Read and let readThe erosion of a reading culture in Nepal does not bode well for democracy
The past decade has seen a dramatic rise in the number of book publishers, book stores and writers in Nepal. On the one hand this could be because of a rising population of literate people, but it has also become economically viable to publish and sell books.
However, the reading public is still limited to those who can afford to buy books, or have access to them. And now comes news that the same government that wants to take mathematics out of the school curriculum for biology students in Grades 11-12, is taxing the import of books.
Several book distributors have been forced to close shop because the books are being taxed on their dollar or euro price tags, and not the lower prices for their South Asian editions. This is probably the only country in the world that has excise duty on knowledge.
So, do Nepalis actually read or not? There is evidence that with the spread of smart phones, people with shorter attention spans have no time to read. And the erosion of a reading culture does not bode well for Nepal’s democracy.
How many have actually read the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty to publicly support or oppose it? How many have seen or heard of the Anglo-Nepal Sugauli Treaty of 1816, or the treaty with the Chinese emperor signed on the banks of the Betrawati River in 1856?
More recently, how many have actually read detailed project documents of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) to support or oppose it? Do they know enough to distinguish between the MCC and the MCA (Millennium Challenge Authority)? Or is the opposition solely based on which side of the faction fence party members sit on?
In a country where communists have a majority, one would think that books by and about Marx, Lenin, Mao and Castro would sell like hot cakes. People do read newspapers and the numerous on-line news outlets on the social media, but not too many books.
Do Members of Parliament carefully read the draft laws they vote on? Evidence suggests they just don’t bother, and just vote along party lines. Why not make MPs actually read all proposed laws, sit for and pass a written exam before they are allowed to vote on them.
To be sure, book launch events are becoming more frequent and there are numerous literary festivals which promote a reading culture. Perhaps we could combine the growing business of home delivery of food and vegetables with a simple question, “Would you also like a book? Can we send you the best seller list?”
The idea of reading a book is that it takes over three hundred pages to explain, understand and be knowledgeable about a particular issue, idea, event or person. With the looming threat of air-borne viruses at a time when we are just starting to manage water-borne diseases, how quickly can we get people to read up on the dangers of viral mutation?
Nepalis generally know what the Mahabharat, Ramayan, Bhagawat Gita and the Swastani Brata Katha contain, relying mostly on oral tradition and not reading. The bahas of Patan are an exception where we can see the Pragya Paramita being read each morning by the members of the Sangha.
This may be the reason why story-tellers and speakers are still given more importance than writers. The rise of the Toastmasters network may be attributed to this same phenomenon. However, a good speaker will still have to rely on good books for content, creating a real win-win. At a recent event they did present books to speakers.
While Kathalaya is trying to get children across Nepal to read paper books, Open Learning Exchange (OLE) uses its e–patti to promote electronic books and library. All government schools have a budget to buy library books but there are many cases where bills are made but books are never bought.
Recently we presented our neighbour’s child with a book on the occasion of her Bel Bibaha and her eyes lit up with gratitude. She remarked that she loved to read and this was her first gift book.
All of us have books that sit on shelves gathering dust. Why not donate them to a school or college library? We could join second hand book stores into a network. We could leave books on the seats of the Sajha bus with a request for all to do the same after reading them.
More people are buying, reading and writing books than ever before. The trend for publishing memoires and biographies is on the rise. Mani Lama who dedicated himself to taking one picture of Boudha stupa from the day of the earthquake to its restoration has shown us what creativity and perseverance means as book author. The demand for old and not so old photos of Nepal also seem to have a good demand as one sees in the reprints of Toni Hagen’s books.
On 22 February, the annual Bal Sahitya Mahotsav is being held at Rato Bangala School with a fun event to promote children’s literature and get students to enjoy reading from a young age.
As Jhumpa Lahiri writes in The Namesake: “That's the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.”
Anil Chitrakar is President of Siddharthinc