The Great Himalayan National Park—The Struggle to Save the Western Himalayas
Sanjeeva Pandey and Anthony J Gaston. Pp 364. (Niyogi Books, Delhi, 2019, INR 1500).
This book is a long due but worthy tribute to one of the finest ecological treasures in the Western Himalaya, a UNESCO site since 2014, but still unknown to most of us. That it has been penned by the two persons perhaps most qualified to do so (Pandey was Director of the Park for almost eight years and Gaston had conducted the surveys which laid the groundwork for the Park’s creation) imbues it with an authenticity and insight an outsider would have found difficult to impart. The book is not a scholarly tome, nor a critique of govt. policies, nor a guide, though it has elements of all three, but an introduction to various facets of the GHNP, inviting the reader to go there and find out more for himself.
It begins by placing the GHNP in its natural setting in the north- western Himalayas, detailing its geography, vegetation, climate, forest types, rivers, flora, fauna. Of particular interest is the history, since British times, of issues relevant even today—the effects of grazing and forestry practices, including timber extraction, and the surprising but welcome conclusion the authors arrive at, viz., “the extent of forest cover, at least in the temperate zone of the western Himalayas, has changed only moderately in the last 100 years”. Those who have visited Manali would find this nugget interesting too: the stately deodars that enfold this town today were all planted by the then Conservator of Forests, a certain Duff, in the 1880s—the original stands of pure deodars in the upper Beas valley had all disappeared by then. Never before have so many hoteliers owed so much to one man!
The creation/ notification of GHNP in May 1999 followed a detailed scientific study of the biodiversity and demographics involved. The area of the Park, almost 900 sq. kms was well chosen in the middle and upper reaches of the Jiwa Nal, Sainj and Tirthan valleys. It had a very sparse population, no road connectivity, was well insulated from the ‘development’ activities of the Beas basin and was a rich repository of western Himalayan flora and fauna. Even though no displacement of any population took place, modifications had to be made to the original plan as the Park took shape: three villages intruded into the Park and they had to be segregated into a separate, 90 sq. km. wild life sanctuary called the Sainj Wildlife Sanctuary; an Eco-zone of 230 sq. kms was carved out on the western boundaries in 1994 to provide a buffer and absorb the biotic pressures generated by the surrounding villages—grazing, herding of livestock, collection of fodder and firewood, extraction of herbs. The eco-zone has 160 villages with a population of 14000 and about a thousand households had been traditionally dependent on the park area for these needs.
The GHNP management quickly realized that biodiversity conservation within the Park would not be possible without providing alternate livelihood options to the families whose rights had been terminated. A Biodiversity Conservation Society was set up in 1996, along with women’s self-help groups and credit and savings groups. Their members were given training and marketing support in vermin-composting, propagation of medicinal plants (which the forest department buys back), manufacture of handicrafts, jams and pickles and souvenirs. Ecotourism and trekking ensures employment to dozens of youth, as does MNREGA. These well thought out interventions seem to be paying off, as Pandey reports from a study carried out in 2011, there has been a significant recovery of vegetation in the alpine meadows as compared to the baseline of 1999, and the population of pheasants and ungulates has also gone up, the earlier resistance by the locals has declined. GHNP is a case study in demonstrating that biodiversity conservation is possible only through socially inclusive programmes and participatory forest management by involving all stakeholders.
The GHNP is a trekker’s paradise and about one thousand visit it each year. The chapter on trekking describes the major treks in the valleys of the four rivers that drain the Park: the Parvati, Jiwa nala, Sainj and Tirthan. The trekking routes, however, are not marked on the accompanying maps, nor are essential details such as altitudes, distances, support services, required permissions provided. Each trek is not very well delineated as it overlaps with others and can leave the first timer a bit confused. The chapter could have been better structured since this is the part of the book that most readers would be attracted to.
