BOOKS ON NEPAL

I must admit that I dropped the proverbial ball (book? Kindle?) when it came to my reading habits in Nepal. During my first stay a month and a half went by with barely any reading done at all, as I filled my days with tipsy reunions with friends, an (occasionally tipsy) visit from Mummy Dearest, long days spent on rib-shattering bus rides and even longer days of cursing my way up various mountains.

I was planning to make amends when I came back on a two-week visa run at the end of June, but then found myself neck-deep in an accidental Steinbeck binge, gorging on East of Eden in a hammock in Begnas. A well-stocked Kindle can be very dangerous in the hands of a procrastinating book addict.

All this to say that the list below is far from exhaustive, but hopefully it will still prove helpful to those wishing to read up before a trip to Nepal or add some new books to their reading lists.

[EDIT: Uroš, a Nepal-lover and bookworm extraordinaire, took pity on my sad little reading list and recommended 19 (!) other book titles in the comment section. I’ve added his recommendations to the post, with some edits and links, and added a bunch of new titles to my wishlist in the process. Thanks Uroš!]

Off we go!

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THE ROYAL GHOSTS (Samrat Upadhjay)

If you only have the time to read one book, I would recommend this one. It is a perceptive and lucidly-written portrait of modern-day Nepal by one of Nepal’s most celebrated authors, painted through the reader-friendly medium of short stories.

The stories are set in Kathmandu and address the tensions of a transforming Nepali society struggling to reconcile modernity with their old traditions and beliefs. The violent Maoist insurgency is a leitmotiv that runs through Upadhjay’s examinations of interpersonal relationships and dynamics. Each story illuminates a different aspect of Nepali life: the caste system, filial obligation, arranged marriage and homosexuality being some of them.

Samrat Upadhjay is also the author of novels Arresting God in Kathmandu and the Guru of Love, which I haven’t read but that come highly recommended. (Amazon)

 

THE WAITING LAND (Dervla Murphy)

Dervla Murphy, the affably kick-ass grande dame of solo female travel, spent six months working with Tibetan refugees in Pokhara back in 1965.

In diary form she recounts the months spent in what was then a tiny settlement practically cut off from the rest of the world. Understandably, a lone white woman taking residence in a tiny vermin-infested room in the bazaar caused quite a stir, but Dervla doesn’t care much for creature comforts and delights in the predictable unpredictability of life on the road: “It would be hypocritical to pretend that I could live happily ever after in this state of Noble Savagery; yet at the moment I am more than content to have so decisively Got Away From It All.”

Dervla, who shot to fame with Full Tilt, the gripping and hilarious account of her 1963 self-supported cycling trip from Ireland to India,  is a firm believer in “self-propelled” travel and takes every opportunity to hike around the Pokhara Valley (“Today I distinguished myself by getting lost for eight hours.”) and cycle in Kathmandu where “everywhere smug black cattle roam free, blatantly conscious of their sacred status”, ending her stay in Nepal with a trek in the Langtang range long before the popularization of trekking in Nepal.

The result is a an affectionate and well-balanced portrait of a Nepal only just opening up to foreigners, and Murphy’s curiosity and sturdy sense of humour make this an informative and entertaining read. The world she describes feels remote and ancient, and it is incredible to think, while enjoying all the commercialized comforts of Pokhara’s Lakeside, that her account is only fifty years old. (Amazon)

 

ANNAPURNA (Maurice Herzog)

“… nothing would ever equal those desperate days when he gave so freely of his courage, strength and                         resolution.”

I took this book with me on the ABC trek and its chilling account of snowstorms, frostbite and amputations might have played a part in my decision to not risk the trek in bad weather.

This book sold 11 million copies and is considered a classic of mountaineering literature. It describes the 1950 conquest of Annapurna I. With no previous knowledge of the area and only one rough map, which proved to be completely false, the French mountaineers explored the region, found a viable route to the top of Annapurna I and climbed it within one season, Making Herzog and Lachenal the first climbers to summit a peak over 8000 m. It’s an eloquent description of a closed-off kingdom and the hard work and determination it took to mount such an expedition, spiced with a Gallic sense of drama, romance and camaraderie. The book turns into a blood-curdling page-turner in the second half, when the mountaineers’ luck turns for the worse on the descent.

