Nepali Village Libraries


I’ve never been back to see what happened to the library I built in Koshi Dekha, and at this point I’m not so curious to find out.  I did it, it worked, it was exciting, now it’s done.

But the villagers who welcomed a clueless helpless outsider to their magic world, who trusted and learned to like me, who became my friends, about them I still have questions.  Was Maya really awesome beautiful?  Was Julinath truly that noble?  Could Ama actually have been so deep cool?

One thing’s certain though, 1985 was a long time ago.  I was in my early 40’s, stuck in a smallish college town, unhappily eying the next step, going back to graduate school or starting a hip little bookstore.

Instead I moved to Nepal.

Less than a year later Ram invited me to the village he’d grown up in, four hours by funky taxi and ninety minutes of steep trail from Kathmandu.

The place turned out to be a loose cluster of about a dozen thick walled 2-story houses.  Towards the edge of a crescent of flat land carved into rice paddies, for washing it was conveniently close to the kola gurgling out from a side canyon into the wide Sun Koshi River.

The next morning, the first of many in his mother’s house, I woke with a Buff looking curiously up at my window.

No glass, just wooden shutters, but except for mosquitoes nothing nasty to keep out.  Occasional soft voices, the sound of birds, animals quietly munching down in the yard, the kola, the wind, all to my city ears uncanny still, soaked in a sensual warm peace.

Elegant, cool, sophisticated, timeless, ancient.  The starry eyed expat’s dream, the mythical unspoiled Village.  Not like those near Everest and Annapurna already busy sucking money out of trekkers, this was different.

Just being there was incredible privilege.  After a few visits, I was looking for a way to say “thank you”.

When I told Ram he smiled.  His plan had worked.  My doing something for the locals would score a point towards his goal of becoming their political representative.

It must have been obvious he was playing me.  “He’s a hustler,” my friends told me, I didn’t listen.  Thank God.  Building the library saved me, opened my eyes, forever knocked me off the straight and narrow path to conventional success.  And I never would have done it if I hadn’t fooled myself into thinking Ram was my friend.

Without him and the library my years in Nepal would have been just an exotic interlude.  Eventually I’d have faced reality, moved back to the States, started that used book store.

I’d met Ram when I rented a very expensive place through his Kathmandu rental agency for foreigners.  Naturally he assumed I was rich.  In his experience all Western expats were.

So when I asked for a suggestion, he had one ready.  I could buy plastic pipe to bring water from a spring to one of his villages.  Getting it there by head balancing heavy jugs over a long crumbling trail was dangerous, the previous rains a girl had died.

Still when they turned on the spout and the villagers draped thick marigold garlands around my neck, it didn’t feel quite right.

All I’d given was money, a couple of hundred bucks I didn’t need myself.  It was too easy, it didn’t count.  I wanted to actually do something, to contribute my own sweat.

But how?  There was no point trying to help growing rice or fixing roofs, the locals did that just fine, I’d only be in the way.

I was fishing in the dark.  Setting myself up as a personal peace corps to teach something struck me as grotesque.  I had no idea what the villagers would like to know.

Then one day it hit me.  I could bring them books, let them choose themselves what to read!

Now I realize things are not so simple, that introducing new ideas spells death for a traditional culture.  But to learn that takes some living.  Back then I was a young man who hadn’t yet seen the modern West is a 100% fatal disease.

The Library

From there things happened quickly.  In only three years my innocent dream grew to nearly 800 Nepali volumes including:

  • Texts about Nepal’s history, geography, art, language, political system, economics and culture
  • Manuals dealing with locally relevant skills (beekeeping, bamboo crafts, carpentry, farming, medicine)
  • More than 100 books of Nepali fiction and poetry
  • 50 volumes of important Hindu scriptures (some in Hindi or Sanskrit)
  • Science and math books
  • A sprinkling of World history and culture (including translations of Aristotle, some great Russian writers, and Arthur Miller)

All out there in the middle of nowhere, available 10 hours/day, six days/week.  All for people who previously had nothing to read beyond ragged handed down school texts and outdated newspapers.  All Dewey Decimal classified and tended by a full time librarian.  All lent out for free to anyone who bothered to get a card.

