By Sudeshna Sarkar, Womens Feature Service
Bhuvaneshwari Satyal feels that the fates themselves had ordained that she would work with children. She was the eldest of nine siblings, and did not want to marry until she had completed her education. She proved to be the first woman postgraduate from Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu, and she married ‘late’ at the age of 26, going by Nepali standards. Her husband was a widower with nine children from his first wife and they had three more of their own.
“All my life, I’ve been surrounded by youngsters,” says the 73-year-old, sitting amidst her books in her old, sprawling residence in Kathmandu. “I never had any doubt about what I wanted to do. I wanted to write for children, I wanted to teach them our values and traditions in our language. It is the toughest job of all.”
Satyal, who headed the Nepal Children’s Organisation founded by King Mahendra, went on to become director for the state-run After School Programmes. She then became the director of the government-run Underprivileged Children’s Education Programme. But she wanted to do more creative work for children and so she quit her job and formed a non-governmental organisation (NGO), Centre for Child Studies and Development in the 1980s.
While running a monthly magazine for children that she started in 1983 as part of her NGO work, Satyal came across four more women. Two of them were locals, while the other two were expatriates. But despite their diverse backgrounds, all five had two things in common: They had all worked in the field of development and all of them were interested in children’s issues.
“There are seven million children in Nepal but very few local children’s books,” says Helen Sherpa from New Zealand. Sherpa married a Nepali and settled down permanently in the country in 1993. “Parents do not buy books for their children but plastic toys, frilly dresses and squeaky shoes. Also, with the English language being given priority, the few children’s books that were there were in English. In the villages, children did not have enough language skills to read them. In any case, the milieu of the English storybook was so different that it did not resonate with the child living in a Nepali village.”
Besides children, the lack of storybooks was also affecting the women in the villages. “Without books that were interesting and easy to read, women in remote villages were forgetting their literacy skills,” says Sherpa, an advisor with World Education that works with victims of trafficking. “And with parents not reading out to their children, even the kids were not developing a reading habit.”
Concerned about this situation, UNICEF was on the look out for NGOs that would be able to provide storybooks for children of remote villages with their focus on social marketing rather than profit making. It was then that Satyal, Sherpa and their three associates – Lucia de Vries, Shanta Laxmi Shrestha and Yasodha Nakarmi Shrestha – decided to start a publishing house that would bring out fun books for children and distribute them in the countryside.
Lucia is a Dutch journalist who also runs an animal welfare centre in Kathmandu, Shanta has been working on development issues in Nepal’s southern Terai plains and Yasodha has been associated with initiatives aimed at encouraging marginalised groups in Nepal to join the mainstream.
When the five set up Sunbird Publishers in the late 1990s, the start-up period proved to be exceedingly tough. “Writers and illustrators had a traditional notion of children’s literature,” says de Vries. “The language was formal, lengthy, moralistic and no fun. They did not understand or like our approach. So we were forced to train potential writers and illustrators ourselves.”
There were other problems as well. “The technical stuff was a nightmare, too,” Sherpa reveals. “Publishing was not as professional as it is today. Once, a printer copied the wrong file and printed the unedited version of the book. He refused to reprint the book for free, which was a major letdown. Even now, after all these years of publishing, production is a tough job because of problems like power load-shedding and the dearth of Nepali fonts.”
Time has also been a major constraint. “All of us have other jobs,” says a rueful Yasodha. “Besides holding full-time jobs and looking after the family, Sunbird is our third job. And none of us are paid for it. We don’t run Sunbird for profit. Whatever money the books make goes into a rotating fund to bring out new books. We run Sunbird to express our creativity and bolster our spirits,” she says.
While the books have started emerging, marketing them still remains a difficult proposition. “School libraries are only interested in buying textbooks, dictionaries and encyclopaedias,” says Sherpa. “In department stores, children’s books are at the back or hidden in a corner. Outside Kathmandu valley, the geography is so diverse that it is difficult to create a distribution network.” Nevertheless they have found a way to reach out to the kids. In Kathmandu, they keep their books in bookstores and even some department stores; while outside Kathmandu valley, they go through distributors, school libraries and development agencies.
Sunbird started out with two illustrated books in 1998 – ‘Don’t Do As I Do’, written and illustrated by Joy Stephens, and ‘Who Has Eaten The Maize?’, a collective effort by the entire editorial team. Today, despite the hurdles, they have easy reads for children aged between two and 12; and books for teenagers as well. In all, they have published 20 titles. This year, Sunbird gained a major feather in its cap when it became the official publisher of the first Harry Potter novel in Nepali. ‘Harry Potter r Parasmani’, or ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’, was launched in May as the consequence of a letter in a local daily. A teen had written to the ‘Kathmandu Post’, wistfully hoping that one day Nepal would have the boy wizard’s exploits translated in the local language so that he and others like him could enjoy what children the world over were reading.
This moved de Vries to write to J.K. Rowling, the author of the celebrated series, asking for her permission to translate the first novel. Much to the group’s joy, she agreed. The Sunbird women think that the Harry Potter books will strike a chord with the Nepali village reader because Potter’s adventures are about growing up, the pain of coming from a different background and the ups and downs of life.
This Fabulous Five is certainly doing all they can to fill the yawning gap in Nepal’s children’s literature.