Who reads English books in Nepal?The culture of reading promoted by The Spirit Catcher represents a strong tradition of reading books in English in Nepal.
This question has struck me at different moments of literary, academic and political discussions for nearly half a century. The answer to this question is not as simple as may be expected for various reasons. Whatever may be the answer, this question evokes a few subjects of cultural, literary, educational, cross-cultural and economic importance. I would stress the cultural and literary aspects of this question. The history of English book reading coincides with the opening of Nepal to the cross-cultural and literary consciousness that took its rise in the 1960s in the Western world, and through the medium of the English language spread to other parts of the world.
Some countries translated the books into their languages immediately after their publication in English. When I was doing research on the journey of monk Ekai Kawaguchi to Nepal and Tibet (from 1899-1902) at Tokyo University, I discovered that nearly all the English books that had thrilled me to the bones at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s in Kathmandu had all been translated into Japanese.
That culture of reading English books and discovering the domains of arts, literature and epistemology through them made its strong impact in Nepal. I was impressed by the efforts of some young researchers and journalists to discover the genesis of reading English books in the late sixties and early seventies in Kathmandu. I was surprised when a young freelance writer named Prawash Gautam, tracing my hippie associations, had come to ask me about a used bookstore named The Spirit Catcher opened and run by some hippies then at Jhochhen of Kathmandu. I do not want to discuss that here because Gautam has already published his report and analysis in The Kathmandu Post (December 22, 2018).
It is not possible to answer the question who reads English books in Nepal in definitive terms. As a matter of exigency, I have relied on my empirical method, my memories and my conversations with some well-known booksellers and readers based in Kathmandu. Mandala Book Point, Educational Books, Vajra Books, Ratna Books, Ekta Books, Pilgrims Books and some second-hand book shops were busy rescuing books from the flash flood that entered their shops at night. When I took stock of the situation, I found that even this double whammy of the corona scourge and the rainfall had not dampened their spirit of keeping up the English book trade alive.
English book reading—its tradition, historicity and the time consciousness that such practices foster in Nepal—is an important subject of discussion. Some degree of historicity going back to the late 1960s in Kathmandu, and a little later in Pokhara Lakeside, should be mentioned in discussions about English book reading in Nepal. I should make it clear at the outset that I have not included the reading of textbooks. Neither have I dwelt upon English language teaching productions as promoted and created by the Nepal English Language Teachers' Association to which I am associated one way or the other. The English books mentioned here cover diverse areas of interest including some political, socio-economic and historical subjects. But they comprise books of literature, culture, arts and philosophy, mainly Buddhism. A significant body of books are about Nepal written by Western and some Asian visitors. Tourism subsumes philosophy, a certain Shangri-La imaginaire that has inspired people to visit Nepal and write books about its culture and "exotic" places of the culturally and architecturally rich Nepal Valley and the Himalayan region.
The culture of reading promoted by The Spirit Catcher represents a strong tradition of reading books in English in Nepal. I belong to that Spirit Catcher heritage of reading, I must confess. Many members of the academic and literary cohorts who read English books and my student scholars and colleagues belong to this group. A culture of reading literature and arts, and also the related philosophy like existentialism, and Marxism, and in later times, postcolonial and Indic subjects, constitute the bulk of such readings. India has remained, and continues to remain, the main dynamics of reading English language book in The Spirit Catcher tradition. The Indic tradition is very productive in terms of both themes and areas of interest that cover literature, arts, culture and philosophy. India is also a hub of British and American publishers. The British Council library and the American Cultural Centre library did provide a good boost to The Spirit Catcher tradition. The activity of the now defunct bookshops that sold Russian and Chinese literature in addition to the books of propaganda orientation should also be mentioned here. They too promoted reading English books.
Madhablal Maharjan of Mandala Book Point revealed a secret about the constant flow of freshly published books by famous publishers of America, Britain and India to Kathmandu. Booksellers keep stocks of the published books and release them everywhere on the same day. That is the reason why we get the titles on the same day here. That means within weeks or days of the news of the publication of books in America and Britain, we can get them here easily. Govinda Shrestha of the famous Ratna Pustak Bhandar intrigued me once by asking this question, "We bring thousands of English books at regular intervals clearing bhansar or customs into Nepal. Where do you think they go?" He was indicating the existence of a large number of readers of English books in Nepal. He did not include textbooks in such stocks. Madhablal Maharjan believes that the English language pedagogy in schools through the medium of simplified literature is largely responsible for cultivating the reading habit of adults in Nepal.
The tradition of The Spirit Catcher did not close with the closure of the used bookstore in Jhochhen in the early 1970s. The Spirit Catcher was the metaphor of a tradition of reading established by the visitors who have given continuity to that tradition by bringing books and leaving them behind, and also buying books here and selling them at the used bookstores. But the tradition of reading books in English continues through a strong practice of buying and reading English books by a diverse group of people in Nepal.