But getting to that point took some doing, and step one was to buy the books.

Kathmandu’s used book stores were bigger and better than anything in India.  Stocked with what backpackers sold before they left Nepal, it was amazing, you could find Suzuki, Homer, Mann, Leary, Dickens….  But it all was in English, French, German, Japanese….. nothing in Nepali.

While the fancy stores for wealthy tourists offered how-to-speak Nepali texts, popularized Hinduism and Buddhism, best sellers, and coffee table monsters stuffed with slick photos of the high mountains.  They too had no Nepali books.

To find those Ram and I haunted low ceilinged, damp, dusty, poorly lit stores for locals.  Except for Hindu scriptures, these guys mostly sold small paperbacks with plain covers not much thicker than their pages.  Illustrations were line drawings, the rare photograph was black and white.

I couldn’t read them, not with my beginner Nepali.  All I had to go on was the slightly magical sense of the serious used book shopper.  Methodically I’d work through every shelf, pulling out each book, holding it in my hand, squinting at illustrations and page layout, digging for clues.  Then if a buzzer went off in my head, if something told me it might be worth buying, I’d hand it to Ram and he’d do his best to tell me what it was about.

If it sounded interesting, we’d add it to our stack.  Some big stores took several visits to go through all the shelves, but on a good day we’d walk out with 20-50 more books for the library.

Next up, hard covers to toughen our books for heavy library use.

An elegant dude with a shop past the end of Freak Street took care of that.  For 50 to 70 cents he and his beautiful daughters put stiff textured covers on our books.  Pressed on with a spider like beast of an early modern machine, to apply force he pulled hard on a yard wide cast iron wheel.

Since each book cost 25 cents to a dollar, even bound their cost was small.

Good thing.  If they and everything else in Nepal hadn’t been so cheap, I never could have built the library.

Because I was paying for it all, and my funds were vanishing scary fast.  I had much less than Ram thought.

When I look at journals from back then, every hundred pages I’m agonizing over how and when to squeeze more income from my 3-heavily mortgaged rental properties in the States.

But the Gods must have wanted the library.  Just when the whole trip started was the one and only time I’ve ever felt flush.  New to Nepal, I was basking in the illusion of being rich.  I’d even rented a 2-story house from Ram.  Looking at it now, at the stark white sterile rooms and fakely fancy furniture, I feel ashamed.  The photo of me behind a pile of books destined for the library suggests the totally inappropriate grandeur of the place.

Once I no longer needed the protection of walls and a gatekeeper, I moved to more modest digs down by Swayambhu Temple hill.  Later in Varanasi, Mitsuko and I slid still lower, living very happily like lower middle class Indians, no running water, no reliable electricity, no glass in our windows.

That’s quite different from the trajectory of most long term expats who each year go up.  Starting as pilgrims in search of mind-blowing adventure, they end up staying for the upper class lifestyle they can’t afford back home.  Hooked on servants, on never having to cook or clean, they forget how to do things and get arrogant.  Soon they’re just rich people.

Forgive the rant, but writing this page is bringing back memories…..

OK, so there they were, our books were bound, next they needed to be classified.

Shanti Mishra, who ran the most substantial library in Nepal, took care of that and more.  She put a professional polish on our crude efforts.  Without her Koshi Dekha Library would not have turned out so functional and together.

When I think of it now it’s astonishing she trusted and believed me.  I was just this young guy with no training in library science, no official connections, and no track record in “development”.  But I must have felt real, and of course from the way I talked it was obvious I loved books.  Fortunately for her that was enough.

Only her guys at Tribhuvan University Library knew how to use the Dewey Decimal system to classify Nepali books, so she lent us two of them.

With their little civilized bellies and city clothes, at first they were uncomfortable sitting on the floor of our chairless library.

But once it hit we’d invited them to help do a small miracle, bringing books to where there’d been none, their librarian souls kicked in, they got to work and things came into focus.