This book is a treasure trove of information for the botanist, zoologist, bird watcher and any lover of nature, for the biodiversity of the GHNP is astounding. It supports hundreds of species of the north-western Himalayan wildlife: 8% of its plant species, 21% of birds, 10% of mammals, 7% of reptiles, 9% of amphibians. It is one of the last remaining refuges of many endangered species: the western tragopan, chir pheasant, snow leopard, Himalayan musk deer, Asiatic black bear, Himalayan tahr and the elusive serow. Birdlife International has classified it as an endemic bird area. The authors have found that the Park contains the best gene pools of walnut, hazelnut and horse chestnut. (I had taken some saplings of the horse chestnut for my cottage in Mashobra and today I have six of these majestic lords of the jungle standing tall on my grounds!). One of the secrets of the success of GHNP is that the sheer geography of the Park makes most of it inaccessible—68% of its area is above 3200 m. With four major rivers and 1400 streams, all disgorging into the river Beas it is also a priceless storehouse of water.
The GHNP is now the nucleus of a much larger contiguous Protected Area landscape measuring 2854 sq. kms, comprising the wildlife sanctuaries of Tirthan, Sainj, Kanawar, the Pin Valley National Park and the 710 sq. km Kheer Ganga National Park embracing the Parvati valley, created in 2012. The state govt. should now work towards designating this entire landscape into a bio-sphere reserve.
In conclusion, this book can be read at two levels: one, as a celebration of the preservation of what the authors term a fragment of the natural history of the Himalaya, as old as the fabled Pandavas, forever lost elsewhere. Secondly, to recognize the role of biodiversity in maintaining eco-systems and in providing eco-system services.
Though mostly successful, GHNP is still a work in progress, an experiment that cannot be allowed to fail. It still faces many threats, to which the authors have alluded in passing: hydel projects, tourism, road construction, vehicular pollution. It will need many more persons of the calibre, and with the devotion and passion, of Pandey and Gaston to enshrine it permanently in the magnificent landscape of the western Himalaya.
THE LONG WALK—From Darkness to Light An autobiography of Kusang Dorjee Sherpa
As told to Susanta Kumar Das. Pp 168. 12 colour photos, 14 b/w photos. (Published by Susanta Kumar Das, 2018, INR 400).
Kusang Sherpa smiles constantly. His gentle eyes disappear in a face as deeply etched with cracks and crevasses as the Khumbu icefall with which he is so familiar. Average in height for a Sherpa, he is barrel- chested and strong, and moves with economy and confidence. From a childhood in bonded labour, Kusang retired last year from the post of Senior Instructor at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling. He has achieved fame and awards, lives a comfortable existence and has four educated, settled children. What more could the man who has climbed Mt. Everest from all directions, want? He wants what most people want – to be remembered and to tell the world of his life.
So, much as his hero Tenzing did, many years ago, Kusang narrated his story in Hindi to Mr Susanta Kumar Das who translated it into English. Unfortunately, Mr Das is no James Ramsey Ullman and the book falls way below expectations.
It’s not Kusang’s fault. With thoughtful detail he recalls his hard childhood. He talks about his expeditions, his struggles, his beliefs and with disarming honesty admits his fondness for alcohol and his hope that his children marry within the community. The fault is entirely Mr Das’, who tells a poor story. The chapters are unimaginatively strung together, the chronology is sometimes confusing, his translation is clumsy and the English is atrocious. Expeditions fail due to ‘inclined weather’ and Kusang’s belief that his marriage proposal to Pinky will be accepted becomes ‘I thought she would never deny if I proposed her to marry me’. The absence of an editor is sorely felt and it must have been the proof-reader’s annual holiday, for how else does one explain ‘casualty’ becoming ‘causality’ and ‘M.S. Kohli’ being renamed ‘M.S. Kohili’? Adjectives and prepositions are used incorrectly and disastrously (how inappropriate it is for the illustrious Bachendri Pal to be described as the ‘adorable Ms Bachendri Pal’!) I could go on. This looks and reads like a hasty and slipshod job and Rs. 400 is way too steep a price to pay for it.
