ViplaviIt is nearly 5 pm and the cloistered neighbourhood of Nhaikantala in Asan feels exhausted from a hectic day of shoppers streaming in and out of its jewellery and electronic stores.
It is nearly 5 pm and the cloistered neighbourhood of Nhaikantala in Asan feels exhausted from a hectic day of shoppers streaming in and out of its jewellery and electronic stores.
Down the road at Bangemuda, the dentists who have set up shop around the Wah-Shya Dyo (God of Toothaches) are shuttering their clinics; while on the other end of the lane, the eyeglass and optical stores that are clustered around the Nhaikantala (The Goddess of Eyesight) are nearly spent for the day as well. In between them, municipal workers are also done digging a street that was only blacktopped two years ago.
But while the rest of the neighbourhood is winding down, Amit Joshi’s evening has just begun. For the past 22 years, Joshi has been serving as the volunteer librarian at the tiny, two-room Viplavi Library and each day, like clockwork, he is at its non-descript, greying building at 5 pm to throw open the doors for readers.
Inside, nearly a dozen broadsheet dailies that were chucked through the door by paper carriers in the morning are scattered on the floor. Tired from a full shift at his day job in a school, Joshi gingerly picks up the papers and arranges them on a table before heading upstairs to settle into a chair. Before the 2015 earthquakes, the second floor of this building housed a varied collection of books in four different languages. Today, it serves as little more than a storeroom-cum-office and continues to wear the look of a space that has been vandalised—the far wall is still cracked up in several places and the damp ceiling, you can tell, has been leaking for three years.
“It is a process; it took us a long while after the earthquakes to even enter the library. It might be a couple more years before we are ready to start lending out books again,” Joshi tells me, before interrupting himself, “Anyways, you say you were once a member here? That must have been a long time ago…”
I first stumbled into Viplavi Library at that awkward reading age of 14, 15, 16; an age when you have outgrown the children’s section of the library but are still daunted by the classics and the books beyond. Young adult titles seemed slim pickings back then—a pre-Harry Potter era of a Catcher in the Rye here, a Hobbit there.
So when at Viplavi I found a choice selection of magazines and tabloids to thumb through, I was sold.
At the time, I was among over a dozen regulars who frequented the library each evening to sit elbow to elbow, poring over the latest national and international publications—the young rummaging through Wave, Filmfare, Sportstar and Cricket Samrat, while Newsweek, Time, Asian Age, Chip and Digit kept the others occupied.
Then, of course, for a modest initial deposit of Rs 100 and a monthly fee of Rs 10 you could also borrow books from their limited but well-curated selection; with the volunteer librarians, who were all avid readers themselves, always quick and well-versed with their recommendations.
Viplavi, in sum, was a bookworm’s paradise—a friendly, neighbourly space that had a little bit of something for everyone.
And everyone, it seemed, had their own reasons for dropping in.
Bookworms and revolutionaries
Dilip Man Sthapit, Deputy Librarian at the Tribhuvan University Central Library in Kirtipur, oversaw the day-to-day operations at Viplavi Library for two decades, until 1996. He remembers being initially drawn to Viplavi because it provided easy access to both English and Indian novels.
“In the 1970s, there was a huge surge in popularity of Indian crime novels. They weren’t of any great intellectual value but they used to have a tremendously loyal following in Kathmandu,” Sthapit says, “Indian authors like Om Prakash Sharma and Prem Bajpai and their ‘Jasoos’ novels had a cult-like fan base. Of course, they were just pastime readings but they drew readers in by the droves.”
When his generation came of age, Viplavi was already an established library with a dedicated set of card holders, but Sthapit reiterates that when the library was first established, the notion of starting a library was itself an act of rebellion.
“Viplavi literally translates to ‘Revolutionary’,” he emphasises, “Before the Rana Regime was overthrown (pre-1951), some likeminded individuals in the Asan neighbourhood circulated and exchanged books among each other. This in itself was illegal at the time, but they even went so far as to emblazon the word ‘Viplavi’ on the books. Eventually these ‘Viplavi’ books were collected to start a library in Bhotahiti in 1951.”
Viplavi Library moved into its current location in Nhaikantala, Asan in 1958. Initiated with an investment of Rs 10,141—of which Rs 3,835 was donated by the legendary educator Jagat Lal Shrestha, the ‘Master of Masangalli’—the library built its own two-room building after purchasing land previously used as a public toilet.
“So in a way,” Sthapit jokes, “We began from the very bottom.”
Once it moved to its own space, Viplavi slowly flourished. Under the purview of an 11-person steering committee of locals, who also chipped in money each month for upkeep, the library’s collection grew from a few dozen initial books to over 6,000 titles. These included books in Nepal Bhasa, Nepali, English and Hindi.
In addition to the growing number of books, Viplavi also began offering a variety of newspapers and magazines in the four languages. And these lighter reads, Sthapit says, is what kept the readers coming back each evening for the two hours the library stayed open.