It took me a while to get used to all the mountaineering talk that makes little sense to a lowland-dwelling creature like myself, but after acquainting myself with the glossary at the start of the book I greatly enjoyed the read, even though some nefarious creature ripped out the last three pages of the my book. May he burn in hell. (Amazon)

 

VIGNETTES OF NEPAL (Harka Gurung)

Dr. Harka Gurung was a Nepalese geologist, anthropologist and politician who travelled all over the country in different official capacities. The book is valuable (though not necessarily interesting) to anyone interested in the geography and cultural history of Nepal, but isn’t going to be topping any best-seller lists any time soon. While it can be mildly interesting to read his descriptions of places that you are traveling through and to get an insider perspective on the different tribal traditions he observes, his love for minute geographical description can get pretty tedious for anyone that doesn’t harbour a burning passion for topographical and geological data. (Can be bought in the second-hand bookshops around Thamel.)

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That’s it for my paltry offerings – all the recommendations below come from the well-stocked bookshelf of Uroš. I’ll let him do the talking:

GURU OF LOVE (Samrat Upadhjay)

This book reminded me of Naipaul’s A House for Mr.Biswas and provided great insight into everyday life. (also recommended: ARRESTING GOD IN KATHMANDU)

THE TUTOR OF HISTORY (Manjushree Thapa)

I find her non-fiction very interesting – a mixture of history, politics and her own experience. Her views are liberal and she comes from a very privileged background – interesting standpoint to write about Nepal. Her other titles include FORGET KATHMANDU and THE LIVES WE HAVE LOST.

SHOPPING FOR BUDDHAS (Jeff Greenwald)

This book was a nice introduction to the country on my first trip to Nepal.

TIGER FOR BREAKFAST and MUSTANG (Michael Peissel)

Classic writings about Nepal.

TRAVELS IN NEPAL: The Sequestered Kingdom (Charlie Pye-Smith)

Covers some overlooked aspects of life in Nepal. (goodreads)

IN THE KINGDOM OF THE GODS (Desmond Doig)

A nice little book including the author’s sketches (both in writing and illustration) – great reading before (or during) visiting the monuments of Kathmandu Valley.

HIMALAYAN PILGRIMAGE (David L. Snellgrove)

Describes the epic journey of a famous Tibetologist through Western Nepal in 1956.

KATHMANDU (Thomas Bell)

A new book [from 2014] which recreates Nepal’s complicated history, intertwined with the personal experience of a news correspondent in Kathmandu. (goodreads)

THE PRISONER OF KATHMANDU: Brian Hodgson in Nepal 1820-43 (Charles Allen)

Another new book [2015] about Brian Hodgson, a British political officer in Kathmandu who undertook systematic studies of all things Nepali. (goodreads)

TRUE SUMMIT: What Really Happened on the Legendary Ascent of Annapurna (David Roberts)

Best read after Herzog’s Annapurna (goodreads)

LIFE AND DEATH ON MT. EVEREST: Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering (Sherry B. Ortner)

While this book might seem like just another Everest adventure tale, it is quite the opposite. It is an anthropological study of the relationship between Sherpas and foreign mountaineers. (goodreads)
Her earlier book, HIGH RELIGION, is about history of Tibetan Buddhism in the Khumbu region. (goodreads)
There are a couple of newer anthropology books about various aspects of life in remote Himalayan areas such as Dolpo, Mustang and Nupri (below Manaslu):

HIGH FRONTIERS: Dolpo And The Changing World Of Himalayan Pastoralists (Kenneth M. Bauer)
TIBETAN DIARY: From Birth To Death And Beyond In A Himalayan Valley Of Nepal (Geoff Childs)

On Nupri (goodreads)

HORSES LIKE LIGHTNING: A Story of Passage Through the Himalayas (Sienna Craig)

on Mustang (goodreads)

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Now THIS looks like a proper list!