Kusang deserved and deserves better. A well-researched, well- written book on him would have been a welcome addition to the meagre information on the newer generation of climbing Sherpas in Darjeeling.
When asked how he knew what was written in the book, Kusang replied ‘My son read the whole thing and told me. Everyone read it and said it is written very well. My whole story is there’. But Kusang Sherpa is interested in the facts. From his point of view, the information on his life is now out there and he is a happy man. He can spend his days finally fulfilling another life’s dream – the building of his own house. He can concentrate on the welfare of his community and in the evenings he can raise a glass in salute, content in a life well- lived. But we, the reading and mountaineering public know better. We know that Kusang Sherpa deserves much better.
NO EASY WAY
Mick Fowler. Pp 241, 39 colour photos. (Vertebrate Publishing, Sheffield, UK, 2018, Hardback GBP 24).
Having attended several events organized by the Himalayan Club in Mumbai and chatted with many climbers, I’m struck by the fact that they are so unlike the ‘regular’ notion of an adventurer. They all look like accountants or pianists or engineers or writers but not at all like the sort that risk life and limb and enjoy it. However, there is an indefinable air that sets them apart from us vicarious souls—a no-nonsense attitude, an unstated respect for nature, self-assurance and above all, a secret pleasure that we can sense but never share. Walter Mitty is alive in them all!
One way to access their world is to read the books they write and they often write as well as they climb. In No Easy Way Mick Fowler invites us into his world and his passion, and takes us to the mountains with him and other friends as driven as he is. And yet there is a lightness of touch, a deep respect for his art and the people around him, so that we can share in his successes and disappointments equally. I learnt more than I ever expected to about technical climbing and it was gleaned without my knowing it. His descriptions and details are so vivid that one feels the snowdrifts and sees the sunrises that they experienced. He downplays the difficulties and wears his achievements lightly but it is clear to see the enormity of the tasks that they set for themselves and the composed manner in which they go about their business.
And then there is his other avatar, the taxman, Mike Fowler and his life in the UK. All the demands of the householder and workingman are juxtaposed with the explorations of the hills and mountains of his own land; even his own city offers him opportunities to indulge!
His need for this kind of exertion seems to spring from deep within his being and centres him whether in office or dealing with a fading father or sitting in a bivouac on Shiva. The perils of acquiring permits, of vast quantities of equipment and provisions to be organized, of extreme cold and the problems of a tummy upset at 4000 m (I hadn’t thought of that!) the encounters with muleteers and cooks, all combine to create a sense of calm accomplishment without giving in to sarcasm, showing off or drama.
As it happened, I read this book soon after I’d finished A Short walk in the Hindukush by Eric Newby. It was a serendipitous coincidence— two wanderers in the same mountains separated by more than half a century; together they show how much has changed and how much remains the same. These remote lands and the people who inhabit them come alive in both the books but the mood of the visitors seems to have changed. Newby, a representative of a generation of westerners coming into contact with a completely different kind of human being, is unable to repress a tendency to be patronizing. Nevertheless as Samuel Pickering says, “Newby’s writing has aged, but like old wine, it goes down smoothly, and remains invigorating”. Fowler, on the other hand, belongs to a generation that has learnt to live with diversity.
In fact, Fowler captures time in all its dimensions—from the momentary to the eternal, and that is a special pleasure of his book—that and the undeniable, magical gratification that comes from having pushed oneself to the limits. This is what drives us armchair enthusiasts to devour such books!
In a world where everything is geared towards the big and the dramatic, the newsworthy and the glamorous, it’s wonderful to meet people who do things for personal satisfaction—just because!!
RATNA PATHAK SHAH
THE LAST ENGLISHMAN—Love, War, and the End of Empire
Deborah Baker. Pp. xxiv+360. 2018 (hardcover), 2019 (paperback) (Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, 2018, INR 599).
