I compiled this list for ECS Magazine's tenth anniversary edition. Read on...
Ranking books is, of course, a highly subjective enterprise. Some books withstand the test of time, but which ones? Trying to hone it down to the top five is a tough, but not entirely dissatisfying, exercise. Please feel free to disagree.
Fatalism and Development
By Dor Bahadur Bista (1991, Calcutta: Longman)
Agree or disagree with the now vanished Mr Bista, there is no doubt that this is one of the most cogently written, most interesting critiques of Nepali society. Why is Nepal a basket case? Read this book to find out. Intelligent men have disagreed with this classic. Western expatriate workers make this their Bible when they arrive and get jeered by those who want more complexity in their analysis. Yyoung students swoon over it. Liberal Brahmins have bemoaned how the book has been influential in justifying policies that discriminate against Brahmins in the development sector. Unfortunately, Mr Bista―anthropologist, adventurer, provocateur―was last seen over a decade ago getting on a bus in far west Nepal and cannot be reached for comments. Those who die young are immortal, as the saying goes. Those who vanish trekking in far western Nepal also may be immortalized, especially if they leave behind such divisive and provocative works.
The Snow Leopard
By Peter Matthiessen (1978, New York: Viking)
This classic travel book, about the writer's search for a snow leopard in Dolpa, has withstood the test of time. As we feel the rush of a vanishing world of flora and fauna, this search for a rare species of snow leopard takes on a particularly acute poignancy. As the world warms and species vanish with alarming rapidity, never to return, this book will remind us how we are tied to nature. Man's search for the big cat is akin to man's search for his own soul, and existence.
Devkota’s Muna Madan
Translation and analysis by Michael Hutt (1996, Kathmandu: Sajha Prakashan)
Michael Hutt's Rs.50 translation almost doesn't do justice to the greatest poet of Nepal, Laxmi Prasad Devkota. But whether you chose to buy it or skim it in the bookstore, you can't really ignore the most popular epic poem ever written in contemporary Nepal. Madan is going to Lhasa to do business, Muna tells him not to go, but he goes anyway... Listen to this classic about a man's journey into the unknown and difficult reaches of his own self as he realizes he should have listened to his life partner before making an important decision.
Adventures of a Nepali Frog
By Kanak Mani Dixit (1996, Kathmandu: Rato Bangla Kitab)
I admit it. I'm a fan of the travel genre. And what Bhaktaman Bhyaguta, Kanakmani Dixit's excitable frog barely out of his tadpole teens, does is to sate this travel bug. This young frog manages to make his way all across the country and have a roaring good time. The book is a masterful blend of childish humor and effortless language. Available in a variety of languages, from French to Nepali, the book has proved itself over the years as a classic for children (and adults) alike.
The Brick and the Bull: An account of Handigaun, The Ancient Capital of Nepal
By Sudharshan Tiwari (2002, Kathmandu: Himal Books)
As I mulled for my last and most definitive book (Guiseppe Tucci’s Journey to Mustang? Frederick Gaige's Regionalism and National Unity in Nepal?), and soul-searched with important questions―Where are my ethnic writers? Where are my Dalit writers? Why am I privileging male writers? etc. ―I went on a walk to Ichangu Narayan with a friend. This friend kept on touching inscriptions on stones, and the lintels of temples, and talking about how she read it all in The Brick and the Bull. Amidst the glorious riot of marigolds and mustard flowers bursting into yellow glory under the hot blue November sun, there is really no way but to fall in love, all over again, with the Kathmandu Valley. And I admit it—I live in Handigaun, the oldest inhabited settlement of the valley. How can you not obsess, all over again, with all the art and the architecture and the careful detective work of all where it all may have started from? On the way back, touching the authentic stone lions and bemoaning the ugly statues that seem to have replaced the originals (whether the older statues were removed to wear and tear or to thievery we will never know), there is nothing to do but dust off my copy of this classic, and start reading it all over again.
As they say, there is nothing quite like a jatra from Handigaun. See you there at the Saraswoti temple, where the patron goddess of the arts is sure to bless those of you who take literature to heart!
This list of top books was assembled by Sushma Joshi, a Nepalese writer. End of the World, her book of short stories, was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award in 2009. (Please wait and purchase the improved second edition, due out from Sansar Media in 2010.) She is also the author of Art Matters (Kathmandu, 2008), an anthology of art essays.