Reading up on Communism at Nati Bajra’sKathmandu readers used to flock to a tiny bookshop to buy books by Mao Zedong and Kim Il Sung
Last week, linguist, writer and song composer Nati Bajra passed away. He was not well known in the mainstream media, but if you were interested in reading five decades ago in inner city Kathmandu, Nati Bajra was the man to go to.
People went to him for books, magazines and newspapers of all kinds. His little book store at Bhotahiti in a small alley that led into Dagu Baha was where people sat on a narrow wooden bench with a straw mat. In the age before Internet and television, and when Radio Nepal was too boring, they browsed, bought publications, and lingered to chat with him. Nati Bajra was a one-man public sphere.
Among the books and magazines he sold in those days were the beautiful printed, glossy magazines called China and ‘Cheen’ in Nepali. There were some really elegant hard cover books by Kim II Sung. Today many visitors ask why or how Nepal has a Communist Party in power with a majority popular vote. Nati Bajra made a big contribution.
These magazines and books painted a utopian picture of communism, and portrayed the United States as the world’s enemy. Adults read the English and Nepali editions with great care and discussed the contents at their local tea shops and rest houses. There was no Nepali translation of Animal Farm to counter the propaganda literature.
When the adults were done reading, we children made these glossy publications into text book covers, greatly increasing their shelf life. Whoever designed, published and shipped these publications to Nati Bajra at Bhotahiti, achieved their mission. The publicity value of the books were immense, and 50 years later we have a Nepal Communist Party government.
Beyond books, there were also film screenings of how the North Korean and the Chinese armies defeated the Americans in the Korean War.
King Mahendra was right when he is said to have told Prime Minister Nehru that communism would not travel to Nepal in a taxi over the newly-inaugurated Arniko Highway. But it did travel through books, magazines and films, and brought up an entire generation of Nepalis to get a glossy and glorified version of Communism.
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There are now Nepalis travelling to China and to the USA all the time, and this generation will vote very differently. Given the fact that our last local elections were held in 1997 and then again in 2017, we do not have a pattern to go by yet. The reason why many local leaders, representing Communist parties, got re-elected could be because they continued to serve and organise the local population despite the fact that they were not in government.
Today, the world is different, but not much has changed in using the media, this time social media, to manipulate public opinion. The world of tomorrow will be the result of the electronic media and the fact that many have had a chance to visit places and talk to people with different points of view. It will be the result of the experiences we have had.
During a trip to Boston, I met a group of young ‘inventors’ from Rajasthan. They had taken a ride on the brand new subway in New Delhi and were not at all impressed with the system in Boston. Young Chinese who went to the United States and took on English first names are now moving back to China with Chinese first names.
Nepali worldview is also changing rapidly as the epicentre of the global economy drifts to the Eastern Hemisphere. Hence do not be surprised if we hear about more and more Nepalis coming back home to raise yaks and buffalos, instead of camel and sheep in the Gulf countries.
Anil Chitrakar is President of Siddharthinc.
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