Reader in Nepali and Himalayan Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, Michael Hutt's phone often rings with queries about the country. "Every year, a foreign journalist discovers the Kumari," says Hutt, referring to the most-often asked question. His advice to interested individuals-read The Cult of Kumari, by Michael Allen. "I doubt if they do, though." Others want to know about mahouts. "I've sat on an elephant. I know what the back of an elephant looks like. But that's about it," says Hutt who first arrived in Nepal as a raw and romantic 20-year-old in 1978.
Then a student of modern Hindi literature at the SOAS, he was looking for traditional Nepali handmade paper to write on, and decided he liked Nepal better. Fortunately, Hutt does know people who know more about mahouts. Adds the British academic on a more serious note, "Sometimes it's a big responsibility. People expect you to know things you don't. What worries me is that I'm not Nepali."
That didn't keep Hutt from writing his 1984 doctoral dissertation on the history of Nepali and how it became the national language (later published as Nepali: A National Language and its Literature), or from putting together Himalayan Voices in the summer of 1988. An anthology of translations of Nepali poems and short stories, the book is aimed at people who know of Nepal but not much about the country's literature, and features works of mainstream Nepali litterateurs.
"Though it does include Parijat, it doesn't hold enough on progressive writers," says Hutt. Looking back, he says, he sees himself as a fairly na?ve, youngish, foreigner not quite aware of the factions, allegiances, and social undercurrents that marked the Panchayat era. "The literature then was quite stark, really," says Hutt. "But it was important because what poets couldn't say straight, they could say in an inventive and allegorical way."
As a spin-off of Himalayan Voices, Hutt published a modern literary reader for advanced Nepali learners. Other publications include Art and Architecture of Kathmandu Valley, a coffee table book written in collaboration with other writers, and Nepal in the 1990s, a collection of essays by various commentators.
Hutt is currently in Nepal to complete research on a study of ethnic Nepalis in Bhutan.