By the time they left they were sorry to go, while we had the makings of a proper library system.

Shanti also sent me to the binder, to the only place in Kathmandu which sold steel bookends, to where we could buy catalog cards and labels for our books…..

Then when we’d hired Shyam, our librarian, she trained him for 5 weeks at Tribhuvan.

Soon Shyam, not Ram was helping me buy our books.  He’d come to the city for a few days leaving his assistant in charge.  Early every morning the same guy also taught an adult literacy class, then opened and watched the library until Shyam showed up two hours later.  Their salaries, like everything else for the library, were paid by me.

The library was above the school at Koshi Dekha.  The road stopped there, one way you looked down 1,000 ft. to the Sun Koshi River, the other towards a wall of jagged snow peaks.

As soon as the teachers saw our first load of books, they gave us their upstairs lounge space to use for the library.

Their principal, Julinath Upreti, took charge, made sure the books stayed safe and dry, and wrote out the first full list of our holdings.  Before we found Shyam, he did everything.  Later I offered to pay him, he smiled, said helping give the village a library had been more than enough reward.

…. only the first of many times the villagers met me half way.

The 20 x 30 ft. space was big and cooler than I’d dared to dream.  High ceilinged, four tall wood shuttered windows made it bright for a village room.  And only three coats of plaster took care of the splattered stained and peeling walls.

The dirt floor and unfinished ceiling were more serious.

For them the villagers donated trees I paid to turn to lumber.  Amazed I watched them rip thick logs lengthwise with a two-man saw, one guy in a pit below, a second balanced on top.  Soon we had a floor and ceiling of lovely hand polished planks, and a giant bookcase with room for 1,000 volumes filled one end of the room.

Instead of the chairs villagers don’t use, ten big square green pillows.  On the shelves bookends, for light at night a huge old fashioned kerosene lamp.  The cards Shanti’s guys made neat in a wooden cabinet with strong sliding drawers, all like a proper library but smaller.  Even clever folding stands for reading big books on the floor.

In a corner of the room a rack for newspapers, next to it one for rolled-up maps and charts lent out to teachers from all the little schools within walking distance.

And for the teachers, an empty downstairs room turned into a new lounge.

Still one big job remained.  Before access had been a bamboo ladder, the library needed a staircase which to avoid distracting students had to be on the other side of the building.

And here we made a mistake.

We opted for an impressive staircase sticking directly out from the building.  The villagers had no experience building anything that arrogant, so they designed it without enough drainage and the first heavy rains washed it out.  I wasn’t happy, replacing it cost more of that money I was running out of.

And the whole fiasco had been unnecessary, villagers don’t need grand wide staircases, they’re sure footed, can pass each other on crumbling wet trails.  A narrow steep cheaper one directly against the building would have served just fine and wouldn’t have washed out.  Then the lovely old outbuilding behind the school would still be there.

We were thinking too big, didn’t have our egos under control.  Like my overly grand first house, now it makes me embarrassed.  I tell myself it was Ram’s idea, that in general I didn’t get involved with construction decisions, I didn’t know enough about how the locals did things.  But that’s a lame excuse, if I’d been thinking more clearly, I would have said “Now wait a minute…”

The Dream

The silly staircase didn’t stop the library from working.

With no phone, my arrival was always unannounced, but each time it was open and busy.  I’d sit and watch villagers come in, browse, read a bit, then leave with books in their hands.

Once I saw a teenage girl sweet talk Shyam into letting her take out two books at once.  After she’d left he told she’d been steadily chewing through the whole collection at a pace of 3-4 books a week.

That year at the assembly when the school gave awards to its best students, all the prizes went to library regulars.  Local parents took notice, started pushing their kids to read.

While many teachers were borrowing books to study for upgraded certificates.

Soon more than 60 villagers a day were using the library.  But whenever I asked Shyam if any books had been lost or damaged, his answer always came back “No”.

Things were going uncanny smooth.

Even the important people in Kathmandu had noticed something special was happening out at Koshi Dekha.

