On a busy street in Thamel, Kathmandu, motorbikes, taxis and horse carriages rushing by, vendors shouting, trying to lure you inside their hole-in-the-wall stores to buy trekking gear, tiger balm or Gurkha knives, colorful pashminas fluttering in the light breeze, I found refuge inside a small bookstore in an unassuming side-street. So small, that I could easily have missed it.
The store had that distinct smell of old books, not an unpleasant one—unlike all the odors that attacked my senses outside on the street. The walls were lined with shelves from floor to ceiling, absolutely packed with books, guides and magazines, and on the floor were so many stacks that moving around with my backpack was virtually impossible.
Behind a piled desk sat an ancient man with sunken cheeks and a gray beard. With a kind look in his foggy eyes he welcomed me to his store.
He presented me with trekking guides and corny paperbacks in English but his face lit up when I asked whether he had anything by Nepali authors. He gingerly picked a Penguin publication from the shelf, The Tutor of History by Manjushree Thapa.
“She is the best Nepali storyteller,” he told me. His price was fair and he even offered me to hand in any other books I might have to cover part of the novel’s value. My journey was just beginning and I didn’t want to carry any extra weight but wowed to return on my way home several weeks later.
In the meantime, I came to appreciate the value of books to a greater extent than I have in the past.
On all those early nights after the day’s second portion of dal bhaat had been served in the tiny farmhouse in Sarangkot where I stayed with two other volunteers, reading with my headlight (electricity was sporadic) was a welcome diversion on the hard mattress in my cold, rat-infested room.
And even more so on the frosty evenings in the Himalayas en route to Everest Base Camp, while huddled up in my big parka close to the single potbelly stove in the dining area, clutching a cup of black tea or simply boiled water to stay warm.
Reading is a vital post-trekking activity but carrying loads of books up slippery slopes is not optimal. Hikers have come up with a clever system where they leave the paperbacks they’re through with at lodges for others to pick up or buy for a moderate fee once they’re out of reading material.
The same arrangement was upheld at the capital’s shabby guesthouses, I discovered upon my return, having laughs over Kim Stanley Robinson’s novella collection Escaping Kathmandu in the much appreciated sun and heat of lower altitudes.
I kept my promise, too. After walking past the old man’s bookstore several times, starting to think it was in a parallel universe, I eventually stumbled upon it again. The shopkeeper remembered me and happily accepted a Lonely Planet guide as part of the payment.
Months later in my soft and comfy bed in Iceland, my nightstand lamp attesting to the country’s plentiful supply of electricity, I flipped through Thapa’s Tutor of History and her writing brought me right back to Nepal.
Her vivid characters are ordinary Nepalis on a quest for happiness and their life standards should shame any Icelander complaining about poverty.
I began to reflect on values in life and the wealth of a nation. Not so long ago, Iceland was no better off than Nepal, each day a fight for survival.
Icelanders weren’t rich in material possessions but what they had were stories, stories that gave them a sense of togetherness and happiness, a beacon of light and feeling of warmth on cold winter nights. Icelandic Saga manuscripts were treasured above all else.
When Icelanders eventually broke out of their misery and fought for independence, it was the words of national poet Jónas Hallgrímsson (1807-1845) that motivated them.
Today still, writers are held in high esteem. They may not earn much due to the miniscule Icelandic market, yet last year, more books were published in Iceland than ever before.
For Christmas I got two new books—literature is considered the ideal gift among Icelanders—and thoroughly enjoyed reading them in the peace and quiet of the holidays.
Vígroði by Vilborg Davíðsdóttir, the second book in a series about the life of settler Auður djúpúðga, did not disappoint—I could hardly put it down and can’t wait to read more—and Ósjálfrátt, a part autobiography by Auður Jónsdóttir, granddaughter of Iceland’s most famous author, Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Halldór Laxness (1902-1998), is highly interesting, if a bit complicated to grasp.
The value of language and words is great. Our literary heritage is what makes us rich, not any amount of flat-screen TVs or SUVs, as some of my countrymen seem to think.
Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir – firstname.lastname@example.org