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This collection of essays and musings evokes the majesty of the tallest, and youngest, mountains in the world—sky-high peaks that were once the ocean floor.
Variously known as Sagarmatha, Chomolungma or Everest, the highest peak on our planet stands tall at 8848 metres. Its neighbours are equally grand: Kanchenjunga (8598m), Makalu (8481m) and Dhaulagiri (8167m). It is but natural that the Himalayan range has inspired awe and wonder since the beginning of mankind. It is Giri-raj, the King of Mountains.
In the opening segment of this collection—‘Adventures’—Edmund Hillary tells us of his famous first ascent with Tenzing Norgay in 1953. Hillary recalls, ‘But mixed with the relief was a vague sense of astonishment that I should have been the lucky one to attain the ambition of so many brave and determined climbers. It seemed difficult at first to grasp that we’d got there. I was too tired and too conscious of the long way down to safety really to feel any great elation. But as the fact of our success thrust itself more clearly into my mind, I felt a quiet glow of satisfaction spread through my body—a satisfaction less vociferous but more powerful than I had ever felt on a mountain top before. I turned and looked at Tenzing. Even beneath his oxygen mask and the icicles hanging from his hair, I could see his infectious grin of sheer delight. I held out my hand and in silence we shook in good Anglo–Saxon fashion. But this was not enough for Tenzing and impulsively he threw his arm around my shoulders and we thumped each other on the back in mutual congratulations.’
‘Why climb Mount Everest? Because it’s there.’ This famous quote, often misattributed to Edmund Hillary, is actually George Mallory’s. George Herbert Leigh Mallory (1886–1924) participated in three failed British expeditions to Everest. In 1924, he disappeared on the North-east Ridge, about 800 vertical feet from the summit. His body was discovered seventy-five years later; perhaps he had even conquered the mountain before he died. It is one of the many secrets buried in the ice and snow of these vast and silent mountains. But Mallory’s narration of earlier attempts carries the imprint of the colonial conquistador in outlook and approach. While Hillary’s camaraderie with Tenzing is both implicit and affectionately expressed, George Mallory speaks of his unnamed ‘coolies’ as little more than beasts of burden. ‘We had taken three coolies who were sufficiently fit and competent, and now proceeded to use them for the hardest work.…The crucial matter was the condition of the climbers. Were we fit to push the adventure further? The situation, if any of the whole party collapsed, would be extremely disagreeable, and all the worse if he should be one of the Sahibs, who were none too many, to look after the coolies in case of mountaineering difficulties.’
The contrapuntal account is provided by Jamling Tenzing Norgay. In ‘Touching My Father’s Soul’ he recounts his pilgrimage, in his father’s steps, up the venerable peak of Chomolungma, and recalls the history of earlier ascents. ‘Lying in the tent in the South Col, I could feel my father’s sense of anticipation as much as my own. At age thirty-nine, he had decided that his attempt with the British would be his last. He had risked his life enough times on this dangerous mountain, and his mother, Kinzom, had begged him to retire…. The Brits felt it was their last shot at the mountain, and were desperate for the expedition to succeed. As my father looked upward, he overheard Hunt and another climber talking about how splendid it would be if they reached the summit for the coming coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. He then understood why the team’s Brits had been selected for the summit ahead of himself and the New Zealander Ed Hillary: conquering Mount Everest would be the desired prize for Her Majesty. After all, the mountain itself had been renamed for a Brit, the nineteenth-century surveyor Sir George Everest.’
Jamling Tenzing Norgay goes on to describe the ‘common strength’ of mountaineers, their ability to share and to work as a team. ‘Clearly, my father and Hillary would not have been standing on the South Col but for the sacrifices of these climbers and Sherpas who had forged the way.’
Navigating this remarkable book, the reader gets very different views of the Himalayan massif. The second section, ‘Meditations’, comprises the writings of poets, mystics and seers, including Paul Brunton, Swami Vivekananda and Lama Anagarika Govinda, as well excerpts from classics like Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard and Andrew Harvey’s A Journey in Ladakh.