Although not evident from its title The Last Englishman: Love, War, and the End of Empire is very much about the Himalaya and probably the most daring and exciting period in the history of the Himalayan region – the 1910s to the 1950s—a period of a mere four decades which witnessed, among other things, two world wars, the transition from the British Raj to independent India (and partition of Pakistan), the rise and fall of Nazism, British attempts to climb Everest, and German expeditions to Nanga Parbat. The reader may wonder how these events are connected, and indeed, these and other obscure connections narrated so elegantly is the strength of Deborah Baker’s book. Coming from the pen of a seasoned biographer (this is Baker’s fifth biographical work), the book unfolds life stories in an engaging manner and reveals information piecemeal as much as necessary to know at that particular segment and yet also retains surprises to come. This kind of crafting is especially useful for this type of book containing so many players, processes, and events. Indeed, the panorama of the characters is as vast as the Himalaya. Here the reader will meet political leaders (Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, Churchill, the previous Dalai Lama, etc.), surveyors and mountaineers (John Auden, Michael Spender, Eric Shipton, Bill Tillman, Bill Wager, Frank Smythe, Hugh Ruttledge, and Francis Younghusband), writers and poets (Rabindranath Tagore, Louis MacNeice, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, George Orwell, etc.), and some of their relatives by blood or profession. There is a ‘cast of characters’ at the outset of the book for readers not familiar with the characters and their names.
At the heart of the book lies a mountain—Himalaya—and a woman— Nancy Sharp—and the two men who loved them: Michael Spender the older brother of the more famous Stephen Spender (poet), and John Auden the older brother of the more famous W.H. Auden (also a poet). The Spenders and the Audens knew each other in England before coming to India and the Himalaya. Nancy Sharp was a talented but under-recognized painter in London. Her romantic life, as we learn from Baker’s account, included several men: Her classmate painter William Coldstream whom she married; the Irish poet and journalist Louis MacNeice who later (in 1947) came to India to cover for BBC the independence celebrations of India and Pakistan and the bloodshed that dominated the partition between these two countries; the Himalayan climber and aerial photographer Michael Spender (her second husband); and John Auden, the famed Himalayan geologist who was already married to Sheila Bonnerjee, granddaughter of W.H. Bonnerjee (the first founding president of the Indian National Congress). John Auden dreamed of climbing Everest but failed to do so. Nancy Sharp outlived all of her lovers (and their brothers) and died in London in 2001 at age 91. Sheila Bonnerjee Auden died a year later at age 89.
The Last Englishman reads like a novel with detailed descriptions, often lyrical phrases, and occasional dialogues, and also in that it does not contain photographs or maps. As evident from a long bibliography at the end of the book, Baker has done a great amount of research, and her access to the private archives of Anita Money (daughter of John Auden and Sheila Bonnerjee) and Philip Spender (son of Michael Spender and Nancy Sharp) has enriched the originality and depth of her book. Baker has used letters and unpublished writings from private as well as public archives to weave together a fascinating narrative full of interesting connections. The book consists of vignettes arranged chronologically and set in a varied geography: London, Calcutta, New Delhi, Simla, Everest, Karakoram, Kashmir, Tibet, and so forth. Life stories of the characters run in parallels and yet in juxtaposition and crossed paths.
Deborah Baker’s passionate familiarity with India runs deeper than this volume. Married to the novelist Amitav Ghosh, she is also the author of A Blue Hand: The Beats in India. Baker’s new book brings to life the little known stories of love, conflict, war, career, desire, success, and failure of a whole generation of the last Englishmen and the women behind them as well as their contemporaneous Indian intelligentsia. Readers of this rich volume will sense hidden histories beneath the rocky trails and snows of the Himalaya and in the crowded streets and ignored libraries of Delhi and Calcutta. The title is taken from a quote by Nehru: “I am the last Englishman to rule India.”
A final note: John B. Auden is a familiar name for the Himalayan Club. He published three articles in Himalayan Journal (cited in Baker’s book) and I also reviewed J. B. Auden: A Centenary Tribute in the 2016 volume of this Journal.
