Remembering Jagdish Nanavati

Jagdish Nanavati
The loss of Jagdish Nanavati on 29 June 2011 , our President Emeritus at the age of 83, came as a jolt to me in Srinagar. When Harish Kapadia broke the news, I almost did not believe it, as it was most unexpected and untimely. I first met Mr Nanavati in 1996 in Mumbai, at his office of the Eastern Bunkerers at Ballard Estate. Over a long meeting amongst other matters, we discussed issues of climbing ethics and recording of ascents.

Here was a man who was soft spoken, gentle, yet his unassuming demeanor did not belie his eye for detail and his thorough knowledge of the mountain world. It was instant bonding with him at the human and the Himalayan level and the beginning of our deep association for the next 15 years, every moment of which I was to cherish. I was thereafter in touch with him regularly and we exchanged our thoughts frequently on club matters and contemporary climbing issues.

Shri Jagdish Nanavati or Jagdishbhai as he was fondly called, became a Life Member of the Himalayan Club (HC) in 1959. An ardent mountain lover, he had many outings to the Himalaya during which he initiated many youth into mountaineering. In 1971, he along with late Soli Mehta was instrumental in moving the Club from Kolkata to Mumbai, thus giving it a new lease of life. As a senior member, he served the Club dedicatedly in various capacities and along with others gave the right impetus to Club activities, as enshrined in the vision of the HC. The very fact that he was Honorary Secretary for 21 years, from 1972 to 1992 and later served as President from 1993 to 1999, is a testimony to his immense contribution to the Himalayan Club. It was largely his effort, which saw the Club through the lean times of the seventies, which kept the institution alive and helped revive completely, thus giving it a strong foundation. A lot of credit for the healthy state of the HC archives, which till date are well preserved also goes to Mr Nanavati. He was President Emeritus of the HC from 2000 onwards. He was also a member of the
Indian Mountaineering Foundation and the Alpine Club.

Jagdish Nanavati was by nature, a meticulous man with brilliant analytical skills. His deep understanding of the mountains and his uncanny, visionary ability to relate to a climbers foot print on the high Himalaya made him someone special, indeed someone very special, who could unravel mysteries of the mountain world and assist in authenticating climbs beyond doubt. His immense and invaluable contribution to Indian mountaineering in unveiling the mystery of the climbs of Nilkanth, Nandakot and many other mountains are legendary. His deep insight, coupled with his deep understanding of the mountains, virtually made him the last ‘Reference Point’ for authenticating controversial climbs in the Indian Himalaya.

During my visit to Mumbai in 2001, I requested him to explain to me the nuances of his conclusive findings of the 1961 Indian expedition to Nilkanth, the enigmatic mountain of the Himalaya. I spent the whole afternoon with him in his office that day, as he patiently explained to me step by step, the genesis of his conclusion. The angles, the photographs, the camera tilts, the views, the gradients, trigonometry, climbers description etc it all fitted in so well, in solving the jigsaw puzzle. So logical and conclusive was his research and findings, that there was no scope for any ambiguity on the final outcome of the climb. In fact, I always recommended to the students of the Advance Mountaineering Course undergoing training at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM), Uttarkashi to read his theme based articles on ‘How to Prove an Ascent’, which was placed specially for sale in the Institute’s Souvenir Shop. I truly believe that this document is the gospel even today, which is a must read for all active mountaineers. I, personally for one learnt a lot from him and felt enriched after our every interaction.

During my last visit to Mumbai in 2010, I requested him to be present for our Management Committee meeting at the club centre. Despite his ailing healthy, busy schedule and other commitments, he joined us towards the end and shared his views on the challenges facing the HC. Later, the same day at his residence at Vile Parle, we spent a very pleasant evening, wherein he showed me the place from where the HC initially functioned for a number of years, after it moved to Mumbai in 1971. Little did I know than that this was to be our last meeting.

In losing him, the Club has not only lost it’s ‘Ombudsman’ but a man of unflinching character, integrity and exceptional ability, who was a gentleman to the core. His immense, selfless contribution to Indian mountaineering and to the Himalayan Club will always be remembered. The indelible mark in the history of the Himalayan Club which he leaves behind, will always be cherished and will forever inspire generations of club members.

President, The Himalayan Club

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He climbed no high peaks, for that matter, not even a small peak. He did not explore major ranges or undertake heroic adventures. But still, in the world of mountaineering, he became a legend and a Guru to many of us, including me certainly. This was Jagdish Chandulal Nanavati, in short JCN to all of us.

His standards were lofty and many of us found it difficult to match his expectations. He would guide us and if we failed, without any demonstration of anger, he would guide us forward again.

