More thematic books needed

- Pratyoush Onta | 2021-09-24

Pratyoush Onta

Nov 11, 2017-The first of the hundreds of articles I have written for this newspaper was published on November 7, 1993, under the title Unthinkably Bad Books. In it I highlighted the collusion between unscrupulous academics and dishonest publishers. The exhibits based on which I made my argument were two books published in 1993 by the Delhi based publisher Anmol Publications. The titles of these books were Democracy and Economic Development in Nepal and Foreign Policy of Nepal and they were edited by the same set of three academics. Given that the Panchayat System had been ended only three years earlier, there was definitely a special need then to have discussions on the themes covered by the titles of these books. That was why I was drawn to those books in the first place. But even as a novice researcher then, I also knew that one of the ways in which scholarship on Nepal could be advanced was through the publication of rigorously edited thematic readers on various important topics. Such edited volumes were integral part of how scholarship had been developed by academics and academic publishers elsewhere. Hence I took these books seriously only to be disappointed immediately.

It was easy to show why. Democracy and Economic Development in Nepal came with a one-page preface written by the three editors who claimed that “the possibilities of the economic development of Nepal have been analysed in the prevailing conditions.” The rest of the book, however, did not contain a single sentence of analysis. Instead, the three chapters which constituted the book contained reprints from various sources. In the first two chapters, I found texts of the messages, speeches and addresses given by the then king during the 1970s and the 1980s. The third chapter contained various reprints of newspaper writings on Indo-Nepal ties dating from 1988 to 1991. The second book was not much different.

Now don’t get me wrong. Collections of texts found in these books are also useful reference compendiums for the enterprise of research. However, the more useful compendiums are put together with a lot of attention to thematic coherence and details and often come with a user-friendly index. What I found unacceptable then was the deliberate attempt by the editors and the publisher in question to deceive unwary readers.

In the 24 years that have passed since the publication of those books, such practices of collusion between shameful academics and bad publishers have not vanished completely. One finds such books in the stores in Kathmandu published by relatively unknown publishers in Nepal and India. However, the good news is that unthinkably bad books have been relegated to the sidelines by better conceptualised thematic readers and many edited volumes related to Nepal. Some of these books have been published by international academic publishers such as Oxford University Press (OUP), Sage Publications, Routledge and Cambridge University Press. Others have been published by Nepali commercial and not-for-profit academic publishers. The quality of these books has not been excellent all the time but in many of them, any reader will find some good stuff to read.

Not surprisingly, the themes of the Maoist conflict and post-conflict transition have been the ones around which many edited volumes have been published in the past fifteen plus years. These have contained contributions by many different types of disciplinary actors, but political scientists and anthropologists have been the most prolific ones for understandable reasons. Political scientists—almost inevitably Nepali in nationality terms—had returned to writing about current politics in post-Panchayat Nepal (during which time they had, for the most part, concentrated in Nepal’s foreign policy) when the Maoist conflict started. They first joined the “state restructuring” bandwagon and later into post-conflict transition (including the new constitution) as themes to write about. Anthropologists—and for the most part they have been non-Nepali—stuck to their disciplinary strength and wrote about the conflict as it was happening on the ground. They also wrote about its scars on people they interacted with in their “fields”. Such books have contributed to the deepening of our collective understanding of the conflict and made us more attentive to the contemporary challenges facing Nepal.

Many other equally important themes, however, have remained “uncollected” in edited volumes. Take, for example, the case of migrant labour. While it seems that every fourth journal article being written about Nepal these days has something to do with the phenomenon of Nepalis laboring outside of the country, I cannot think of even a single book that brings together the best writings on this subject from various disciplinary and analytic vantage points. Similar is the case for the changing gender relations in Nepali society. While popular representations have seen a patriarchal backlash against the gains made by women in our country, the best academic writings on the subject remain scattered in the pages of various journals and hence not easily accessible to students in Nepal. A third theme that needs prompt attention is the ongoing rapid urbanisation and its linkages with the quality of life issues. The last serious edited volume on this theme that I am aware of, Shaharikaran (in Nepali) was published by Martin Chautari in 2006. That one focused on urban livelihoods and there are many facets of our current urbanisation process that needs scholarly attention.

Many other thematic absences could be added here.

Moving to disciplinary domains, Nepal’s historians have been particularly missing in publishing thematic readers. The number of historians of Nepal continues to remain small compared to the number of historians of India. That perhaps explains why we are unlikely to see idea and argument focused history readers similar to those put out by OUP in its Themes in Indian History series any time soon. However, that cannot be an excuse for not bringing together the best articles about the states of central west Nepal of the pre-modern era in one accessible volume. One can similarly think of a volume that covers the early decades of 20th century Nepal. Similarly, we should have the best journal writings on Panchayat’s three decades collected in several volumes with useful introductions so that students of a newer generation might understand what those decades of monarchical autocracy mean. Nepali historians have been prolific in producing single-author monographs but the absence of the kinds of books discussed here, in part, explains why history as a discipline is perceived to be languishing in its own analytic uselessness in contemporary times.

I have highlighted the need for some possibly good books in the form of thematic readers and edited volumes because such books demonstrate the collective possibility of good social science writing on Nepal. They also make visible the current landscape of research on a particular theme and open up exciting possibilities for new students and researchers. Since the burden of bringing such a book to life is shared between various researchers, this format should also suit the financially challenged Nepali academics. If produced well, there is no dearth of publishers in Nepal and elsewhere who would be willing to publish such books.

Are there any takers out there?


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