In the Himalayan city of Gangtok, Sikkim’s capital, where tourist attractions are aplenty, an independent bookshop draws local people and discerning travellers alike. This is Rachna Books, located in Development Area, the cultural hub of Gangtok. The State Central Library in Manan Bhawan is right across the street, and the State museum, along with another library, are coming up nearby.
Rachna’s popular Café Fiction is where young intellectuals gather to discuss ideas over coffee while the book-loving tourist can spend a few days right above the bookshop, in Bookman’s Bed and Breakfast run by Raman Shresta, the present owner of Rachna. Shresta said: “In the early 1980s, if one sent a package with just ‘Rachna Books, Gangtok, India’ written on it, we would receive it, so well-known were we.”
‘No turning back’
Shresta’s family founded Rachna Books and Publications in 1979. It ran successfully for a few years, becoming a landmark. “By the mid-1980s, with the arrival of cable television, Gangtok slowly forgot to read, and the shop closed in the late 1980s. After completing [my] education and spending a few years in the hospitality industry, I restarted the bookshop in 2001. There has been no turning back since,” Shresta said.
Last year, Rachna Books found itself in the spotlight when Song of the Soil, the English translation of a Nepali novel by Chuden Kabimo that it had published, was shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature. The name of an indie publisher alongside the Indian giants created ripples, and suddenly everybody was talking about Rachna. Rachna, of course, has published several books in English and in the Nepali and Newari languages (under a different imprint) over the last few decades—the shortlisting merely got it the attention it deserves.
Shresta said: “As an independent publisher working solo with freelancers on a project-to-project basis, I rely mostly on my instincts and my experience [of over two decades] as a bookseller to decide what I must publish. The response our books have got from readers is validating. Being acknowledged by one of the biggest literary prizes in the subcontinent is doubly so. I surely must be doing something right, especially when engagement from the publishing industry in India is impossible to come by for small indies from the fringes like us.”
Rachna is known for its curation. Shresta said: “Each book you find in my bookstore is a book we recommend strongly.” The smell of new paperbacks mixed with coffee makes for a heady aroma: add to it the cosiness of the bookshop, with the Himalayan sun streaming in, and you feel like lingering inside forever, browsing the collection.
Gangtok-born author Prajwal Parajuly’s books, The Gurkha’s Daughter and Land Where I Flee, which have got international recognition, occupy pride of place in the shop; Parajuly is Rachna’s highest selling author of all time. Chetan Raj Shrestha’s debut novel, The King’s Harvest, and his second book, T he Light of His Clan, are recommended reads as are Nikhil Pradhan’s thrillers and Tashi Chophel’s much-loved poetry book, How to Collect a Folk Tale.
The non-fiction section is dominated by history books on Sikkim such as The Mandala Kingdom by Alex McKay and Opening the Hidden Land by Saul Mullard. The bookshop also offers a selection of Nepali language books, which sell evenly, given their readership base.
“As a bookseller, I realised that books on the north-east region were hard to come by. Research on our region, our people, our lives, and land [was] being done, but they were all published abroad, making them inaccessible and unaffordable to the people involved. So, I felt the need to step into publishing to fill the gap.”
One of Rachna’s most prestigious projects is in partnership with The Eastern Himalaya series, where they announce pertinent themes for research and invite co-editors and academics from the region to apply. After selecting the proposals, series editor Mona Chettri and her team guide the researchers, whose papers are collected in a single volume.
The first book in the series, Gender, Sexual/Other Identities in the Eastern Himalaya, a compendium of papers by nine researchers, came out in July 2022. The call for co-editors for the second volume, on the theme “land”, was announced last November.
Brainwave at 3 am
Song of the Soil was published in 2021. Shresta described its genesis: “ Song of the Soil happened as a brainwave that hit me at 3 in the morning. The previous day, I had been in a webinar where I was in conversation with the writer, publisher, and bookseller from Nepal, Ajit Baral [who translated Song of the Soil into English]; editor and translator Anurag Basnet; and Chewang Yonzone, who was the moderator. The book, originally in Nepali, titled Fatsung, had been published in Nepal and was a bestseller.
“The lament during the conversation was about the challenges of accessing books from across the border. The importance of a possible English translation of a novel where a writer from the region [Kabimo lives in Kalimpong, West Bengal, and his novel is set in a Kalimpong village] tells the story of the failed Gorkhaland movement of the 1980s was not lost on me,” said Shresta.
His idea was to come in as a co-publisher from India. “Since it was a story from our land, it was important for me that the book be accessible to the majority English readers of our region.”
His belief was validated when the book was quickly picked up and even included in the reading list of some courses by hill universities.
Another Nepali novel
Enthused by the success of Song of the Soil, Rachna is currently working on the translation of another Nepali novel, first published in 1993, which, according to Shresta, “is a very important novel from our region but is little known”.
Although Kabimo’s novel did not win the JCB, the shortlisting made it known all over India. Following close on the heels of the celebration was Shresta’s selection for the British Council’s International Publishing Fellowship, which gives him the opportunity to interact closely with the publishing industries of the UK and India. Both Shresta and Kabimo had sessions at the recent Jaipur Literature Festival, where Shresta was praised as a “big community builder”.
Asked about his clientele, Shresta said: “Over 80 per cent of my daily visitors and buyers are young people. People from the older generation might complain that youngsters are not reading any more, but my experience contradicts that. These youngsters have grown up with technology and can use it discerningly. It is the older people who have actually forgotten to read anything other than what they get on WhatsApp and Facebook.”
Gangtok is a tourist hotspot, so do visitors to the hill city find time for books? “From the droves of tourists who come to Gangtok, a tiny percentage does find its way to our bookshop. The tourist season helps in sales figures. Readers come with varied tastes, and we cater to them as best we can. While local readers might go for books from outside Sikkim, many tourists opt for books that help them know more about Sikkim and the surrounding region. It is a fine balance we maintain at Rachna,” Shresta said.
One can also order books online from the store’s website. As a bonus, beautiful cards and bookmarks, carrying a whiff of the hills, arrive free with Rachna’s books.
- Raman Shresta’s family founded Rachna Books and Publications in 1979 in Gangtok. The shop closed in the late 1980s, but Shresta restarted it in 2001.
- It is located in the cultural hub of Gangtok and draws tourists and local people alike. One can gather to discuss ideas over coffee in Rachna’s popular Café Fiction, and tourists can spend a few days above the bookshop in its Bookman’s Bed and Breakfast.
- Over the last few decades, Rachna has published several books in English and in the Nepali and Newari languages (under a different imprint).
- In 2021, Rachna published the English translation ( Song of the Soil) of Chuden Kabimo’s debut Nepali ( Fatsung) novel. Hill universities included the book in the reading list of some of their courses.
- In 2022, the book was shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature.
- One of Rachna’s most prestigious projects is in partnership with The Eastern Himalaya series. The first book in the series, Gender, Sexual/Other Identities in the Eastern Himalaya, came out in July 2022.