Harry Potter and Reading Culture in Nepal

Thanks to the exposure that the Nepali society has gotten over the last decade and the new trend of marketing the books via glittering advertisement campaign, writers becoming celebrity is becoming a mainstream in Nepali society.

“It’s sad that even after the arrival of the seventh book,” wrote a disgruntled reader from Dolakha in Kantipur after the newspaper published an article about Harry Potter phenomena in the last week of July, “[Not a single] Harry Potter book has been translated into Nepali.”

It’s almost certain that many people will continue to remain sad in the foreseeable future because, despite the entire hype surrounding Potter brand in Nepal, the books will not come in Nepali anytime soon. There is not enough market for that and Potter is all about market. But the lack of translation isn’t stopping many Nepali book lovers to get the pleasure offered by the series.

With the arrival of Potter books, especially the latest and last one, the Nepali book world has turned an important page. People calling a book store to book a copy of a certain book before it gets published or stand in queue to get hold of it or wait for several minutes to receive an autograph from the writer is something that wasn’t in practice until a few years ago. Thanks to the exposure that the Nepali society has gotten over the last decade, thanks to the new trend of marketing the books via glittering advertisement campaign and a big thanks to writers like Samrat Upadhyay, Manjushree Thapa and Narayan Wagle, writers becoming celebrity is becoming a mainstream in Nepali society. Therefore it was really not a big surprise when Educational Book House (EBH), a book store in downtown Kathmandu, said that it had received around 120 orders from curious readers of the book that’s priced at Rs. 1560 a copy.

“It’s a recent development,” said Raman Raut, a staff at the EBH who started working for the book store six years ago. “We started booking since the sixth book [that came in July 2005]. Very few came when fourth book was released. And even I was unaware about this Harry Potter thing before that.” For the Deathly Hallows, as many as 85 people had paid Rs. 100 each two months prior to the book’s official release date. A formal program to launch the book was scheduled to begin at 3 PM on Saturday, 21 July. A crowd of dozens had gathered in the book store. The flight got delayed by two hours and Raman was struggling to calm down the restless Potter fans. “They were in queue and started shouting,” he said. “Then I rushed to the airport and finally brought back the book at 5 PM.” Renowned dramatist and Professor Abhi Subedi launched the book amid clapping ceremony that also saw jubilant fans eating cake that had a picture of their favorite character embedded. The store sold 95 copies within a couple of hours, and another 90 the next day. Other book stores like United Book House, Pilgrims and Mandala Book Point were also selling the books. Aggregate figures collected from different sources put the total sales of Deathly Hallows to 700 copies in the first week of publication in Nepal. And some stores are out of stock and the number of willing buyers is increasing.

If this trend was absent a decade ago, the question is, where were these readers who are buying these books? They were probably in schools, the private and English medium (boarding) institutions in urban area that started producing qualified and competitive students who have exposure to the world. They are young, they are hip and they are part of the world that is flat as described by Thomas L Friedman in his latest bestseller.

Teenagers are the most potent consumers worldwide and Nepali market is no different. They have this aspiration and dream to be at par with their western counterparts. They are the most prolific and obsessed users of new media —and inseparable parts of the satellite culture. Even if they live in Kathmandu or Biratnagar, they watch Friends, discuss about the latest episode of Ugly Betty and try to answer questions posed by Oprah to her guests. Accept it or not, English is not just the fashion of urban Nepal but an inseparable part of the global culture that the young aspires to be- It’s the language of hipsters. With the arrival of Hip Hop culture in music (which has introduced fast paced English lines in traditional Nepali folk tune), the grip of English language has only become stronger. In addition to that, Harry Potter is everywhere: from web sites to sitcoms to movies to, yes, books! All these, especially the first three, are the favorite domains of today’s trendy hipsters.

If you want to reach out to that fashion conscious crowd using Nepali language, you really have to have the capacity to speak and understand the body language of these trendy folks. This is what Narayan Wagle was attempting at by setting romantic intro to his debut novel Palpasa Café. Remember that it began with a date scene for the male and female protagonists in a sexy beach in Goa? But he ultimately ended up telling a story of Nepali villages- that was his real motive. Yet he kept on weaving the story a US-returned filmmaker girl, keeping alive the romance and glamour of the novel.