For the official dedication ceremony a whole herd of them drove out in chauffeur driven land rovers and new cars.

Left to right in the photo: Lewis R. Macfarlane, acting American Ambassador; Shanti Mishra, Chief Librarian of Tribhuvan University; Mahesh Kumar Upadhyaya, Vice-Chancellor of Nepal; Ram; Shyam; Me; and Madhu Sudan Subadi, Director of Nepal’s National Library.

It was bitter sweet to see these high bureaucrats finally express support.  Except for Shanti, we’d received no help from anyone official.

The Americans gave us only a no longer needed Encyclopedia Britannica, one they’d already replaced with a more recent edition.  Handing it down to us was better than feeling bad about throwing it away.  Still as the most substantial reference work in our library, we gave it a place of honor in its own small bookcase.  Sometimes villagers thumbed through it looking at pictures, but none of them could read English.

More appreciated were 10 children’s books, converted by Japanese volunteers who laboriously pasted tidy hand written Nepali translations over the original Japanese text.  Big, almost like manga, in glorious full color, they blew the village kids away.

Obviously showing up for a nice photo op and actually giving concrete help were quite different.

Still it all seemed hopeful for my new larger dream, a net of village libraries thrown across Nepal.

Koshi Dekha was already there and real, we only had to find the funds to clone it.  For that purpose in March of ’88 I wrote a short booklet, “Village Libraries in Nepal”.   Now 30 years later a copy, bound in black by our binder, thin gold letters proud on its front, sits next to me as I type.  Inside, along with stodgy explanations of what we’d done and hoped to do, is a breakdown of library costs.

The figures below are in 1986 US Dollars, converted from Nepali rupee figures in my booklet at the then going rate of 20.7 Rs/Dollar.

Buying and binding our books cost $957.  The catalog cards themselves, and a wooden cabinet with the right size drawers to hold them, came to $280.

Preparing and furnishing the space was more expensive, still $1,430 had covered milling the lumber, labor, bookcases, librarian’s desk, maps and newspaper racks, maps and charts, cushions, kerosene lamp……

Our first giant staircase set me back $394, then rebuilding it a few months later was an additional $338.

Taxis, mostly to take books out to Koshi Dekha, came to $237.  The new teachers’ room cost $193. Shyam’s expenses while training in Kathmandu amounted to $104.  Miscellaneous this and that added $48 more.

That’s $3,981 for the whole library.  Keeping it open was cheap too, just $95/month.

Shyam’s $36/month was what he’d received as head of a little school, his half-time assistant got $18, the night guard who also watched the school was $12.  And we budgeted $29 more each month for kerosene, stationary, replacing books, chai…

There seemed good reason to be optimistic.  These amounts were tiny next to the tens of millions thrown at Nepal by international aid agencies and foreign governments.

I imagined assembling basic library kits in Kathmandu, then sending them out as units to villages which had proved real interest by offering a suitable space.  At Koshi Dekha this had been the room above the school, elsewhere it might be something different.

In each kit would be the most useful and interesting books we’d bought for Koshi Dekha, a card catalog, maps and charts, map and newspaper racks, bookends, and all the other special stuff needed for a library.

New librarians would train in Kathmandu, then intern at Koshi Dekha or one of our other already established libraries.

And of course with scale everything would get cheaper.  When we were buying many catalog cabinets and many bookends, each would cost less.

My fantasies didn’t stop there.

With enough village libraries the Nepali publishing business would take off.  Local publishers broke even with 400 sales.  Two hundred libraries poised to buy copies of every worthwhile new Nepali book would be a game changer.

One could even imagine systematically translating books from other languages, filling the huge gaps in what was then available.

Except perhaps for the last two paragraphs, this road map still seems realistic.

But making it happen was not to be my fate.

The Fall….

Building Koshi Dekha Library was magnificently innocent.

Good action piled up on top of good action, very quickly my utopian vision became real.

But when I started looking for help to clone it, I hit a wall.