Jagdish Nanavati
This exactness manifested in the major work of his life - as someone put it aptly- he
was ‘the inquisitor of mountains from Mumbai’. He had a rare gift of studying a mountain through maps, photos and descriptions. He did not need to go there. Studying maps, drawings and observations gave him enormous pleasure and through his incisive mind, he solved many problems. By studying a mountain and details of its ascent, he could conclude whether it had been truly climbed or whether climbers had made a mistake. He must have disproved ascent claims of more than about 20 peaks and in a few cases, proved that peaks had been climbed when the climbers were not sure.
Jagdish Nanavati
It was not that he forced his view as the last word about the claim. He would prove it with detailed studies and present it with logic, almost like a detective. In most cases climbers disagreed with his conclusions – after all, who wants to accept that their claim of climbing a peak is false. So through word after word, letter after letter and proof after proof he would make them understand their folly and if they still refused, he would stand by his finding. Later as the Ombudsman of the Himalayan Club, he decided without favour or fear that the Club sponsored expedition to Nilkanth had failed to reach the summit.

Whenever there was a question like this to be looked into, he became a man possessed and would pace in his garden till late, sit on his table burning the midnight oil pouring over maps and old articles. Much correspondence followed with hours of talking on phone to gather authentic information. He used all his time, knowledge and talent to sort out truth from falsehood. And he would not rest till the problem was solved. What was said about Beethoven was also true for JCN; ‘Talent is what a man possesses, Genius is what possesses a man!’

It is hard to go into details of expeditions he studied. However, some of the well-known peaks and claims of ascents that he studied included Nilkanth, Nyegi Kangsang, Kokthang, Matri, Sudarshan Parvat ... the list is endless. In the case of Gya, he later accepted and proved that the ascent was actually made though he had thought otherwise to start with. I learnt of his exactness in 1969 as we returned about 100 feet short of the summit of Tharkot after being carried down by an avalanche. Next morning JCN phoned to say that, ‘it will be appropriate to say that you were 125 feet from the summit and not 100.’ We declared we were 150 feet down – after all, who would want to join issues with JCN!

He completed his mountaineering course at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling in 1958. On his return, he arranged with Brig. Gyan Singh, the Principal of HMI, to send three instructors to Mumbai to conduct Rock Climbing courses for the benefit of city- dwellers. When the Himalayan Club was not interested in sponsoring it, he formed a ‘Mountaineering Committee’, which organised the courses. This small committee was converted into ‘The Climbers Club’. After a decade of running these courses, for which he had explored the places near Mumbai and arranged everything, he fell out with the Club, as they unfairly wanted to pass strictures against an expedition sponsored by them to Bethartoli Himal in 1970. Four climbers died in an avalanche, which was a vis major but the Club wanted to blame the leadership and members. After a year of protracted arguments, he resigned as the President of the club when the Committee published their views. Many members including me also resigned with him.

This resignation was surely an act of God! It was about the same time that the Himalayan Club moved from Kolkata to Mumbai, as there were no volunteers to run it at the former. Soli Mehta asked JCN to take over the reins of the HC. As statistics go, he continued as Hon. Secretary of the Club for 23 years, then as the President for 8 years and finally as President Emeritus. He literally reconstructed the Club from ruins to a pinnacle.

Jagdish Nanavati
He was the face of the club, organised files and finances, his office was used as the HC office and many youngsters were encouraged by him. When Soli Mehta, Hon Editor of the Himalayan Journal, was posted abroad, I remember a handsome JCN walked into my house and requested me to be the Hon Editor. I was a novice and since then till his last days he was helpful and a guiding light for HJ.

He organised local talks and programmes in Mumbai, which attracted youngsters. He also invited famous foreign climbers to speak to youngsters thus encouraging the sport of mountaineering. In 1978, for the Golden Jubilee of the HC, JCN organised a five-day festival at the prestigious Jahangir Art Gallery in a prime area of Mumbai. A photo exhibition was arranged with daily talks by well-known speaker. It was always a packed house and people lined up an hour earlier to gain entry. No wonder as that extravaganza had speakers such as Per Temba Sherpa, Dr Salim Ali, H. C. Sarin, Swami Pranavananda and others. HC has never looked back after that event. This was an announcement to the mountaineering world, (like that of a British Governor General to the British throne during the British Raj); ‘HC is alive, well and rules ok’.

As time went by, HC became stronger and moved to its own premises guided by Dr M S Gill and Tanil Kilachand. But here too JCN played an active role and helped to set it up well. Although he was getting along in years, he found it difficult to let go his many commitments including the HC. It took toll of his health. It was his life’s precious work and it was his Gandhian nature to do it simply and in the best way. The HC needed to change with times to survive in the modern day environment. Sometimes these changes were a point of conflict but he accepted them gracefully and his role as the President Emeritus was an invaluable support to the Club.