“This was before newspapers were delivered to doorsteps,” he says, “Catching up with the news and with friends in the evening was something a lot of people did. And here at the library they found a space to do both. Before long, we had a strong community of readers streaming in each evening. It became a distinct little community within the larger neighbourhood.”
A history in books
This sense of belonging and direct involvement of the community is what makes the public libraries in Nepal different to those in the West, according to author Ramesh Parajuli. In his article An Overview of the Political History of Public Libraries in Nepal (Published in the journal Rupantaran: Samaj Adhyayan, Vol 3), Parajuli writes, “Though libraries might be called ‘Public’ in Nepal, they vastly differ from what a ‘Public Library’ means in English.
Elsewhere, ‘Public’ libraries are funded and operated by the central or the local government. In Nepal, barring the rare exception, ‘public’ libraries are by and large established and run by local residents. They are rather ‘community’ libraries than they are ‘public’.”
This, Parajuli points out, is because for long periods in Nepali history the state has remained ambivalent, if not outright hostile, to education and the free flow of information—and by extension libraries as well.
Though Nepal has always had vast collections of ancient texts and scrolls, its history of libraries that were accessible to the public is a little more than a century old.
According to Parajuli, Shri Gorkha Sharada Bhawan Pustakalaya, which was established in Siraha by Swami Damodarananda in 1915, can lay claim to being the country’s first truly public library. It, however, proved to be little more than a flash in the pan. Until its downfall in 1951, the Rana Regime continued to swat down any attempts to proliferate mass education.
The Regime’s stance towards libraries is perhaps best illustrated by a crackdown that has been dubbed the “Pustakalaya Parva” (The Library Incident), where 46 youths were arrested and heavily fined in Kathmandu for tabling a request to start Saraswati Public Library, in 1930.
Once the Rana Regime was on the wane in the late 40s, however, public libraries—that became both an act of rebellion and a space for political gatherings—began to boom. The year 1947 alone saw the establishment of four different libraries, including Kathmandu’s first, Pradipta Library, and Lalitpur’s first, Sarada library.
Three more libraries, in Baglung, Palpa and Butwal, were established a year later. Then, in 1951, with the advent of democracy, dozens more, including Viplavi Library, were established in towns and cities across the country.
According to a Library Directive published by the National Council for Science and Technology in 1981, a total of 394 public libraries were established in the country following the fall of the Rana Regime. Today, going by estimates of the National Library, there are around 1000 registered public libraries in the country, though it is unclear how many of them are still in operation.
What is clear is that the ‘culture’ of public libraries in Nepal has by and large been established under local initiatives, with little or no help from the government. Like Viplavi, most of these libraries were funded and operated at the community level and were run by local volunteers. This, over the years , has served as an adhesive that brought neighbours and neighbourhoods together. But by the same token, it has also been a public library’s Achilles’ heel.
Changing neighbourhoods, changing readership
“How do you run a completely voluntary organisation that has no salaried positions, no real accountability? You don’t. That is why so many public libraries have closed down in the past decade,” Amit Joshi says, when I ask him about inner Kathmandu’s disappearing community libraries. “When you have to depend solely on volunteers, there has to be a bigger purpose driving you forward—a sense of belonging, service and community. But that has changed, and continues to change.”
In the last decade several of Viplavi’s neighbouring libraries—including Maitri Pustakalaya in Thahiti, Kusum Wachanalaya in Tyouda and even Pradipta Pustakalaya of Massangali, Kathmandu’s first public library—have shut down. This, Joshi says, is more than just the effect of the internet and smartphones, “the readers are changing, but so are the communities.”
In the past decade and a half, many of inner Kathmandu’s libraries have seen their members join the exodus out into the suburbs, returning sporadically, if ever. With regular readers moving out in droves, the libraries have been left starved for not just steady footfall and income but also a sense of ownership and community.
“Then, just how we consume news and information has changed so drastically,” Joshi says, “Who wants to read a morning newspaper at five in the evening?”
But beyond just the sharp decline in the number of newspaper and magazine readers, community libraries are also losing members looking to borrow books. Most of those who read books these days, Joshi says, buy the books. “People just don’t go to libraries to borrow books that aren’t references anymore; at least not here.”
To illustrate his point, he pulls out an orange membership card from a drawer. It is the last member to pay the Rs 100 deposit at Viplavi. It is dated August 6, 2004.
But why voluntarily serve at a library that hasn’t had a new member in 14 years?
“Because libraries like these are more than just libraries,” Joshi says, “They are public spaces where people read, mingle, gossip, escape. And as long as people continue to trickle in, we must stay open.”
Then, with perfect cosmic timing, a middle-aged woman walks up to us at the library, frazzled. With dishevelled hair and a down jacket hastily thrown over her house clothes, she looks like a graduate student, several nights deep into a thesis.
“I didn’t have time to go to the Central Library,” she tells Joshi, “I need to reference a biography for Jayasthiti Malla, particularly anything about his downfall. Can you help me?”
The librarian slowly rises from the chair he’s been planted in all evening and purposefully walks over to where the history books are shelved. Of course he can.
The writer tweets at @sanjitbp