Kathmandu:

I’m not afraid of dying,” says 92-year-old Chandra Krishna Shrestha, the oldest bookseller in the valley who has some smouldering pages of Nepali past. He heads one of those prominent families, which run the book business in the capital.

“I’m in a state of permanent bliss, Parmanand,” he quotes the Bhagavadgita. “World is nothing but ashes.

I know, I may not return to human embryo again but this is my golden moment in this life…”

A devout man, he gets up early in the morning and cycles to the Pashupati shrine to feed monkeys. He moves past the goddess Guheshwari shrine and reaches a spot where Bagmati’s water runs crystal and pure and meditates there for sometime.

Talking to this sad-eyed sire seemed like walking the dark lanes of Nepali history. Amazingly, he had a shop even before 1950. “First it was a grocery shop that later turned into a bookshop,” says his son Akhanda Shrestha, who has been running Annapurna book service in Thamel since 1981. Akhanda’s other six brothers also run major book enterprises like MK Distributors and Sukanda Publishers in Kathmandu.

“In the grocery shop we sold chocolates and cigarettes, as the items were a novelty then. Rana ladies regularly approached us for chocolates,” Shrestha recalls with much exertion. The entire family is present in the living room to help me translate his fragmented accounts as he lapses into the past.

“In the bookstore, the best-sellers were Bhagavadgita, Hanumanchalisa, Swasthani and English for the Beginners. The supply came from India through Bhimphedi ropeway and to print a book you had to go to Varanasi.”

Time and again he gets agitated and refers to the political turbulence that razed the lives of innocent people. “Ranas shooed everyone away with their guns. In order to publish a book you had to seek a license from Nepal Bhasha Prakashani Samiti.”

His accounts are sporadic and uneven as if he has suffered from a huge memory loss. He recalls watching King Tribhuwan coming to Asan on a bicycle.

He also evokes glitterati of Nepali littérateurs — Lekhnath Paudyel, Balakrishan Sama, Hriyedya Chandra Singh Pradhan, Rudra Raj Pandey, Bhim Nidhi Tiwaria and Laxmi Devkota —coming to his shop in front of Durbar School.

He sold Tarun Tapasi and Muna Madan at mere 25 paisa each. He seems quite perturbed at the writers’ habit of taking books on credit and never paying. As a publisher, his Ram Pheri Padne Cha was best-seller but Siddhicharan Shrestha’s Kopila didn’t do well with the sales. Shrestha’s failure to cope up with the times and his inability to go to Varanasi to publish books seems to be chief regrets of his life. But a strongly spiritual man, he kept his faith in good karma intact, even when his rivals plotted against him once during the Panchayat times. A fake complaint about disputed price of a Janak Siksha book he sold gave him a week in jail. His children were in tears when he narrated the significant part of this story. His sons adore their father’s courage in facing the charges and coming out of jail unblemished. It brought to my mind the suspicion-ridden suppressed life of an individual in the one-party Panchayat regime.

The sons also refer to a huge store of rare books that lay in their storehouses

and scores of foreign scholars came to their house and rummaged the stocks and bought the books.

“Even the then Indian Ambassador came and bought some books from our stores,” Akhanda points out. His father proudly mentioned the The Devi Purana, a rare book of Hindu gods and goddesses was ordered to be made in gold by then Rana Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher’s wife. The book went to the high priest, he confessed with a moan.

On asking which times of his life he liked the most, he articulated, “I like the modern times better than the Rana regime or Panchayat. Ranas gave a lot of trouble to the people.”

On further asking the name of his favourite leader today, he seemed in league with Jimmy Carter, and uttered the name of Girja Parasd Koirala with a broad smile.

The writer can be reached at writer@yuyutsu.de