JCN had lost his father when he was 12 years old, he was therefore, a self made man. He met his wife Mandakini while in college - he was so much in love and roamed around with her on a motorbike that he failed final exams twice! After their marriage in 1949, she was the balance in his life as her practical wisdom perfectly offset the lofty ideals of JCN. Whenever we had difficulties, we ran to her! She survives him with a family of four children and many grand children.

Early in his life, JCN met Swami Anand, a learned ascetic who lived at Gangotri, who introduced him to the Himalaya, climbing stories and also gave him many of his maps. This was the beginning of a love affair. He trekked in the local hills, the Sahyadris and the Western Ghat. It was also a pioneering effort as the sport was unknown then. Later we enjoyed many trips together and his wit was legendary. He was at home in the hills, whistling, shouting, cycling, full of stories and of full of questions! That was one trait that I could never fully satisfy- he wanted to know everything about everything and this was beyond my knowledge and patience. He was very fond of my son, Lt Nawang Kapadia who died in Kashmir at the young age of 25. JCN got on fabulously with him. On a trek, they always shared a tent and Nawang’s eyes would light up while listening to his stories. They would talk until late night and suddenly JCN would start his loud and famous snores! JCN could never speak of Nawang after his death as tears welled up in his eyes.

Jagdish Nanavati

I was surprised to learn, after his death, that JCN was an ardent fish collector. He had 40 fish tanks in his compound - a rare thing for he was a Jain - strictly vegetarian and would not even eat garlic and onions. Another love he had was for roses - which he tended in his garden and talked in detail about. He cultivated 100 different varieties of roses, photographed them while listening to music, also his passion. At the same time, he was much involved in social work, running his family school, college and hospital. With his upbringing, he was involved in many activities associated with Gandhian institutions though he knew that these were dying institutions.

Jagdish Nanavati
After the accident on the Bethartoli Himal in 1970 and the acrimony that followed, he did not venture to the Himalaya till 1982. But when he did return, it was with great pleasure to Kumaun, where we undertook a long trek in two valleys. One could sense in him the exuberance and love for the Himalaya. In 1984 and 1986 with many youngsters, we went to the Ruinsara valley in Garhwal and the Baspa valley in Kinnaur. These trips brought out best in JCN as he spread maps to teach the youngsters, how to walk methodically, taught them camp manners and much more. His wards were taught how to enjoy mountains without bravado, safely and with knowledge. He had a way with youngsters.

Not only youngsters, but also even the Himalaya benefitted from his wisdom, observations and studies. I have a lovely picture of JCN standing to attention watching the Darma river flowing below. You almost get a feeling that it was the Himalaya too, which was standing at attention - and saluting him!


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I am sorry to learn, of the passing away of Jagdish Nanavati, distinguished former President of the Himalayan Club. I first came to know about Jagdish’s qualities, when I became the President of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation in the 90’s. I found that there was a little contact between the Himalayan Club and the Indian Mountaineering Foundation. I took various steps, to ensure, that the Himalayan Club has a close and enduring links, with the Indian Mountaineering Foundation. This, I thought, was necessary, and in the best interest, of IMF.

Another problem came to my notice. Expeditions going to the mountains were coming back, meeting the press, projecting their success, but without giving any professional evidence to the IMF, to sustain their claims. There had been questions raised, in and outside the country, challenging a few of our climbs. I therefore decided, that a system had to be put in place, to verify and certify the climbs, made by the expeditions. I was brought to notice about Jagdish Nanavati’s immense capabilities, in map and photograph reading, and his ability to study evidence given, in order to truly establish, the worth of a climbing claim. I then, requested Jagdish to assist the IMF, on a regular basis, and we made it clear, that henceforth all expeditions will have to follow the IMF system. Jagdish did outstanding work for many years, in assisting the IMF, in this important professional field.

Later, when I became the President of the Himalayan Club, I saw more of Jagdish in our Mumbai meetings. His was always a calm, objective, and professional advice, to our Executive Committee. We benefitted immensely, from his presence.

In his passing, the Himalayan Club, and the mountaineering fraternity have lost an outstanding personality. We will always miss him, but will cherish his memory.

Former President, The Himalayan Club

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I first met Jagadishbhai in June-July 1959, thanks to Natubhai Sanghavi, whom our group on the first trek to Pindari glacier met in Khati and Dwali, and who told us about the group of Himalaya-lovers in Mumbai. The idea of the Mountaineering Committee was still in the making, and so also a plan of the first Rock-Climbing course at Mumbra under Sherpa instructors from HMI, Darjeeling due the same year in December. This relationship – very formal and distant at the start – was turned into a close friendship over the years, and remained so till the end, except that meeting him after his office shifted from Scindia House reduced.

