(Adventures. Meditations. Life)
Ed. Ruskin Bond & Namita Gokhale
New Delhi: Speaking Tiger. 2016
Pages 444 | Rs 799
Triumph inside-out: Himalaya
My 30-1b. load seemed to crush me downwards and stifled all enthusiasm, but when I turned on the oxygen and breathed in deeply, the burden seemed to lighten and the old urge to get to grips with the mountain came back. We strapped on our crampons and tied on our nylon rope, grasped our ice-axes and were ready to go.
So begins Edmund Hillary, the first foot on Mt. Everest in his account The Summit, an excerpt from High Adventure: The True Story of the First Ascent of Everest (1955) included in the collection. This anthology ergo is all about the adventure, fun, enthusiasm, eagerness, hardship endured and celebrated around the stupendous mountain – Himalaya.
A 434-page compiled work – of some of the finest narrators heard and less heard of, brought together by two writers extraordinaire in English in Indian writing – offers the readers what it classifies into section as Adventures, Meditations, and Life.
From the most widely read to the texts inaccessible in the public domain are stitched together for a perfect winter read. If Jahangir’s account makes it a remarkable one, a rare report by Captain T E Montgomerie finds its place in the Adventure section of this first edition collection.
The Himalayan mountain range, the highest in the world, stands paternal – bottling up stories, leaving climbers and non-climbers wondering, generation après generation. Several stories are told, some remain withheld in the folds of unscripted diary records and away from public light forever (even if thousand honest attempts of telling them will be made):
Here is a mountain – solid, physical, eminently tactile. Here is the metaphor-richly veined, textured, inflected by aeons of spiritual folklore.
This certainly is no book for a hurried reading. It demands meditation. It kindles philosophical understandings and musings; and waits upon poignant pauses. Every chapter, every anecdote makes the reader a stakeholder, sometimes panting for breath as if on ascension, sometimes in tears in pain holding tight the narrator in one’s bosom after having reached the grandest snowy carvings stashed against the azure.
“Man, that mountain’s alive.” Realisation sinks, the journey diminishes all, paring down to a pilgrim. “Nothing more and nothing less. Footsore, travel weary, breath rationed, bewildered,” yet the alpinist, the narrator is left bedazzled by what lies before him/her: “towering presence, striated by snow, swathed in endless diaphanous tissues of mist. Black, enormous, emphatically present.
(Just a strand in Shiva’s hair, Arundhathi Subramaniam)
If one chapter offers self-discovery, in the next the reader molts de novo. A new story unfolds, a new song sung. Sad, somber. Inclusive. This mountain cradles civilization. It also mutilates. It guardians a pilgrim, mentors a scholar, chaperones a shepherd and a nun alike but it also leaves an imperative loud and clear: one single mistake could well mean ”a trip with no returns.” So then why do people take the route up the splendid scene of perilous wonderland? The answer lies with any Sherpa orderlies who help the achievers reach the pie of the sky. Sheer vehemence, competitive spirit and the brutal truth – in Jemima Diki Sherpa’s words – probably propel them:
“the more you carry, the more you are paid… if you prove you are good, you get hired next season, possibly recruited by one of the better companies, climbing literally up the mountain and figuratively up the ranks.
This is the peak worshipped, loved. This is the indelible “abode of God.”
Barring short spells of respite, the inhospitable altitudes would seem discernible. But the Himalaya-struck will nevertheless attempt scaling the crest. This distant panorama of hills casts a brilliance quite unearthly, and the itinerant writers in their resplendent accounts leave the readers short-winded.
Every raconteur holds the reader firm under his narrative spell and exhibits a side of the splendour they might as adventurers have missed seeing or learning. Like Vicki
Mackenzie in A Mountain Retreat boldly says, mountains are “compounded phenomena” – impermanent, imperfect-perfect, larger than life, larger than what eyes can behold.
This mountain literature passes the base test of touching human lives. It is not frigid. It talks to its readers. Grandmother like, it dishes out anecdotes – one after the other. Dreams unfold. Arcane. Pulsating.
A wonderful book for the armchair mountaineers too, the compilation succeeds in providing a glimpse into the minds of extreme climbers; their climbing peers telling them they would fail, on their journey through India and up the phenomenal wall of ice and granite itself to leave behind the trail of pragmatic worshipping of a colossal power, undefined.
Himalaya breaks the generic stricture of nature writing. If one author writes as a mountaineer, the other as a fabler lets us live with the people being watched over by the “mountain towering over like a sentinel.” And then there are others melting in the glacial height, definitely unbothered by the clamour and clutter of human commerce. There is another voice, telling us:
Consciousness seems to be raised to a higher level, where the obstacles and disturbances of our ordinary life do not exist, except as a faint memory of things which have lost all their importance and attraction. At the same time one becomes more sensitive and open to new forms of reality; the intuitive qualities of our mind are awakened and stimulated – in short, there are all the conditions for attaining the higher stages of meditation or dhyana.
(The nature of the highlands, Lama Angarika Govinda)
This is a preposterous anthology.
Stunning images evoking the tense drama frame, the narrative of such serious and sustained climbs that after pioneering a difficult route up, a climber would spell out what Friedrich Neitszche had: “He who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary.”
Deeply sententious, this collated book almost reads like a novel and provides a unique perspective on life around the greatest peak.
There was nowhere else I wanted to be, nothing else I wanted to be doing. Sometimes I would stand at the edge of my patio and look out across the mountains and think, “If you could be any place in the whole world, where would you want to be?” And there was nowhere else.
(A Mountain Retreat, Vicki Mackenzie)
Most chapters detail the disasters in which the climbers are caught unaware, sometimes aware. Most popular trekking destinations hit by catastrophic avalanche delineate to us in most sordid way, the devastation of life bustling under the foothill of majestic verticals. The details of which can be found in the chapter “The Village That Vanished” by Rabi Thapa. The before and after earthquake which wiped off a village from the face of the earth cautions us against the unlimited human intervention, scrutiny and cursory attitude towards nature which inevitably will have its corrosive effects. We must try, try and understand not to derange nature. She has her own ways to reprimand us in manners absolutely divine. The stories of Nepal or of Uttarakhand are told in unchallenged transcript form. They are left spread out for public acumen.
Riveting, nevertheless. But more than the mountaineers, for the best of climbers it is the spiritual-reveling individuals who make a daring, noble, close to suicidal choice of reaching the apex, suffering the Himalayan fever.
Himalaya, out and out is a robust collection embroidered with definitude for the mountaineers in a recliner providing a glimpse of both the stumbling blocks as well as the perks earned by climbers on foot. The readers are left with the itch to pick up the mountaineering kits and walk out the Himalaya way.
Towards the end of the book the reader only hears John Muir whisper to him:
“The mountains are calling and I must go.”