As a Himalayan Citizen, I am always excited when a book on the Himalayas is written by folks from the Himalayas. Till Manjushree Thapa wrote Forget Kathmandu, there was little written by Nepalis for an international audience. Mostly it was a European or an American writing from a very Anglo-Saxon view that Nepalis found difficult to relate to at times.

There are books written by Indian authors that look at Nepal as an extension of India, with a very India-centric view of a sovereign nation. And there were Nepali writers who self-published in English, and did not care who read them. At times these were just academic dissertations converted to heavy reads.

Since the 1990s, however, the flourishing of the development sector in Nepal made reports in the English language a part of our lives – just that these found the dustbin quicker than they found bookshelves. Against this backdrop, Amish Mulmi’s All Roads Lead North is a book that will change the way we view Nepal. Personally, it is the first book that I can relate to after Forget Kathmandu.

A change in perspective

The book provides three key perspectives that will, one hopes, lead to more scholarships on this subject and more publications in the future. First, there are the historical linkages with Nepal’s north that were hardly talked about, especially in the Shah and Rana eras, as these rulers had close marital, cultural and religious bonds with India and did not understand or choose to understand the north. Mulmi brings these stories to life.

As the son of a Lhasa Newar (Newa trader) who went to Lhasa, and as someone who went to school in Kalimpong, the stories he narrates brings to life the things we grew up with – challenges of having “khachra” friends, listening to Binaca Geetmala on Wednesday evening, the need to speak the Newa language at home but being forced to learn counting and keywords in Tibetan as you had to do business with the people who had left Tibet and settled in India and Nepal. Little about these lives are captured by other books the way Mulmi does.

Second, the imposition of a new language, Nepali, and banning of the Newa language, the language of Nepal’s valley saw an end to writings in the language, limiting its stories to oral history. It is so heartening to see references to the works of Newa poet Chitadhar Hridaya and other seldom-cited writing. Mulmi tries to connect worlds a hundred years apart, and provides fascinating anecdotal perspectives. His conversations with people who carry the oral history enriches the book greatly.

Third, the book contextualises the past to look at the future. Mulmi uses evidence with data and statistics to clearly indicate that Nepal has started to look North in addition to the South, and this is a trend that will become more interesting as the geo-politics in the region gets complicated with China trying to position itself as a competitor to US not only in Asia but around the world.

The disruption of communication channels, the era of social media, and now the move towards digital currency or state-sponsored cryptocurrency will see major transformations in how goods, services or people move around the world. The epilogue “Future Tense” will perhaps be a reference point tomorrow when it is examined whether Nepal moved North or otherwise. Mulmi makes one think how the equation has changed post 2015, and reminds me of my own July 2018 piece, where I talked about how Nepal is free from being India-locked.

Adding to Himalayan writings

Mulmi’s book is a great contribution to Himalayan writings, as his meticulously researched work, backed by contemporary cross-references, provides a rich bibliography for readers wanting to learn more. In Nepal, where books are published without reference sections, it is heartening to get a list of resources. Referring as they do to key material on treaties, discussions and outcomes, these books provide a deep repository of knowledge.

Much of the writing on Nepal begins in 1776 after the Shah era, as though the nation state existed from that time onwards – a narrative strongly enforced by Shah and Rana rulers. But Mulmi covers the past before this period, even locating Nepal in a world where the Buddha acted as a connector.

When I wrote Unleashing Nepal in 2009, I began the narrative in 1776, but was tempted to look at what happened before that. So, in Unleashing The Vajra, published in 2020, I began from the Nepal Era or CE 879. While for nearly 200 years after 1776, Nepal looked at India (including British India) as its neighbour, it was only the 1950 that China came into the picture, with the China-India conflict adding a new dimension to regional geopolitics.

Mulmi provides some interesting perspectives, based on evidence-based research, on Nepal looking towards the North, which has frequently been dismissed as a tactic for playing hardball with India, or as an anti-Indian ploy.

Nepal stands as the crossroads, like many countries in the region, as the world begins its recovery from the pandemic. China surely has recalibrated its image in its sphere of influence as a country that has managed this pandemic well despite being the location of its origin. Nepal is going through a deep power struggle, arguably no different from those at other times in its history, and China is out in the open with its opinion, like India. We will see how many lanes this highway to the North will grow, or whether it will remain unchanged, only with stories added. Mulmi’s book allows you draw your own conclusions.

All Roads Lead North: Nepal’s Turn to China

All Roads Lead North: Nepal’s Turn to China, by Amish Raj Mulmi, Context/Westland.