HONOURING HIGH PLACES—The Mountain Life of Junko Tabei
Junko Tabei and Helen Y Rolfe. Pp 376. 64 pages of colour photos. (Hardcover Rocky Mountain Books, Canada, 2017, CAD 32).
This new English book was published a year after Tabei san passed away in October 2016. Junko Tabei is already well known to climbers around the world, but this is her first book published in English. As a Japanese person I know that the language barrier is high, so for the people living in the English-speaking world there is hardly any chance of having read her books until now. Because of this, I can easily imagine how much she must have been waiting to see this book.
The idea of writing her book in English goes back to autumn 2014. One of Tabei-san’s old climbing friends, Hiraki Yumiko, who lives in Canada, heard about her battle with cancer and undertook the whole project. She surmounted many challenges including finding a publisher, editing the Japanese version, getting an English translation, selecting photos and finally involving the professional editor Helen Y. Rolfe.
For the English version, the most important climbs were selected from over 20 Japanese books authored by Tabei san. A major part of the book is devoted to the story of Tabei san being the first woman to reach the summit of Everest in 1975. Apart from describing her various expeditions, the book includes stories, informal anecdotes, mountain-climbing in her later years. This book is not just a translation of Tabei san’s Japanese books into English, but is a newly organized book.
Honouring… consists of 15 chapters; the concluding chapter is Mountains of Later Life. Most of the book is written in a diary style and in chronological order so it is easy to read and understand her whole life. Her husband Masanobu Tabei, son Shinya Tabei and friend Setsuko Kitamura have also written tributes to Junko. There is a sumptuous section of colour photos, the captions of which make it easy to look back at the path she had walked along.
It was mid-February in 2012 when Tabei-san firstly noticed an abdominal stinging pain. Although the pain subsided, a sense of discomfort remained. That was the beginning of the long-term relationship with cancer.
I mentioned that Tabei-san wrote more than 20 books, but I feel like the pace of the writing increased since 2013. Aside from the book Everest Mama-san, the number of her works published in recent years was amazing. I believe she felt an urgent need to write these books. She wrote on her struggle with cancer – Tabei san always said “Never be a patient even if you get sick”.
In Honouring… there are many pages dedicated to the climbing of Annapurna III and Everest—it almost seems like she gave priority to these climbs during her life time. This book also devotes much space to the stories about recovering from the avalanche accident at C2 on Everest, and the process of selecting summit teams for Annapurna III in the chapter called A Women’s Battle. “The more I knew of Miyazaki’s agonizing decision making, the more upset I became with the fallout of the meeting. In truth, what other choice did she have? I had to admit, I could never be leader.”
The person she refers to was the leader Hisako Miyazaki. When there was obsessive request from a member to choose her as the member of the summit party, Miyazaki-san had made an extremely calm and objective decision. Tabei san learned a lot from Miyazaki’s calm attitude as a leader.
Something similar happened during the Everest women’s climb. In the chapter The Route, it is said that at the meeting held after the reconnaissance, while opening the route along the icefall to C2, one of the members proposed that they should open the route without Sherpa help. This proposal had never been discussed before. Finally, the meeting ended when Tabei san said, “All right then, let’s go out by ourselves, alone, tomorrow and see how it goes”.
Her strong personal qualities were not limited to her excellent physical abilities. She was open to new ideas, flexible in her thinking and practical. But her true worth was that she had sensibility and warm consideration.
She had a wonderful quirky sense of humour. She had started the annual chanson concert titled Women of No Fear in December 2005. They had several local performances wearing gorgeous dresses and wigs. “On that night, my cohorts and I were adorned by makeup artists who had us looking like professional singers. Eyeliner, fake eyelashes that whooshed like fans with every blink, and the wig - I was transformed into a different person.”
Tabei-san passed away suddenly on 20th October 2016. We started preparations for the farewell party, and also made a booklet. The compact booklet highlights Tabei-san’s 77 years and people connected to her made contributions to it. In a short period, a 48 page booklet, was completed and handed to more than 1400 guests at the farewell party held on December 18. When I brought the booklet to His Imperial Highness at the Crown Prince’s Palace, the ‘jiju’ (chamberlain) asked her husband Masanobu and her son Shinya to accompany me. His Highness eagerly heard the stories of Tabei san’s life project to support high school students to climb Mt. Fuji.
