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A Book-lover in Katmandu

posted on 05 Jan 2018

A Book-lover in Katmandu by Bruce Johns

(This article originally appeared in the 2016 Letterpress Project publication 'Bookshop Memories Revisited' )

In the summer of 1995 I flew with my family from Hong Kong, where we were living, to England for a holiday. Keen to make the most of the journey, and with a travel allowance that made detours possible, we had decided on a stopover in Kathmandu. It was an eye-opening week for all sorts of reasons: the saturation effect of all those stupas and temples, the culture shock of a pre-modern world, the cows asserting their right of way. We saw a goddess chewing gum. Kohl-lined eyes watched us from shuttered balconies. A stomach bug did the rounds. 

 Wherever I went in those days, however, almost the first thing I looked for in our Lonely Planet was the section on local bookshops. Even if nothing sold there was in English they seemed to open a door of some kind to the spirit of the place, and along the more obscure tourist trails one could always stumble upon something precious, disposed of by a backpacker trying to lighten their load or raise money for the fare home. Once, waiting for a ferry on the island of Koh Samui, I finished Anthony Burgess’s novel about Christopher Marlowe and wished his take on Shakespeare was to hand. Then, with time dragging, I wandered into a shack that sold second-hand paperbacks and my eye picked out, among all the well-thumbed potboilers, the dogeared cover of Nothing Like the Sun.

 Kathmandu had a number of shops, one of which was near the Yak and Yeti Hotel, an oasis of trustworthy food and clean toilets. Encouraged, we paid a visit and were instantly entranced. There were three storeys – or was it four? The stock was heaped, piled and crammed in glass-fronted cabinets, along miles of wooden shelves or on the narrowest and least negotiable stretches of floor, a profusion of paper like that in the airline office where we had reported our luggage missing. It must have been like this in the chancelleries of the Raj. Here was one of those shops in which an addiction to books trumps any commercial logic. There were rooms devoted to academic disciplines that nobody in Nepal had ever studied; subjects so well catered for they might have been national collections; and, straddling both categories, a stockpile of volumes dealing with sex that took me back to my father’s copy of the Kama Sutra , bought from an establishment like this in India during the war. The maze-like disorientation, happily submitted to; a residue of literary dust on the tongue; the exclamation that greeted each unearthing: it had all the ingredients of bookshop heaven, even down to that small note of dissent which rebels against being stuck inside.

What did I buy? Not as much as I wanted, that is for sure. With a budget and baggage allowance to consider I restricted myself to five books, all by the same author. We had recently read A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth and declared it a landmark in both senses: brilliantly written and so big it could be seen from afar. Vaguely aware that Seth was still quite young, I could not imagine he had had time to write anything else. Yet here was an entire shelf devoted to his work that seemed to take in almost every conceivable genre. I came away with a travelogue about Tibet; The Golden Gate , his LA-based novel in sonnet form; a libretto, Arion & the Dolphin ; Three Chinese Poets in  translation; and a slim volume of his own verse, The Humble Administrator’s Garden . Such energy and brilliance outshone the base metal of my own imagination. There in Kathmandu I renounced all pretensions to being a writer – although, like giving up girls after having one’s heart broken, this self-denial was bound not to last.

That was not all, however. Like many great bookshops this one dabbled in music and the visual arts. Inevitably it housed what must have been the largest selection anywhere of books dealing with Nepalese architecture. Local crafts were for sale. And several racks of posters could be flipped through like giant Rolodexes.  Here we came across some prints by an Australian artist not encountered before. Robert Powell paints and draws Asian buildings, religious and domestic, ornate and mundane. There is a draughtsman-like quality to his eye, a richness of muted colour and a lack of rhetoric or sentiment that honours without romanticising the traditions being observed. We bought two posters of his work and have them still. One depicts a courtyard in Bhaktapur, showing a wooden arcade with windows and ornaments above, the carvings weathered to a silvery grey. The other, my favourite, is ‘House near trolley bus station in Kathmandu’ in which an old door and a wall of flaking plaster are given equal billing with a triptych of decorative arches.

