Any book nerd who has spent enough time in Canberra knows that the most exciting (twice-) annual event (yes, even more exciting than Floriade) is the Lifeline Book Sale. A huge exhibition hall full of every kind of book imaginable, cheap, and well-sorted, too! Dunedinites, the Lifeline Book Sale is much, much better than the Dunedin 24 Hour Book Sale, which was always quite disappointing, I thought. (Does that still even happen?) The spring 2012 event, held over the past weekend, was as exciting as ever, necessitating a Friday morning off work, and my enthusiasm was only dampened by the fact that I will soon be leaving Canberra and probably having to dispose of an awful lot of books. So this time I restricted myself to just one bag.
Manjushree Thapa’s Mustang Bhot in Fragments was one of the books that made it into my bag, and a testament to why I love the Lifeline Book Sale- you can find all kinds of obscure things, out of print, or unavailable elsewhere. This is a short travel account, printed on newsprint, the first publication by Himal Books, who also publish the excellent magazine Himal Southasian. It is also Nepali writer Manjushree Thapa’s first book.
The poor quality newsprint and photographic reproductions so fuzzy you wonder why they even bothered aside, this is a lovely book. It was written shortly after Thapa’s return to Nepal at the age of 22, after growing up in the US, when she was trying to reacquaint herself with her country of origin, and figure out her place in it. From an elite background, where only English was spoken at home, she knows in theory before she embarks on the journey to Mustang that the upper class’ sense of entitlement is wrong, and seeks to find out why, and how.
Mustang District is in the north of Nepal, a plane ride from Pokhara, and is described as being on the other side of the Himalaya from the rest of Nepal. Ethnically, linguistically, religiously, geographically Tibetan, the Bhot people of Mustang share little with other Nepalis, yet are part of the Nepali state. At the time this book was written, 20 years ago, the area was restricted and outsiders were not allowed to visit. Thapa describes the extreme poverty of the Mustang region, and the “development” projects that were attempted and largely failed due to corruption, and because they did not actually take into consideration the needs, wants and resources of the people affected–a tale that could be told many times over about different parts of the world.
Mirroring the disconnection of the Mustang Bhot from majoritarian Nepali society is Thapa’s own sense of disconnect from her country. It opens with an epigraph that illustrates this:
“Where are you from?” the girl asked.
“Kathmandu,” I said.
“You’re from Am’rica?” she said, then slipped behind my camera to look at her village through the viewfinder.
“I’m Nepali. Are you from America” I teased.
“I’m from Nepal,” she said with textbook patriotism.”
In this sense, Mustang Bhot in Fragments is a fairly formulaic travel narrative, an individual embarking on a journey to find themselves. Does Thapa achieve this? Not really, as she returns to Kathmandu at the end even more disillusioned with Nepal than she had been before, feeling even more cut off from it. Towards the end she states:
“The suffocation I had come to Nepal to confront, and then gone to Mustang to escape, had surfaced once again. In Mustang, as in Kathmandu, no one could know or trust others. There were feudal loyalties that spanned generations and class, caste, sub-caste, ethnic and linguistic barriers to cloak and obliterate the humanity of others.” (p. 105)
I would be interested to know what Thapa has to say about the developments in her country over the past two decades, as much of the poverty, corruption and political positioning that she describes has directly contributed towards the situation that Nepal is now in.