Here you will find stories of great ascents and descents; the madness of war on the `world's highest battlefield' and the personal costs soldiers must pay for it; tales of exploratory derring-do; and a mutiny up on a mountain. A seeker has an intense spiritual experience on Mount Kailas, another among shamans on a mountaintop in Nepal; and, looking for the snow leopard in Ladakh, an author finds himself. A resident of a Sherpa village writes a heartfelt account of the aftermath of an avalanche which killed porters and climbers on Everest; and residents of Langtang record an oral history of the earthquake which wiped out their village. A matriarch describes her life and family in Almora of a bygone time; a prisoner in Dehra Dun jail draws solace from visits by birds and small animals; and the fragrance of lime makes a traveller's night in a remote Garhwal village memorable for all time.
Ruskin Bond is the author of numerous novellas, short-story collections and non-fiction books, many of them classics and several of them set in the villages and towns of the Himalayan region. Among his books are A Time for All Things: Collected Essays and Sketches, Lone Fox Dancing: My Autobiography, I Was the Wind Last Night: New and Collected Poems, A Book of Simple Living: Brief Notes from the Hills, Friends in Wild Places: Birds, Beasts and Other Companions, as well as the popular classics The Room on the Roof A Flight of Pigeons, The Blue Umbrella, Time Stops at Shamli, Night Train at Deoli, Our Trees Still Grow in Debra and Rain in the Mountains. He was awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India in 1999 and the Padma Bhushan in 2014. He lives in Landour, Mussoorie, with his extended family.
Namita Gokhale is the author of several bestselling works of fiction and non-fiction. Her books include Paro: Dreams of Passion, A Himalayan Love Story, The Book of Shadows, Shakuntala and The Book of Shiva. She has also edited the Himalayan Arc: Journeys East of South-east and Travelling In, Travelling Out: A Book of Unexpected Journeys. Namita is also co-director of the Jaipur Literary Festival and of Mountain Echoes, the Bhutan literary festival.
Some years ago I asked a sailor to describe the most exciting moment of a long sea voyage, and without hesitation he said: 'My first sight of land!' And when I asked a landlocked villager from the mountains to describe his most exciting moment, he replied: 'Me first time I saw the sea. '
It is always what lies beyond the horizon that excites us the most, and a seaman has this advantage, that his ship is almost always on the move, from sea to sea, and port to port, while the mountain-dweller is often confined to a particular range or valley. And no matter how beautiful the mountain or the valley, it can grow monotonous after some time. Life in an Indian hill-station is pleasant enough, but two weeks in a remote village at the end of a day-long trek, without electricity or a toilet, and the visitor is soon pining for the fleshpots of the cities.
It isn't surprising, then, that the 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.
The mountainous lands, and the Himalaya in particular, are visited by travellers, explorers, climbers, naturalists, pilgrims. These are people who are evanescent, who come and go and vanish, occasionally giving us their impressions in the books and journals which describe their personal experiences, but they tell us little or nothing about the people who eke out a living on hostile mountain slopes. Only a very few have left enduring and insightful records of their experiences. This is particularly true of those who come in order to 'conquer' mountain peaks. In India, Nepal, climbers turn up every year—a handful once, but now in their hundreds—toiling up the slopes of Everest or some other challenging peak and in the process littering the mountain slopes with a trail of garbage as an offering of thanks to the guardian spirits of the Himalaya.
Just occasionally a Frank Smythe comes along-, or a Rahul Sankrityayan, with a literary bent and a feeling f)t- both mountains and mountain people. "the best of them feature in the first two parts of this collection and make for compelling reading.
There is plenty to choose from, as far as accounts of climbing expeditions go. Edmund Hillary has left us a step-by-hazardous-step description of his ascent of Everest; Jamling Tenzing Norgay is more animated in his narrative. Mallory and Younghusband have had their moments and memories. And we have an extraordinary account of a 'mutiny' on Kanchenjunga by Aleister Crowley, the self-avowed `wickedest man in the world', who dabbled in black magic and devil worship and became the subject of several sensational biographies such as The Magical Record of the Great Beast 666. In his account of an abortive attempt at Kanchenjunga he is at pains to present himself as a nice guy and the ideal leader; even so, he was deserted by most of his companions.
Crowley is, however, genuinely funny at times, especially in his description of the Darjeeling climate; and humour is rare in mountain writing. Climbers are apt to become irritable and quarrelsome when they ascend to great heights, and altitude sickness doesn't help.
The inclusion of an essay by Mark Twain provides welcome relief. He genuinely enjoys his hand-car ride down the railway track from Darjeeling, and he conveys his enjoyment to the reader. The surprise, for many readers in English, will be the Hindi writer Rahul Sanskrityayan, who writes with a light touch, moving effortlessly from humour to contemplation.
We should remember that mountains are impersonal. You can climb a peak but you can't possess it. It is simply there, serene and impervious to your love or hate, and it will be there long after you and I are gone. But sometimes they shift, as we saw last year when an earthquake ran through Nepal, flattening dwellings and causing massive avalanches in the higher reaches of the Himalaya. And in the Indian Himalaya, in Uttarakhand, unseasonal heavy rains and flash floods devastated entire villages and townships, changing the landscape and geography of an entire mountain range. It has happened before; it will happen again.
Yes, the mountains are impersonal, tor beauty really exists in the beholder's eye. Once, admiring the view from a fallow field, I commented on the beautiful sunset. My companion, whose crop had been destroyed in a hail-storm, responded: 'But you cannot eat sunsets.'
The reality of life in the Himalaya has rarely been described as convincingly as in the final part of this volume, which is also my favourite section. Jemima Diki Sherpa, Namita Gokhale, Manjushree Thapa, Bill Aitken, Kirin Narayan and others bring genuine insight and empathy to their accounts, perhaps because they have lived in the Himalaya themselves. Dom Moraes and a young Rabindranath Tagore prove to be sensitive and intelligent travellers.
Living in the mountains is not a romance for everyone. 'Wresting a living from the stony, calcified soil does not leave much time for poetry and contemplation. Even so, the mountains have become very personal to me, as they have to other writers who have made their homes here. The changing colours of the hillside, the trees, birds, cicadas, horse-chestnuts, pine cones, cow bells, mule trains, the rain on old tin roofs, the wind in tall deodars, wild flowers in the morning dew, all these things are largely personal, appealing to both the spiritual and sensual in our own natures. If we haven't produced much literature, it is probably because we have still to come to terms with the majesty of these great mountains. Or, perhaps, the Himalaya have taught us humility. -We know that just living, and helping our fellow creatures through life, is enough; it is greater than any art.
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 ()Item 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 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 Vivekanand and Lama Anagarika Govinda, as well excerpts from Classics like Peter Matthiessen’s The 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 Pritwi, 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 crocuses. The drew on their golden petals glowed like diamonds in the cold sun and I beckoned Pritwi 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 in its uncurled seemed wonderful than the even spread of a thousand in full blossom.
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