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There’s hardly a better way to research a country than by picking up a novel or collection of essays and learning about the place from the people who really know it. While not much Nepali language literature is translated into English, fortunately there are a number of excellent writers—both Nepali and international—who have astutely written about the country in English over the years. So whether novels, poetry, short stories, political analysis or travel writing are more your thing, this list has you covered. If you run out of time to read these before your trip, there are a number of excellent bookshops in Kathmandu and Pokhara where you’ll be able to find them.
If you can only manage to read one book about Nepal before visiting, it should be this one. It is a tome, at 570 pages long, so the electronic version might be friendlier on the backpack. This impressive anthology contains writing from the likes of Sir Edmund Hillary, Dervla Murphy, Lakshmiprasad Devkota, Michael Palin, Jeff Greenwald, Muna Gurung, Prawin Adhikari, Niranjan Kunwar and many others, including almost all other authors on this list. It also contains translations of a lot of Nepali authors who are otherwise difficult or impossible to locate in English.
Manjushree Thapa is Nepal’s preeminent contemporary writer in English. The Canadian-Nepali writer of fiction and non-fiction divides her time between the two countries, but her writing is entirely focused on Nepal. In both her fiction and non-fiction essays she examines contemporary Nepali society, the clashes of old and new ways, the problems of development and the industry that it has generated, gender issues and other issues facing the economically poor new democracy. It’s hard to identify just one of her books as essential reading for visitors to Nepal, as any of them would be a good pick. But, The Tutor of History is an excellent novel set in contemporary rural Nepal that is as illuminating and educating as any work of non-fiction.
Thomas Bell is a British journalist who has been living in Nepal for 20+ years. He arrived in the country in the midst of the decade-long Maoist insurgency, and has witnessed all of the country’s recent upheavals, from the massacre of the royal family to the end of the war and the formation of the republic, to the earthquakes in 2015. Kathmandu is a brutal, unflinching examination of contemporary Nepal—which, for better or worse, centres around its capital, Kathmandu. It’s also a memoir of his time in this difficult but lovable country.
Elizabeth Enslin was a graduate student in anthropology in the USA when she decided to conduct fieldwork on the Terai (plains) of Nepal, choosing to live in her Nepali husband’s family’s village. There, she has to learn to live with customs and beliefs so different from her own, at times clashing with them but simultaneously absorbing many of the lessons they throw her way. This is a fascinating memoir of cross-cultural understanding, international relationships, and life and politics as a woman—both foreign and local—in rural Nepal.
Some people love it, others hate it, but few Kathmandu locals or travellers to the Nepali capital can avoid Thamel. But aside from being a concentration of cheap hotels and pashmina shops, trekking agencies and noisy bars, Thamel is a rich neighbourhood with its own history. Kathmandu native Rabi Thapa explores the history and present of Thamel through his own reminiscences and through his conversations with other residents, businesspeople and veterans of the neighbourhood.
Nepali journalist Prashant Jha is the Associate Editor of Indian newspaper The Hindustan Times, but returns to his roots in Battles of the New Republic. He was a very active journalist in the period immediately following the Nepali Civil War (1996-2006), with access to many politicians and influential figures, and this comes through in this well-researched book. The political history also has a personal undercurrent—Jha is from the Nepali Terai, the plains bordering India, a place that has struggled to gain full representation in the political capital of Kathmandu. He recalls his feelings of being an outsider as a student in Kathmandu, where his name and features identified him as a Madhesi. For readers wanting to understand the dynamic between plains, hill and mountain Nepalis, this book is a useful read.
In a land of ancient and unique cultures and rituals, the kumari (or living goddess) tradition has got to be one of the more intriguing. The old royal kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley—Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur—each have a sitting kumari, a pre-pubescent girl chosen according to a long list of physical and temperamental characteristics, who is believed to be the embodiment of the goddess Taleju. She exemplifies incredible female power, and is revered by the local Newar people (as well as the erstwhile royal family). Isabella Tree’s book combines history, mythology, memoir and cultural studies to delve into this incredible tradition. Incidentally, Kathmandu’s previous kumari, twelve-year-old Matina Shakya retired in September 2017, and was replaced by three-year-old Trishna Shakya.
While most contemporary books about Nepali society touch on the Civil War to some degree, The Bullet and the Ballot Box is devoted to this topic, so is a must-read to understand this conflict. As author Aditya Adhikari notes, when Nepal’s Maoists launched their armed rebellion in 1996, they were seen as quite a fringe element and did not have much public support outside certain rural communities. Yet, just a couple of years after the end of the war, when Nepal officially became a republic, the Maoists were in power in the government in Kathmandu. This book accounts for this remarkable chain of events.
Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard is a classic work of travel literature that narrates his journey into the remote Upper Dolpo region of Western Nepal in 1973. On the surface, Mathiesssen’s trip is in search of the elusive snow leopard. But, it’s also a spiritual quest as the author mourns the loss of his wife and seeks to make sense of and accept his grief through Buddhist philosophies.
Although somewhat dated in style these days, French author Michel Peissel’s account of being the first foreigner permitted to enter the isolated and remote Kingdom of Lo in the 1960s is a remarkable book. It’s also a particularly good companion when trekking in the Annapurnas or Mustang, as it’s fascinating to learn how the region has changed (or not) over the decades. While Lo is no longer a kingdom, and Mustang is no longer as inaccessible as it was in Peissel’s time, travel here still feels like a real adventure, something that Peissel captures.
There are lots of books about Nepal mountaineering expeditions out there, but Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air is perhaps the best. It recounts the disastrous Everest climbing expedition that the author was part of in 1996, in which eight climbers were killed. The book was published very quickly after the event, and was harshly criticised by some family members of those involved as being insensitive, but Krakauer does admit where his own mind and senses let him down during his struggle for survival. Into Thin Air inspired the 2015 film Everest, but—without wanting to be that person—the book is better than the movie.
Samrat Upadhyay is a professor of creative writing in Indiana, USA, and was the first Nepali author writing in English to be published in the West. Arresting God in Kathmandu was his first book, published in 2001, a collection of short stories. Since then he’s published several more short story collections and novels. The Royal Ghosts is a particularly good collection of short stories to dip into. The title makes a nod to the 2001 royal massacre in Kathmandu, and the stories of the collection occur against the backdrop of the Nepali Civil War, which ended the year this book was published.