Last January, the Jaipur Literature Festival saw a convergence of some of the movers and shakers of Nepali letters. Among them were Suvani Singh and Pranab Singh of the bookstore Quixote's Cove, host of some of Kathmandu's hottest books events, who were there in force with Penguin author Sujeev Shakya, a delegate at the Festival, and Rabi Thapa, whose short story collection was due out from Penguin. Ajit Baral of the bookstore Bookworm, who is also the publisher of Fine Print, was also there, as was Buddhisagar, one of his best-selling authors. Kiran Krishna Shrestha of Nepalaya was accompanying his best-selling author Narayan Wagle, also a Festival delegate.
Added to this mix was the journalist Amish Mulmi, who went on to join Hachette. The Pulitzer Prize winning author Kai Bird, then a resident of Kathmandu, was also there as a delegate.
I was there as well as a delegate, and every now and then, I would run across one or all of those mentioned above, and there talk would inevitably turn to the question: isn't it time Nepal had a literature festival of its own?
It is time, and now it does have a literature festival: and not just one either. In August, the Nepal Literature Festival hosts Indra Bahadur Rai, Mark Tully, and many Nepali writers, including Momila and Nayan Raj Pandey. This festival is sponsored primarily by Ncell.
And in September, the Kathmandu Literary Jatra hosts Patrick French, Tarun Tejpal, Mohammed Hanif, William Dalrymple and a mix of other international and Nepali writers, including Yug Pathak and Sharada Sharma. This festival has a consortium of sponsors, including Yeti Airlines, Real Fruit Juice, and Gokarna Forest Resort.
This is all very good news for the intellectual life of Nepal. Till now, the biggest book-related event here was the annual Book Fair in Bhrikuti Mandap each May. Though in recent years some publishers have held readings and book signings at the Book Fair, the primary focus of a fair is not on engaging the individual reader, but on stimulating the book business by creating new links for publishers, bookstores, and distributors.
Book festivals, by contrast, focus squarely on the individual reader. They connect readers and authors through books, and encourage debate, and an exchange of worldviews. They are mainly about ideas.
Over the years, the Jaipur Literature Festival, directed by Namita Gokhale, William Dalrymple and Sanjoy Roy of Teamworks, has inspired a host of other festivals around South Asia. There are literary festivals, now, all over India, as well as in Pakistan, where free expression is fraught with danger, and in countries that officially enforce censorship: Sri Lanka and Bhutan.
With its intellectual hunger, its love for debate and deliberation, and its drive to forge a connection to the wider world, Nepal offers fertile grounds for literary festivals. Indeed, if in these rudderless times there is one thing that Nepalis can take pride in, it is the robustness of Nepali public discourse.
Since 1990, the country has been in intellectual ferment. In terms of literary output, there has been an excavation of the past and recent history; a flowering of bhasa and English literature; an outpouring of testimonials; the writing of novels along social realist (Maoist and progressive) lines, traditional 19th century (bourgeois and centrist) lines, and postmodern (whatever and everything) lines. There is propaganda here, there is poetry. There are schools of thought, there are drinking groups. There are academies, official and unofficial. There are even cabals, and rivalries.
(Even between the two upcoming festivals, there is a productive rivalry: despite the Jatra's entreaties, the Festival refused to collaborate.) All this is the stuff of intellectual life. There can be no robustness in public discourse without multiple, strongly held, sharply expressed, and even fractious points of view. What a gift when they can come face-to-face thanks to the (tireless and exhausted) organisers of literary festivals.
It is a huge act of generosity to organize a literary festival. To the directors of the upcoming festivals, and to anyone else who wants to direct another one, we readers-and writers-can only say thank you. Thank you, and please, please do this every year from here on. Please.
Kathmandu Literary Jatra www.litjatra.com
Nepal Literature Festival www.litfestnepal.org