It was hot the first time I visited an official American in his office.  He was behind his desk, I sat across from him in my basic Kathmandu outfit, clean somewhat loose black shorts and a short sleeve shirt.

As usual for comfort I wasn’t wearing underpants.  Who knows, perhaps he saw something he shouldn’t have seen, for sure he looked uncomfortable.

The next time I visited an important official I made sure to wear long pants, a proper shirt, and my Harvard tie, but I don’t think I fooled him.

I was too loose, too wild, to be welcome as an International Aid worker.  I didn’t fit the life style, didn’t know the right way to behave.  Everyone was polite to me, even returned my calls, but no one offered help.

Then one day I saw photos of my library displayed prominently in the window of the big U.S. office on New Road.  There I stood at our dedication, the acting ambassador and I with flower garlands around our necks.

Stunned, I wanted to smash something.  The fuckers had dissed me, made it clear they wanted me gone.

Because they’d selected my library as their poster child to celebrate 50 years of American Aid to Nepal.

And they hadn’t told me.

Before I looked into that window I hadn’t heard a word about my work being chosen.  They hadn’t notified me or invited me to the big ceremony.  And though they’d given us only their old Britannica, the captions by the photos made it sound like Koshi Dekha had been an official American project.  My name was nowhere.

I was ready to kill.

I was seriously proud of the library.  I’d poured myself into it, worked my little butt off, drained my bank account to make it happen.  And then the fucking Americans waltzed in and stole the credit!

Now, after hours with my old journals and photographs, after long nights of turning it all over in my mind, it’s difficult to conjure up the same fiery anger.  The assholes really had no choice.

For their big celebration they needed something special to brag about but the official US government Aid projects were all too boring.  So when they looked at my jewel of a library, implausibly working out there in the middle of nowhere, it was obvious what to do.  With a snap of collective fingers it happened and the library became theirs.  After all I was an American, it wasn’t big stretching the truth.

How sad.  If only they’d asked to feature Koshi Dekha, I would have been delighted.

But they couldn’t, not the way I’d built it, that was just too weird.

I hadn’t commissioned a feasibility study, I just started.  I hadn’t evaluated the relative suitability of various locations across Nepal, I just built it near Ram’s village.  When I bought books I hadn’t put in purchase orders and waited for the budget to be reviewed, I just picked them off the shelves and paid out of my pocket.  I hadn’t collected bids from various binding operations and furniture makers, I just used the people Shanti sent me to.

Even worse, in less than two years with only a few thousand dollars I’d done something way cooler than anything they’d put together with all their millions.

It made them look terrible.

So they took the easy way and airbrushed me out, Orwell style pretended I never existed.

I like to think a few official Americans felt bad, knew who’d really built the library.  They didn’t all have defective memories and some had liked me.  But for even these good ones I was a loose cannon, a threat to the system paying them fat salaries.

And I bet those poor bureaucrats were insanely jealous of my freedom.  They were stuck behind their desks while I was everywhere and enjoying it.

For a month each year I’d be wandering alone around the back of Annapurna or up by Everest.  Every three months there was the required visa trip to India or Thailand.  Occasionally stuff took me to the States.  There were trips bringing books to the library, hikes up the mountains around Kathmandu, long walks exploring out past the Ring Road.  And when I wasn’t in furious motion, I was taking Nepali lessons, writing long letters and hundreds of pages of journals, enjoying life in funky then still magic Kathmandu.

No wonder the “development” community didn’t open its arms.  Not like it later did for Christa.

When Christa arrived from the States, I was still in my triumphant phase.  The library was already thriving and I was glad to see her, my house was way too big for one person and I was lonely.

She was hot enough and the time we spent together was good.  Once or twice I took her to the library and village.  I think she was at the dedication, in one of my photo’s there’s the back of a blond head that must be her.  And she and Ram hit it off right away.  A sweet image sticks in my mind of the three of us playing hacky sack, while my gardener stared on amazed.

After a few months she went back to finish school.  Ram by chance was there too, travelling on a wrangled travel grant.  She wrote me he’d made a trip to visit her.