In 2019, the year when the name of the Japan’s new era has been changed from ‘Heisei’ to ‘Reiwa’, I respectfully offered Junko Tabei san’s book Honouring High Places to His Majesty the Emperor who loves mountaineering.
THE BELL OF SHANGRI-LA—An Adventure to the Lost Horizon
Sam Chau. Pp. 263, 2 Maps. (Trafford Publishing, Milton Keynes, 2008).
BELLS OF SHANGRI-LA—Scholars, Spies, Invaders in Tibet
Parimal Bhattacharya. Pp. 259. (Speaking Tiger Publishing, New Delhi, 2019, INR 450).
Tibet has been a source of intrigue and amusement to the western world for a long time, and various factors have contributed to this. A land of inexplicable beauty, rooted in its own traditions, Tibet had a primeval charm that was hard to grasp by the western mind rooted in science, logic and reasoning. The topographical challenges faced by early explorers, harsh winters, along with the prevalence of its unique spiritual beliefs made Tibet all the more inaccessible, thereby adding to its mystery. While the rest of the world was on a path of new scientific discoveries, the use of complex machines and equipment, Tibet seemed content being tucked away in a remote corner of the Himalaya, closed to the rest of the world.
Ever since James Hilton wrote his widely publicized utopian novel The Lost Horizon, the western world has been enthralled by the legend of Shangri-la, a mythical paradise which serves as a refuge, an escape from a world plagued by disorder and chaos.
In the beginning of the 20th century, Sir Francis Younghusband led a military expedition to Tibet, and the forbidden land was made accessible to the outside world. Written in the aftermath of the First World War, in a society that was increasingly grappling with disillusionment, it is easy to see why the West might wish to find a safe haven in the seemingly perfect world of oriental spirituality.
In Hilton’s own words—“The time must come, my friend, when brutality and the lust for power must perish by its own sword. For when that day comes, the world must begin to look for a new life. And it is our hope that they may find it here.”
In order to better understand The Bell of Shangri-la, it’s important to understand the context of Hilton’s novel. Written in 1933, the text follows the lives of four westerners—Hugh Conway, Charles Mallinson, Ms Roberta Brinklow and Henry Bernard, who find themselves in a lamasery located in the secret land of Shangri-la after being stranded in the valley. They are met with Mr Chang who postulates about the origin of Shangri-la and it’s way of life.
He mentions various details concerning life in the valley such as the prevalence of a community that is engaged mainly in farming and spirituality. They don’t use money, but every household has their needs met, simply by virtue of the goodwill of the community members. They live a long, prosperous life guided by the principles of Buddhism. The valley is also rich in reserves of gold, which is used in exchange for commodities with the outside world.
The Bell of Shangri-la reiterates each of these facets. As a young boy growing up in Hong Kong, the author was surrounded by discussions of Shangri-la. He moves to Scotland, and gets entwined in the demands of life, but the magical paradise of Hilton’s novel refuses to leave his mind.
He embarks on a quest to look for the valley that has eluded him for so long. The plot becomes increasingly vague as his journey continues. He encounters a mysterious young girl who leads him to her village, one with an uncanny resemblance to Hilton’s Shangri- la. He is then taken to a lamasery where the lama invites him to a discussion on the meaning and origin of Shangri-la, it’s inhabitants, and it’s lifestyle deeply rooted in the principle of moderation. Interestingly, he also talks about the characters from Hilton’s novel who were stranded in the strange kingdom of Tibet. The lama goes on to discuss the work of the Christian missionaries, and their attempts to modernize the far east, and a certain bell brought by the Capuchin monks that the author is determined to find.
The author returns home without getting his hands on the coveted bell, but in a way he probably finds his Shangri-la, coming to the realization that he has to look for paradise within himself. To quote James Hilton -
“If we have not found the heaven within, we have not found the heaven without.”
