I had nowhere else to go,” says Dangol, owner of Vajra Books, a bookstore and publishing house in Thamel. “It was good for me though. I was introduced to the business of books very young.” His family then went on to open another bookstore, the popular Mandala Book Point, before he started his own venture in 2003, with Vajra Books. The Post recently caught up with the publisher to talk about the publishing industry, the reading culture in Nepal and all things books. Excerpts:
How did you come to love books?
I was born into a joint family with limited financial resources. At that time, many people didn’t send their children to school, but my parents did, despite their limited means. My family had a bookstore in Ghanta Ghar, called Himalayan Book Store, where I’d spend entire days amongst books. Then my eldest brother, Madhav Lal Maharjan, opened Mandala Book Point, where I worked from 1989 till 2003. I think I developed my passion for the book business while I worked there, which is why I decided to open Vajra.
And did you always want to get into publishing?
If you run a bookstore long enough, you want to get into publishing. I realised my dream of becoming a publisher in 2004 with the publication of Martino Nicoletti’s book Riddum: The Voice of the Ancestors. Since then, I’ve published over 200 works—mostly academics. Another book we published that is special to me is From Goddess to Mortal, a story told by Rashmila Shakya, a Kumari, to the writer Scott Berry. It puts to rest various superstitions regarding Kumaris, and talks about how Rashmila lived a regular ‘normal’ life, got married, and had a family.
You publish works that are mostly in English, and mostly non-fiction, particularly on Buddhism and the social sciences. Why is that?
Vajra mostly specialises in Buddhism, Himalayan studies, history, anthropology and cultural studies. Most of my customers are international students and scholars, and the same could be said of my authors. The majority of my customers speak English, thus my primary focus has been on producing English language publications. But besides English, I also publish works in Nepali, French, and Tibetan. I’ve published about 10 books in the Nepali language, most of which are fiction.
How many books do you publish a year, and how do you select them?
We publish around 10-12 books every year from our publication house. We don’t have an editorial board as such, but I do consult with scholars and published authors about the manuscripts I go through and to help with editorial work. An example of a hugely important work is the two-volume Kathmandu Valley: The Preservation of Physical Environment and Cultural Heritage. Another book that I felt needed to be published was Man and his house in the Himalayas: Ecology of Nepal by the French anthropologist Gérard Toffin. Among more recent works, Mustang in Black and White is something I really liked. It features photographs by Kevin Bubriski and text by Sienna Craig. Boudha: The Great Stupa, with photos by Mani Lama and text by Mimi Carol Durham, is another treasure we recently published.
What are you currently reading? How do you select books to read?
Currently, I am reading the Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness, by Erix Swanson and Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. I am also reading the Joy of Wisdom, by Joy Nandy.
When it comes to selecting books to read, I depend a lot on reviews. The internet has made our lives so much easier. Whenever I chance upon an interesting book, I first look up reviews online before I start reading it. I also go through international best seller lists and then decide on a new book. Recommendations from my more literary friends are also always welcome.
Who are your favourite writers?
In fiction, I like the works of Haruki Murakmi. But I mostly read non-fiction, and David Gellner is perhaps one of my favourite writers. Among Nepali writers, I like the works of Karna Shakya. I am also looking forward to reading Bhim Bahadur Pandey’s Tyas Bakhat ko Nepal.
What is one book that has inspired you?
The Art of Happiness, by the Dalai LAma. This is one book that has motivated me to read more, do more and live more.
How do you evaluate the present state of the reading culture in Kathmandu? Do you think people are reading enough?
Definitely. While I was growing up, few people actually read. There was no reading culture, particularly before 1990. With political changes and now with the advent of technology, people are so much more aware and read up on cultures far and wide.
However, despite the many bookstores across the city, and the many book launches that take place and the book discussions and panels that are organised by communities like Martin Chautari, enough critical discussion is not taking place. There is still room for learning.