Have you read any books on Nepal, or written by Nepali authors, that you would like to recommend? Comment below!

-K

BOOKS ON SRI LANKA

RUNNING IN THE FAMILY

Michael Ondaatje

“ The only occupation that could hope to avert one from drink and romance was gambling.”

This fictionalized memoir is a dreamy and wildly atmospheric foray into the chequered history of the author’s eccentric Burgher family. In trying to understand more of his absent dipsomaniacal father Ondaatje digs through the myths, rumours and scandals that surrounded him, recreating the heady upper class frivolity of 1920s in Ceylon that would make Gatsby wither with envy – skinny dipping at Mount Lavinia and tennis matches in Nuwara Eliya, sudden engagements, reckless affairs and casual tragedies.

It’s an easy book to get into, melancholic and funny in equal measure, with a whiff of magical realism about it. Highly recommended.

 

ANIL’S GHOST

Michael Ondaatje

“I wanted to find one law to cover all of living. I found fear…”

Set against the backdrop of the civil war and the JVP insurrection, Anil’s ghost tells the story of a young Sri Lankan forensic pathologist returning to the island after decades abroad as part of a UN Human Rights investigation.

While I found the writing to be disappointingly bland and haphazard when I coincidentally stumbled across this novel in the summer before my trip, the book sort of clicked into place during my stay in Sri Lanka. It is based on thorough research and does a good job of portraying the undercurrent of brutality and institutionalized denial which marked the civil war era and its aftermath.

 

A VILLAGE IN THE JUNGLE

Leonard Woolf

“All jungle is evil.”

Leonard Woolf (better known as Mr. Virginia Woolf) spent seven years working as a colonial officer in Sri Lanka, which inspired him to write this bleak little novel, first published in 1913. Woolf taught himself Tamil and Sinhalese and travelled widely through his district, learning about the daily hardships of the villagers. The story is told from the indigenous perspective without being patronizing, making it pretty unique for the era, and is peppered by local expressions and speech patterns.

The book is a vivid and thoroughly depressing account of one family’s hopeless struggle against the jungle, fellow men and their own backwardness. It’s a quick read, but one that lingers. You might need some arrack before rejoining society – I recommend Mendis Old Arrack.

 

THE CAGE: the Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers

Gordon Weiss

“States . . . reveal themselves in the way they are defended.”

This book is the first comprehensive, unbiased account of the mass killing of civilians that took place during the final four months of the civil war. Weiss provides ample context and analysis and doesn’t patronise the reader by descending into sentimental hand-wringing but rather explains the inevitable role of civilians as a tactical element in warfare and the ways in which international law seeks to limit it.

The question that the book seeks to answer is “What does the Sri Lankan government have to hide?” and the answer is, in short, “a whole lot”. But this book focuses on understanding the conflict, rather than assigning blame – after all, there is plenty to go around. The conduct of the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers receives the bulk of the book’s attention, but the diplomatic blunders of third party observers (most notably the UN and the IRC) and the self-serving interference of the region’s superpowers are also well covered. Spoilers: nobody comes out clean.

This is a deeply unsettling but in my opinion crucial book for anyone interested to delve beyond the glossy veneer of Sri Lankan tourist brochures.

 

A HISTORY OF SRI LANKA

KM De Silva

This definitive history of the island has 800 pages and you’d have to be very determined to read it from cover to cover, but it makes for a very good reference book, covering events from prehistory to the late twentieth century. My attention span was found lacking, but history buffs should get a kick out of it.

 

That’s it from me – have you read any books on Sri Lanka or by Sri Lankan authors that you would like to recommend? Comment below!

K

 

BOOKS ON IRAN

One of the things I enjoy most about travel is the opportunity to research the country I am travelling through and discover new authors that I might never have heard of otherwise. In this series I will be reviewing the books I have read in different countries, in the hope that fellow nomadic booksworms find it useful when preparing for their own trip.

During my visit to Iran my reading mostly focused on non-fiction books since there were specific topics I wanted to research, but generally my literary tastes run the whole gamut of genres – fiction enthusiasts will not be neglected in the future, promise!

And now, without further ado…

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