Wider Worlds

Manjushree Thapa’s illuminating view of a changing Nepal

01 July 2016

IT WAS NOT UNTIL the second decade of the twentieth century that Tri Chandra College, in Kathmandu, became the first institution in Nepal to offer degrees in English. This was arranged through an affiliation with the University of Patna, but Nepal’s rulers—the Ranas, hereditary prime ministers who exercised power in the name of an ostensibly sovereign Hindu monarch—made sure that students took their exams in Kathmandu, and did not allow them to travel to Patna. The arrangement was in keeping with a long-standing policy of restrictions on higher education, partly aimed to insulate young Nepalis from the nationalist and political ferment then sweeping Indian campuses.

The Ranas were overthrown in 1951, inaugurating a brief experiment with democracy that ended with Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah, the king of Nepal, imposing royal rule in 1960. Mahendra took on a nation-building project to unite his diverse state under a prescribed set of symbols that reflected the history and culture of the upper castes. The Nepali language, enshrined as the national tongue in 1958, became one of the main pillars of this project. Nepali-language literature from the preceding century or so congealed into a canon, comprising works such as Laxmi Prasad Devkota’s epic poem Muna Madan and BP Koirala’s realist fiction, which still accounts for a large chunk of the country’s literary curriculum.

Nepal’s first English-language newspaper, the state-run Rising Nepal, appeared in 1965. KP Malla, the early doyen of English writing in Nepal, wrote a few years later that the paper was launched into a “resenting world” for a “virtually microscopic” English-speaking audience. By then, after Nepal ended its earlier isolationism and officially allowed foreigners to visit the country in the 1950s, the hippies had arrived. The writers among them set about creating the image of an idyllic spiritual kingdom—such as in Han Suyin’s novel The Mountain Is Young and Peter Matthiessen’s non-fiction account The Snow Leopard—that defined English-language writing on Nepal, and so much of the Western view of the place.

Ross Adkin  is a freelance writer based in Delhi.

Keywords: Nepal Kathmandu Manjushree Thapa