The story of books in Nepal

The sheer size of Kumar Nagarkoti’s 'कल्प-ग्रन्थ' (Kalpa-Grantha) is staggering: 777 pages and weighing 1.5kg. This is a boulder of a book. Packaged as a ready-made gift in a sleek bag, the royal-sized book fits snugly inside a box, accompanied by a postcard and a bookmark. More than a novel marketing strategy, this packaging marks Nagarkoti’s 10th anniversary as a writer, and also his 10th book. “The book is a celebration of my journey as an author. So, it had to be special,” said Nagarkoti, sporting his distinctive grey goatee, neck and wrists looped in beads. Brought out by Book Hill Publications in March, Kalpa-Grantha is an ergodic rarity in the Nepali literary sphere, and marked a radical departure from the standard book designs. There are 68 surreal stories across genres and typographies, even postcards, as Nagarkoti experiments with format, style and structure.  The book was available only by pre-order and delivered directly to readers, another first in Nepali publishing, but the print-run for this edition has now been discontinued. “It was to be a one-time special edition,” explains publisher Bhupendra Khadka at Book Hill. 

Another 2021 book that experiments with language and form to find novel ways of storytelling is Jason Kunwar’s ‘रमिते’ (Ramite) published by Red Panda Books. Set in a fictional landscape, it is the first in a planned cycle of four closely related multimedia projects, which include music, live performance, art installation and film.

Kunwar’s polyphonic novel is composed of text, drawings, songs and poetry reflecting his experience as a multi-instrumentalist and ethnomusicologist. Soon to be translated into English, it is a story of civilisation and human instinct, set in an imagined world resembling Nepal’s mountains, valleys, rivers. But what sets it apart is not the treatment of social realism, but the unconventional layout used to enhance content, and impact on readers. 

  Unconventionality is largely dictated by what the norm is. When the majority of published work follows an established format, books like Kalpa-Grantha and Ramite use shock value to stand out.    This was most likely also the case 119 years ago when hand copied manuscripts of Girish Ballabh Joshi’s Bir Charitra used to be passed around among eager royal readers. This was the earliest Nepali novel, and in 1903 was far ahead of its time with elements of fantasy, even foretelling the genre-bending contemporary fiction of today.   “In early Nepali publishing history there are books that stand out, they tend to be religious ones with elaborate designs, colourful texts, woodblock prints, photographs and reproductions of paintings,” says archivist Deepak Aryal at Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya.    The earliest book printed in the Nepali language is actually a translation in Darjeeling of the Bible in 1821. Later, the Ramayan and Mahabharat were printed with pictures of deities and depictions of key scenes, and they brought the reader’s imagination to life. Some early prints of Bhanubhakta Acharya’s Ramayan did not have line breaks and space between words because these were part of the oral tradition, and were meant to be read aloud. 

Diverse typography, illustrations and design elements have always been used in Nepali literature to tell a story, and make books more engaging to readers. Nagarkoti’s use of hand-written comments by the editors on the margins of text in Kalpa-Grantha therefore follows a long tradition of innovation, coupled with the advances in publishing.  

 Such ‘conceptual stories’ are not trying to confuse us with gimmicks, but get readers to visualise the two sides of writing – the author’s and the editor’s – and imagine a collaborative process without being diegetic. Sindhiya Shrestha, a Nagarkoti fan, describes the process as trying to connect with the author. “It’s a touch of newness,” she says. As Nagarkoti pointed out in an interview, stories are not limited to the written word. “Reading is like dreaming, fuelled by imagination, and comes in many different forms,” he said. “The book is a composition, and reading is an experience.” 

Ashish Dhakal


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