Also the arrival of books like Arresting God in Kathmandu or Guru of Love or Tutor of History made book reading a fashionable thing among certain sections of Kathmandu society. There is definitely this thing called peer pressure. He has read it, I haven’t so I am not fashionable or I am backward. When your friends are talking about a story of a man taking a girl to a temple and do an entirely different act that you don’t usually do in temples, you can’t help but grab a copy as soon as possible, read the book in the first sitting and be prepared to offer your own critique in the next debate. “I was the only one to read the book in our group of five. After hearing my talks about the book some started reading,” said Richa Bhattarai, 20-year-old college girl of Kathmandu who wrote an article in Koseli, a Saturday supplement of Kantipur, about her love affair with the Potter books. Three of her friends have read the books, she said, and the fourth has bought. Richa started with the third book and ultimately managed to read all.

What we saw in Kathmandu on the first day of the release of the book is nothing compared to the Harry Potter fever that gripped many urban parts of the world. But then we are growing up. We are small and we are few but we are definitely getting big, perhaps more rapidly than we might want to guess. Many Hollywood movies get simultaneously released in Los Angeles and in Jay Nepal and people flock to the theaters of Santa Monica and Hattisar with equal enthusiasm. Yes, the world is flat and you don’t have to be in London to be one of the firsts to get hold of a copy of a Potter book. Society is exposed to the world like never before and the cultural phenomenon like Potter and Spiderman have become far more accessible than ever. The first review of the seventh Potter book might have published in the New York Times but Nepali papers like the Kathmandu Post are publishing impressions of the “die hard fans” with titles like “Miss you, Harry!” The Deathly Hallows, termed ‘phenomenal’ in a NY Times review, gets this comment in the Post article by Sewa Bhattarai, 21, sister of Richa: “[T]he book could have been slower and longer, and the destruction of each Horcrux could be described in more detail.”

As Richa pointed out in an interview with me, Harry the bespectacled boy embodies the aspiration and dream of teenagers all over the world. Harry Potter of Hogwarts is not different from Hari Poudel of Hetauda in many respects. Above all, it’s a good story and people love reading good stories, especially the kids and teens. Potter books are fantastic example of how far imagination can go and teens all over the world love to imagine, they like to live in the world of fantasy. The central theme of all Potter books, as writer J.K. Rowling herself has put, is death and our kids have seen enough deaths during the Maoist insurgency in the past decade. The book also talks about love and the trend of dating or kissing is increasing in urban Nepali society in the past couple of years. Harry lives with his mean uncles and gets away from them as the story progresses and Nepali teens want the same: freedom from family control. Harry emerges victorious and survives all difficulties and Nepali readers of Potter also want the same: get out of this disappointing situation. They want to go school without being obstructed by agitators on the street; they want to see all forms of entertainment available in the city in such a depressing scenario when they can’t even go to theater because of a sudden Nepal Banda.

Since you are a consumer of the Internet age, you can’t ignore certain thing however you try. Because he is in movies, he is in Internet and in other forms of pop culture; Harry is the hero everyone wants to be associated with in one way or the other. One of them is by talking about him. And to talk about him, you must read about him. “Marketing has become a very important part in selling books,” said Raman of EBH. He cited two successful examples of marketing in Nepali publishing industry. Palpasa Cafe and another Nepali language best selling book Soch of Karna Shakya were advertised in newspapers. Upadhayay, Thapa and Wagle participated in book signing ceremony organized separately or on the sidelines of the biggest book fair in Kathmandu. Though Nepali reading is not fashionable among certain section of Kathmandu society, Raman said Palpasa Cafe and Soch changed the perception that Nepali books are either copied from English books or poor in quality.

And there is this class division. Just like English language is not the language of preference in rural area, folks in village can’t easily manage to spend about Rs. 1560 for a book. They don’t have money and the English language speaking rich folks don’t want to think for a second before spending that money for their kid. It could also be argued that it’s not just about rich parents not caring to spend money to encourage their kids to study English books. It’s about fostering reading culture as well. The quality and quantity of Nepali children literature is constantly improving. The English medium schools are vehemently encouraging students to study out-of-course books and that act is certainly promoting the reading culture among our kids. Sad that J K Rowling isn’t writing the eight version of Harry Potter!