Nepali Times
The stuff of intellectual life


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

Nepal Literature Festival

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1. Ash
Perhaps stuff of 'exploring social lives' rather than 'intellectual life'... the word intellectual itself suggests a boundary...

2. ASP
I agree with Ash. 

Perhaps the author meant "literary life". To suggest that the gathering was one of the intellectuals is misplaced (and glib) at best and an overstretch (and conceited) at worst.

Writers are thinkers. No one doubts that.

But for a person to be an intellectual, thinking alone is not sufficient. 

You must also have analytical and critical reasoning ability. 

And not all writers have that. As a matter of fact, a literary writer does not need to have that ability.

3. Kesh
What are these literary festivals good for?--except perhaps for writers to strut around feeling important... It is nonsense to say that these literary festivals enhance  intellectual life. Unfortunately, the only way to improve the intellectual life of the individual or the society is the hard way: production and consumption of good books. Manjushree and other Nepali writers should focus on their work instead of promoting this kind of pretentious junk. Hobnobbing with Patrick French and William Dalrymple does not really transform one into them, without the hard work. The Frenches and Dalrymples come and go and the Nepali writers remain what they are--publishing regionally and unread and unrecognized by the world at large. In the end, it is the quality of the work that matters. These literary festivals are corrupting the youths by making them think that writing is sexy and writers are celebrities.

4. reader
What an ignorant rant, Kesh. Don't you think Nepali writers make the effort to produce good books, and the discussion of their ideas along with a few international writers in front of an audience keen to listen to them does something to enhance intellectual life, especially when such events have been so rare in Nepal? Doubtless there will be people who will come to see the better known people rather than listen to them, but there are also plenty who are extremely curious to hear the minds behind works read and unread. Having the Frenches and Dalrymples coming to Nepal will actually help Nepali writers reach out to international publishers and audiences better, and expose them to approaches that may have limited them previously, don't you think?

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)