But there are also surprises: the Himalaya alter the souls of even those who do not come to them, or behold them, as seekers. The imperial adventurer Francis Younghusband writes, in ‘Sunlight on Kinchinjunga’: ‘A sense of solemn aspiration comes upon us as we view the mountain. We are uplifted. The entire scale of being is raised. Our outlook on life seems all at once to have been heightened. And not only is there this sense of elevation: we seem purified also. Meanness, pettiness, paltriness seem to shrink away abashed at the sight of that radiant purity.’ In ‘Dev Bhumi’ Bill Aitken describes how he and his companion Prithwi, initially unimpressed by the Valley of Flowers, returned to find unexpected beauty: ‘….I came across in a protected dell the first outburst of flowers in the form of crocuses. The dew on their golden petals glowed like diamonds in the cold sun and I beckoned Prithwi to descend and see how the valley had won its reputation for beauty. She grumbled at having to lose height but once in the magic dell was bewitched by the tenderness of nature’s new leaf… The intensity of the beauty in its uncurled potential seemed more wonderful than the even spread of a thousand species in full blossom.’
The third section, ‘Life’, is more within the immediate range of experience of a native pahari and armchair traveller like myself. There is an excerpt from Mountain Echoes, the oral biographies of four Kumaoni women that I compiled and transcribed, where Jiya, (Lakshmi Pande, 1917-2004) speaks of her childhood in Almora, the capital of Old Kumaon. ‘We had a huge family house which had been built by my grandfather and grand uncle. The house is still standing now, over a hundred years later. The exquisite woodwork is still intact, the old deodar wood does not even need to be varnished or polished. It has weathered the passage of time—I love that house; it is really representative of the best in traditional Kumaoni architecture.’
On a more exalted note, Her Majesty Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck describes her journey from her ancestral home in Nobgang, Bhutan, to school in Kalimpong, India. ‘The horseback journey to Thimphu, along a well-defined mule track, took nearly three days. It took us through pine forests to the village of Laptsakha below Talo, then over the sheer cliff s at Keekri–ja—a steep and treacherous descent which had seen many travellers and horses fall to their deaths, down to the river below. From Keekri-ja we continued on to Chandana, a hallowed spot where an arrow shot from Tibet by the Divine Madman Drukpa Kunley had landed on the staircase of a house…’
Then onwards by jeep to Phuntsoling and India: ‘As an introduction to motor travel, it had been a kind of baptism by fi re, a nightmare journey, in contrast to the three happy and leisurely days we had spent travelling from Nobgang to Thimphu. But the 184-kilometer drive on the motor road to Phuntsoling had also been like a journey to a new planet…straight into the twentieth century.’
And the peerless Ruskin Bond takes us to a village in Garhwal. He sets the scene with a moving description of the Himalayas ‘striding away into an immensity of sky’. He spends many days with the residents of the village, watching how they fashion a life for themselves in the difficult terrain where ‘pale women plough’, laughing at the thunder ‘as their men go down to the plains for work; for little grows on the beautiful mountains in the north wind’.
From his last evening in the village, he brings back this magical memory: ‘The moon has not yet risen. Lanterns swing in the dark. The lanterns flit silently over the hillside and go out one by one. This Garhwali day, which is just like any other day in the hills, slips quietly into the silence of the mountains. I stretch myself out on my cot. Outside the small window the sky is brilliant with stars. As I close my eyes, someone brushes against the lime tree, brushing its leaves; and the fresh fragrance of limes comes to me on the night air, making the moment memorable for all time.’
Nostalgia and sepia-tinted views yield to present realities. In a characteristically intense and thoughtful piece, Amitav Ghosh transports us to the troubled vale of Kashmir, where men and mountains meet amidst the toxic ‘altitude sickness’ of warmongers and politics. On the highest battleground on earth, India and Pakistan are locked in tragic, pointless conflict: ‘It is generally agreed that the [Siachen] glacier has absolutely no strategic, military or economic value whatsoever. It is merely an immense, slowly moving mass of compacted snow and ice, seventy miles long and over a mile deep.’
This, then, is the Himalaya, where life unfolds in all its grace and terror, revealing as much as it withholds. This anthology attempts to capture some of its complexity and vastness, travelling through time, place and altitude. Beauty and melancholy, courage and defeat, philosophy and poetry surprise and illuminate us in these pages. What remains in the end is the sense of intimacy, the exhilaration, and yes, the desolation, of these rugged mountains, the ‘self born mockers of man’s enterprise’.