Soft-spoken, a person of few words, yet precise and to the point, always focussed on the main point, and not known for a big laugh spread ear-to-ear which one finds these days in newspaper pictures – these have remained my impressions of him.

Jagdish Nanavati
Some of the members in the condolence meeting at Mumbai to mourn his death did mention of him as a strict person, and one who would inspire awe. This has not been my experience. I never had a chance to be with him on a long trek in Himalaya, but enjoyed countless weekend hikes in the Sahyadri with him, as also quite a few Sunday-morning rock-climbing sessions at Mumbra. These were both quiet lessons in ‘being in mountains’ – a certain pattern of life one followed when in the hills and in a group, and a joy to be with a man of culture and knowledge. His unbound curiosity to gather details from some in the group who had just returned from a long tour or trek through seriously asking for and listening to the details had never escaped my attention. Nor his respect for every member of the group. While many of us would be talking when in outdoors, he would be busy in such information-gathering or sharp observation of the surroundings.

On a climb, we were all on a rope, Jagadishbhai leading. On the last pitch, he changed position and asked me to lead. He knew that I was not very confident, and happy to be a second on the rope. He looked at my scared eyes, and told me in no-nonsense tone, ‘You are going to lead, and you will surely make it’. I led the rope on the final climb, and now have in my memory those moments of exhilaration and joy of being the first on the rope watching the world below. It was the same trick he taught us on Parsik Pinnacle at Mumbra. To stand erect once on the top, and while climbing down, to walk facing front down the first few steps. This may look laughably easy to veteran climbers, but these were quite difficult for us as beginners. He knew our psyche, and helped us overcome that initial sense of fear. This was what made many of us in our early phase of rock-climbing to form our own groups to go out rock-climbing when the sport was still new and unheard of.

By the year was 1964. Jagadishbhai knew me quite well, because of many weekend hikes done together, and being regular in rock-climbing at Mumbra on every free Sunday. I with three more friends wanted to go for a trek, but could not think of a place, and went to Jagadishbhai. Our conditions: Not too easy, not too many days, not on a regular trekker’s ‘highway’, and possible in October.

Khulia Gravia glacier in Garhwal was identified. I don’t remember why it was chosen. One of the reasons was that nobody from our known group had trekked there. The last record of it having been visited was about 35-40 years ago by a British group. I remember how much in detail Jagadishbhai helped us in planning the trek, except that he did not join us. I had hardly done 4-5 treks till then, all on the known routes. This was the first time I was moving out of the beaten track, thanks to Jagadishbhai. The first exercise was to copy and study the contour map of the region. Picking up one of those large rolls from his big collection giving these details, the best for me was to trace it on butter paper. Then he spent time to teach me in detail the art of map-reading in general and particularly understanding the language of contours on a survey map, and what the terrain which we were to visit was like.

My second great thanks to Jagadishbhai is for the way he and Malatiben established for the first time the campsite at Mumbra for rock climbing courses near Mumbai. My first experience of the camp was as a trainee in 1959, and later as course supervisors a few times. These camps continued till early ‘80s.

Even during my training in the first course, we had time after lunch or in the evening, when lessons on cleanliness in the mountains were taught to us. Jagdishbhai’s insistence for safety in climbing and hill-walking almost to the point of obsession is something I remember every time I hear of an accident in high mountains or nearby hills. It would not be difficult to discern the ‘why’ of the accident in each incident they involve mostly human error, and are very much avoidable.

What was the chemistry of this man? What made him what he was? I go back to what Tanil Kilachand said about Jagadishbhai in his speech at the condolence meeting. I refer particularly to his association with khadi (hand-woven material) as a senior committee member and the visits of Swami Anand at his place. Swami Anand was a Gandhian veteran trained under Gandhiji. In his book Dharatinu Loon (The Salt of the earth) – biographical sketches of persons of high caliber but not well-known, he writes about Chandubhai Nananvati – Jagadishbhai’s father. The name of the article when translated reads ‘The Silent Force’. This life story tells what that man was made of. It is this steely mental strength that he inherited from his father. From his mother – a life-long social worker always clad in khadi, he inherited the service-mindedness and symbol of khadi. He must have learnt as much from frequent visits of the likes of Swami Anand. To all these qualities must have been added his own to make him what he was.

Such persons are like passing stars, who leave a trail behind. It was a joy to have known him and to be a friend to him.


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