The timeline is linear, but the plot has a tendency to move between fact and fiction; the author’s travels and his vivid imagination. The description of this utopian land has a dreamlike quality, and the author provides ample symbolism in the form of playful and happy children, butterflies, clear streams and lush landscapes to justify it.
The vagueness and imaginative quality of the writing is mixed with historical and cultural perspectives. The author describes in detail the life of various ethnic minorities, their occupations and religious beliefs. He describes how remote areas have been commercialized by the tourism industry thereby eroding their unique nature.
Bells of Shangri-la, on the other hand, dives deep into the lives of the Pundit explorers of colonial India, who were sent to Tibet to gather evidence on its topography and culture. However, the book is not only focused on the life and journey of indigenous explorers, but also the exploits of various western explorers, juxtaposed with the author’s own travel experiences.
The text is factual in nature, and provides the reader with insights into the lives of these explorers, viewed against the background of contemporary social and cultural reality. The explorers described in the book are all different from one another, possessing individual qualities that aided them in their respective missions:
Kinthup was a tailor from Darjeeling with no formal education but possessing a sharp memory. He was sent to Tibet disguised as a lama’s servant. He had learnt the basic skills required for conducting surveys, and how to handle necessary equipment before he embarked on his journey.
Sarat Chandra Das on the other hand was an educated young man with a scientific temper. His explorations were propelled by the use of modern technology—he carried with him a lithographic press, a telescope, science books, and even small pox vaccines. He kept extensive records and journals, which eventually formed the basis of his writings.
Eric Bailey was a British military officer, who along with William Morshead embarked on an unauthorized exploration of the river Tsangpo.
George Bogle was an Assistant Secretary in the Board of Revenue in Warren Hastings’ government. He was sent to Tibet as the British ambassador. His chief role was to keep records of his observations on the people, customs, climate, administration, trade and commerce, to name a few. He also planted potato seeds along his route to understand Tibet’s agricultural capacities.
These individuals from different walks of life were united by a common goal—to explore the secretive land of Tibet and to put it on the world’s map.
Their combined effort resulted in the British military expedition of 1904 and the eventual demarcation drawn between the Tibetan region of China and the India. This was called the McMahon Line in a document signed by representatives from both countries during the 1914 Simla Convention.
Bells of Shangri-la, also aims to familiarize the reader with the repercussions of such clandestine operations, both on the explorers and the ones who assist them. Kinthup returned to India to the news of a family tragedy, and his achievements and discoveries remained in the dark for 30 years, before Eric Bailey found him in Darjeeling. Sarat Chandra Das returned safely, and went on to publish the observations made during his travels. While he was in Darjeeling, writing his book, the people who came in contact with him in Tibet were being brutally persecuted by the authorities. Some were viciously murdered, while others were thrown into prisons with deplorable living conditions.
The book is written in a non-linear pattern, the narrative often taking a nostalgic turn. It moves back and forth in time, often in the form of flashbacks. The author stumbles upon a book with a lush blue felt cover in an antique bookstore in the sleepy town of Shimla. The document, a report on the journey and findings of native explorers sent to Tibet by the British government for the purpose of espionage, leads to a detailed discussion on the subject. The text is interspersed with the author’s own experience on some of the original paths treaded by the early explorers, along with an existential dread one can experience living in gloomy towns like Darjeeling and Shimla.
Although the books may seem almost identical, owing to their title and the similarity of the subject matter, a deeper understanding provides the reader with vastly different perspectives on the livelihoods, religions, culture and explorations in the mysterious land of Tibet.
Both books also include references to prominent explorers from different fields, the French mystic Alexandra David-Neel, Thomas Manning, the botanist Joseph Rock, William Rockhill and others. Apart from that, there are no striking similarities between the two.