 I could have happily have taken up residence, a pale-skinned book wallah kipping on the floor; but all too quickly the time came for us to go. The children were retrieved from some cave-like sanctum on another floor or returned to us by a smiling member of staff. And this brings me to the most important aspect of my bookshop experience. As any bibliophile knows, the art of browsing demands a particular atmosphere which is largely dependent on the quality and attitude of the staff. There is no standard personality to which they must conform. We have all experienced the grumpy sociopath who seems to resent our intrusion, the mumsy type dying to make us tea, the amiable scatterbrain at whom even shoplifters draw the line. The best ones all have this in common, however: an ability to be non-intrusive but knowledgeable if required. Kathmandu’s palace of books was run by a discreet yet obliging polymath and a number of helpers in whom a generic helpfulness and love of their trade was combined with that most genuine and humbling of gifts, the hospitality of the poor. I daresay our bill exceeded their weekly wage. In such places one’s passion for reading, progressive in every other respect, is a reminder that the world’s values are skewed.

No doubt you have noticed that one thing is missing from this account, the bookshop’s name. The fact is I cannot remember and neither can my wife, normally more reliable in this regard. I dig out those volumes of Vikram Seth’s in the hope that their inside pages were franked but the condition they were sold in was loyally, lovingly pristine. The photograph album from that time is no more revealing, with its endless pictures of temples and bilious kids. Then comes a moment of inspiration: perhaps our copy of the Lonely Planet survives. We threw some out recently on the grounds that they were outdated or never likely to be needed, our voyaging less ambitious these days. Both considerations would apply to the edition covering Kathmandu in 1995, but the hoarder and nostalgist in me apparently prevailed because among the remaining spines with their familiar logo and font appears the name I am looking for: Nepal.   As on the plane from Hong Kong, a flight delayed and then buffeted by storms, I search the index for bookshops and turn to that page. Several are listed but the one close to the Yak and Yeti was the Kailash. There is no thunderclap of recognition but it must be the one and with the help of the internet I am able to find out more. Kailash is the name of a mountain in the Himalayas said to be the paradise of Shiva – a little more evocative than ‘Waterstones’. The enterprise was founded  in Varanasi by Rama Nand Tiwari, an enterprising young book lover who sold his wares from a blanket outside the Government Tourist Bungalow. Subsequently he moved his operation to Nepal, starting in Pokhara then moving himself and his stock to the capital. There he acquired the Pilgrims Book House from the Hare Krishna sect and by adopting western business methods and dealing directly with distributors in India became the largest bookseller in the city. 

It was in 1990 that the need for expansion led to premises next to the Yak and Yeti. Kailash Book Distributors was born. Its first job was to house the antiquarian department whose quirky specialisms had such an effect on me.  The company tried its hand at running a hotel and, more successfully, promoting local handicrafts – that memory at least is correct. Then comes a disappointment. In 1997, two years after our visit, Kailash closed down, to be replaced by a four-storey emporium in Patan housing rare books among other things, making it one of the largest of its kind in South Asia. My hopes of seeing a photograph and persuading myself that I remember the place are dashed. Without something tangible to draw on the identity of the bookshop I can visualise so clearly feels insecure.

Unbeknown to her, it is our eldest daughter who saves the day. We always encouraged (or enforced – parents and children remember these things differently) the keeping of scrapbooks on holiday, albums of postcards, boarding passes and bus tickets with annotations in a painstaking if resentful hand. As an afterthought I wonder if those from Nepal have survived and find Amy’s, fat with mementos that I, the taskmaster in such matters, no doubt provided. Several pages in, after descriptions of visiting temples and a failed attempt to spell diarrhoea, she has pasted in a bookmark which tells me all I need to know:

Kailash Book Distributors: over 6,000 titles, old and rare books.

 My research is vindicated. The memory has a name. On the other hand the number of titles is less than I remember, the scale of the place exaggerated in the process of recall. And the comment written by the side of the bookmark provides a surprise. Not regarding the shop itself, whose range of interests made an impression on her mind as on ours. ‘It had any subject you could wish for,’ she writes. ‘A book on Tibetan carpets and rugs, on the farming industry of South Cambodia, that sort of thing.’ Not bad for a thirteen year-old. But she goes on to say: ‘We visited this shop quite a few times.’   Really? I only remember a single occasion, a one-off enchantment that has left its mark on me for twenty years. 

That is the problem with our recollection of anything, be it a novel by Vikram Seth or the most vivid of experiences. We get half of it wrong and make the rest up, not on purpose most of the time but in the interests, native to us all, of telling a good story.

 

Bruce John

Originally 2016 reprinted 2018