Harry Potter casts his spell - now in Nepali (Feature with images)

June 25th, 2009 - 1:39 pm ICT by IANS  

By Sudeshna Sarkar
Kathmandu, June 25 (IANS) Three years after the end of the armed Maoist uprising and with the beginning of an uneasy peace that set back development and even literacy in the Nepali countryside, five women are trying to re-kindle the dying skill of reading and writing in its interior villages - with the magic of Harry Potter.

“Unlike in India or Bangladesh, there are very few books for children in Nepal,” Helen Sherpa, one of the five women who formed the Sunbird Publishing House a decade ago to fill that void, told IANS.

“Unicef was concerned that especially women in rural Nepal were forgetting their literacy skills as there were no books for them to read.

“There are seven million children in Nepal. If their families don’t read, they don’t develop reading habits either. School libraries are more showpieces than providing youngsters with books they really enjoy reading. The urban families give priority to English and English books but to the rural families, they are unaffordable. Also, rural readers does not have sufficient English skills and English story books do not culturally resonate with them, who come from a very different background.”

A concerned Unicef was looking for organisations that would take a social marketing approach and produce books in Nepali and market them without looking for profit.

Sherpa, a New Zealander married to a Nepali, came together with four more women - Lucia de Vries, a Dutch journalist, Bhubaneswari Sachal, who was working on women and children’s welfare issues and ran a magazine, `Chichila’ for schools, Shanta Shrestha, whose forte was development issues in Nepal’s southern Terai plains, and Yashoda Shrestha, who works for DANIDA, the Danish government’s international development agency.

Together they founded Sunbird to bring out books in Nepali for children and teenagers and take them to the target reader in the villages.

After the Maoist war ended in 2006, Sunbird was looking for something new. At that time, Harry Potter was the new rage with youngsters and the group’s attention was drawn to a wistful letter sent to a newspaper by a teenager from a district outside the capital.

He wished that there were Harry Potter books in Nepali so that he could read them and the group realised that here was the perfect book to get Nepali teenagers to read.

“The Potter books look at growing up, the ups and downs of life and the pain of being different,” Sherpa says. “We thought a Potter book in Nepali would encourage young people to read and Nepali writers to write for teenagers.”

It was Lucia de Vries who thought of writing to J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, to ask for permission to publish the first Harry Potter book - Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone - in Nepali. To the group’s amazement and joy, though the response took time, it was positive and in February 2008, Rowling and Sunbird signed an agreement to publish the Nepali edition for a `nominal’ royalty.

The first Nepali translation of the first Potter book took almost a year. Sunbird gave interested people a sample chapter to translate and then bounced it off on teenagers to decide which version was the most popular. Finally, young Nepali student Shlesha Thapaliya and the more veteran Bijaya Adhikari came up with the first Nepali edition - “Harry Potter r Parasmani”.

The Nepali Potter, priced at a modest NRS 180 (about Rs.113), was launched last week. The publishers are now trying to talk with Nepal’s large department stores to market the book.

“There is a need to build up the tradition of reading in Nepal,” says Sherpa. “How many people buy books for children? Their idea of presents is frilly dresses or squeaky shoes or plastic toys that break in five minutes. Children’s books are hidden in the back corners of department stores.”

It has not been the best time for publishing children’s books in Nepal but Sherpa says it is a labour of love.

“We started from nowhere,” she says. “During the war, children’s books were low priority. Then there were the bandas (general strikes) and 20 hours (a day) without power.

“We know we are not going to become rich quickly. But we hope the (Nepali) Harry Potter will stimulate readers. Then it will help the market grow and in turn encourage Nepali writers and artists to write for youngsters and teens.”

(Sudeshna Sarkar can be contacted at sudeshna.s@ians.in)

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