Himalayan wonders

HIMALAYA 
adventures, meditations, life
Author: 
Ruskin Bond & Namita Gokhale (Eds) 
Publisher: Speaking Tiger 
Pages: 444 
Price: Rs 799 

Mountaineers Dinesh and Tarakeshwari Rathod, both officers in the Maharashtra police, found themselves falling from the peak of glory in August this year after Nepalese authorities debunked their claim of sumitting Mount Everest. They had claimed they were the first Indian couple to attain the feat; now, they have been banned from climbing any of the mountain peaks in Nepal for a decade. Both the deception and the punishment are proof of what Everest in particular and the Himalayas in general have meant to the population of the Indian subcontinent, where almost everything from politics to poetry, economics to religion is inspired and influenced by the mountain ranges. 

Now, two of the most popular writers in the country, Ruskin Bond and Namita Gokhale, have collected prose pieces from a plethora of writing on the youngest and the highest mountain ranges that cradle India’s north and north east. Discussing the raison d’être of the book, Bond writes in the preface: “mountains have been celebrated in prose more often by travellers looking back at a brief adventure than by residents who brave the elements year after year.” Living in the mountains is not a romance, and it leaves, as Bond reminds us, little “time for poetry and contemplation.” This volume has a good mixture of  those who come for a while, and others, such as Frank Smythe and Rahul Sankritayan, who have “a feeling for both the mountains and mountain people.” 

The book is neatly divided into three parts: “Adventures”, “Meditations” and “Life”. The first part is about the external explorations and experiences, successful or otherwise, of those who came to the mountains to conquer the peaks. The second part is full of internal explorations — of monks and saints; poets and philosophers — who have found the mountains an ideal venue or source for reflections. The final part is more journalistic, providing, in Bond’s words, “the reality of life in the Himalaya… [that] has rarely been described as convincingly.” Together, the three parts attempt what would make even an experienced mountaineer or photographer baulk: To provide a tableau of the Himalayas, not only spatially but also temporally.     

For instance, the first part begins with a description of the travels of Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Fa-Hien, who travelled in India and Sri Lanka between 399 and 412. There is also a delightful description of Emperor Jahangir’s expedition to Kashmir, extracted from his autobiography. But this part would be incomplete without the statement from Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander who became the first human to reach the peak of Mount Everest, along with his Sherpa companion Tenzing Norgay. 

The description of the final ascent, extracted from High Adventure: The True Story of the First Ascent of Everest (1955), is full of details such as the effects of oxygen running low, the misgivings of the mountaineers as well as infectious enthusiasm of Hillary’s companion, Norgay. The summit, however, is not what one would expect. Hillary writes, “I felt a quiet glow of satisfaction… my tension and worry about reaching the summit had gone, leaving a slight feeling of anticlimax.” However, for every Norgay and Hillary, there is a George Mallory, who died, along with his climbing partner Andrew Irving, while attempting the first summit of Everest in 1924. This book has an essay by Mallory, describing the hope and excitement of his 1921 reconnaissance, which gives us an idea of why the mountains can be such treacherous terrain.    

In the second part, one of the most interesting reads is the description of a meditative visit to the Himalayas by Dharamvir Bharati. Like much of his writing, Thele Par Himalaya (1968) — excerpted here as “Himalaya on a Pushcart” — is infused with a heart-wrenching longing. Describing a visit to the upper reaches of the Himalayas, with a few writer and artist friends, Bharati returns to the realm of memory: “My friend the novelist saw the ice on the pushcart the other day and slipped into a sea of memories… When I speak of the Himalayas on a pushcart and laugh it is simply a ruse to forget my heartache.” 

Another piece from the section that deals with memories of the mountains is Bond’s “Mountains in my Blood”. His romance with the mountains has been part of our growing, but in this piece, he recollects how he was reminded of the mountains by the slightest incident even in hoary London. “Standing in the aisle of a crowded tube train on a Monday morning, my nose tucked into the back page of someone else’s newspaper, I suddenly had a vision of a bear making off with a ripe pumpkin… between Goodge Street and Tottenham Court Road stations, all the smells and sounds of the Himalayas came rushing back to me.” 

As Bond writes in the preface, “the mountains have been celebrated in prose more often by travellers looking back”. The third part tries to rectify that by bringing together some of the best writing on the tribulations in the lives of those who live in the mountains. My favourite piece in this section is by Amitav Ghosh. Extracted from Countdown (2008), Ghosh’s piece is named “They Make a Desolation and Call it Peace”. The title is derived from Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali, and the essay is a stringent critique of India and Pakistan’s nuclear programmes and the war on the Siachen glacier. Ghosh reaches the conclusion: “To visit the Siachen glacier is to know that somewhere within the shared collective psyche of India and Pakistan, the torment of an unalterable proximity has given birth to a kind of a deathwish…” As India and Pakistan once again lock horns and engage in military posturing, a piece such as this reminds us how futile it all is. 

Two writers/works are conspicuous by their absence: Allen Ginsberg and the Beatles. Ginsberg travelled in the Himalayas, carrying LSD pills in his bag, which he reportedly offered to the Dalai Lama at Dharamsala. Perhaps a brief extract from his A Blue Hand could have been included. The Beatles, too, spent time in Rishikesh, seeking mystical training from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and the visit did influence their music. Having made this complaint, one must acknowledge that there must be an Everest of writing on the mountains and the editors would have had a difficult job leaving many things out. As Bond writes: “We should remember that mountains are impersonal. You can climb a peak but you can’t possess it.” This book tries to, with some degree of success.




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