When she returned she was fucking Ram.

My journals confirm Ram’s wife Shanta twice called in tears, he’d stopped giving her enough money to feed herself and the kids, when she tried to talk to him about Christa, he beat her.  “Please, please, tell the Americans, have her kicked out!” she begged me.

I didn’t try, it was too late, she’d already wormed her way in too deep.

According to an expat friend who moved in those high foreigner circles, up there the story was Christa had earned her job at the American Library by building Koshi Dekha.

Of course she hadn’t.  She’d just been my girlfriend.  The vision, planning, work, and money had all been mine.  She’d contributed absolutely nothing to the library.

But there was no point fighting, the official Americans had made plain I was unwelcome.  They’d swapped me for a blond chick who knew which side her bread was buttered on.

That special visa to build libraries would never happen, under the new regulations, without it 3 months would be the most I could stay in Nepal.

The gods could not be clearer.  It was time to leave.

For a year I thrashed around.  I’d been insulted, dumped, deceived, robbed, kicked in the balls.

Youthful “I’ll show them” fantasies sprouted then vanished, I was often on the edge of slightly mad.

My last trek I cried for the first two days.  Over steep passes, all the way to the far side of Tatopani, I was miserable.  Then it dropped and I was flying.

Six weeks later I headed to Varanasi where I met Mitsuko.  Now more than a quarter century later we’re tighter than ever, still astonished by our incredible good luck.

Together we recorded chilled magic music with one-of-a-kind instruments built with our own hands.  Together we fell from our birth class, learned the true elite are workers, that the best of them are sharper than official artists and musicians, academics, stars, or the super rich.  Together we created an elegant cultured life with so little money we’re right at the official poverty line.  Together we lived by the Ganges River in Varanasi, beneath old growth redwoods in California, in the high desert of New Mexico, and now on the edge of the Pittsfield slums.

As Mitsuko sings in Hand in Hand, together we’ve helped each other grow.

My life would have been far poorer if instead I’d built Nepal a library system, had many servants and a big house out beyond the Ring Road, and at the end been honored with a statue in Ratna Park.

So I’m glad it went down the way it did.

Of course at the time I wasn’t so philosophical about it.

That Christa swapped me for Ram, I got over it kind of quick.  My journals make clear I felt only Ram’s wife Shanta had the right to scream.

But her poisoning the well with the official Americans while Ram was busy doing the same with the Nepali government, that was creepy, weird, and sick.  Never before had two people I’d thought to be friends behaved so badly towards me.

Coldly ambitious, Christa needed credit for the library to start her new career with the American Aid people.  With her body she won Ram’s allegiance, convinced him his political calculations would be better served if he got behind her lies.

They didn’t give a damn it was forcing me from a country I’d learned to love, closing off what I’d thought to be my new life.

All they cared about was having me gone.

Once when I was out of Nepal on a visa trip, they invited the new American Ambassador to the library.  Another time without telling me, Ram took Nepal’s Foreign Minister to see what he and Christa had done.

No trick was too slimy for them, my journals spell it out in great detail.

Burning them at the stake or the death of a thousand cuts wouldn’t have satisfied me.

Thirty years later and after writing this page, the pain is less.

As I’ve come to see it, when the official Americans, Christa, and Ram, behaved so disgustingly, when they showed themselves to be sleaze, they were working for the Fates, driving me from a life I’d finished, herding me to where I was supposed to go.

And you know thinking about it now, I’m not even sure it was correct to build that first library at Koshi Dekha.  I meant well, still I was one of the invading foreigners, one of the many bringing in the Western culture which destroyed Nepal.

Looking at a photo from before the library, there’s no doubt the school, the old building demolished for the grand staircase, the waving grasses, were far more beautiful than what was there when I left.


And the three rhetorical questions at the top of this page?

After a month of pouring over journals and pictures from my Nepal, I’m convinced the answers are yes, yes, and yes.

Maya was awesome beautiful, Julinath was that noble, Ram’s mother was big deep cool.


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