The books, read individually or in conjunction with the other, provides the reader with an extensive treasure trove of materials relating to Tibet and its multiple facets, right from the early and often unsuccessful explorations, to modern discoveries and depictions of the same. This helps in demystifying the various legends and myths that has long been associated with Tibet, making it easier for anyone wanting to understand myths and utopia often associated with oriental philosophy.
SAGA OF A NATIVE EXPLORER—Pundit Nain Singh
Surendra Singh Pangtey. Pp 242, two maps. (M/s Bishen Singh Mahendra Pal Singh, Dehradun, 2017, INR 495).
In the beginning of the 19th century, the British government was looking for new and improved routes into Tibet due to socio-economic and geopolitical concerns. Much was unknown about the land; Tibet had been closed off to foreigners since 1792. The inability of western explorers to enter into Tibet and conduct successful clandestine operations led to a new approach whereby natives, also known as pundits were trained and sent to Tibet in disguise. It was easier for them owing to their knowledge of the culture and trade routes.
Much has been written and discussed about Pundit Nain Singh and his life. The multitude of honours that he received and his lasting influence to this day clearly shows the impact he created through his explorations. He had penned down his experiences meticulously in his journals which is a treasure trove of insight into the mind of a prolific explorer.
Needless to say, these diaries and records written in the explorers’ own words are very significant. However, they were written primarily in Devnagari script, some of the dialects of which are currently out of use. The journals were a juxtaposition of various languages including Urdu, Tibetan, Nepalese and Sanskrit. A thorough transliteration of the texts was required, and that is exactly what the author of Saga of a Native Explorer aims to do. Each journal is divided into sections detailing various events and activities of his life.
Nain Singh Rawat began his first journey to the forbidden land of Tibet in 1865, after two years of training at Survey of India, Dehradun. He had previously assisted the Schlagitweit brothers between 1855 and 1857. The first diary begins with a genealogy of his clan, his early life and education, his collaboration with the Schlagitweit brothers, and his first journey to Tibet. It shows how cousins Nain Singh, who was a teacher, and Mani Singh were inducted into Survey of India, through a chance encounter between their fathers and the British government. The reader grows familiar with Nain Singh’s internal dialogue, especially his struggle to relate to other members of his group, especially with his cousin.
The details are poignant, offering a keen insight into the journey undertaken, such as the various topographical challenges faced, the espionage techniques, the rivers and snow clad mountain passes encountered, his wait at Tadum monastery for Ladakhi traders en route to Lhasa etc.
The second diary is shorter and provides a more consolidated account of the expedition to the gold mines of Thok Jalung. It also explains the hardships faced by Pundit Nain Singh including illness, lack of food, encounter with robbers and a constant fear of captivity and death.
The third diary elaborates the unofficial involvement of Nain Singh with the Yarland Mission, and his preceding work on surveying the route of Brahmaputra. He again finds himself in a dacoit infested region, and with no help from the mission itself, he is forced to fend for himself. Yet, he manages to use his skills as a surveyor, and gains extensive knowledge on the geography, traditions and customs of the local area.
The final section deals with the circumstances leading to the murder of Adolfe Schlagintweit, and the eventual retreat of Nain Singh’s party to Leh due to bad weather, heavy snow and lack of rations. His assistants had made certain errors on the return journey, as Nain Singh was on horseback and they were the ones measuring their paces. In order to rectify the mistakes, he volunteered to survey the route again on foot. Such was the commitment that the Pundit displayed towards his missions.
As one progresses through the journals, his dedication keeps getting stronger. He provides an in-depth analysis of the methods used by him, the journey and routes, and a critique of various social customs. Nain Singh ventured into remote areas that no other explorer had set foot in. He wrote about the rituals practiced, the cultural norms of the indigenous people; he located the source of the river Indus, and wrote extensively on the environment and the exquisite natural beauty surrounding him. He mapped out a trade route on the southern fringes of Tibet. He was the first to traverse the route leading up to Lhasa through Tawang. The explorer’s mind was constantly at work - he gives minute details about the coordinates, the geography, and lifestyle of almost every place he visits.
Disguised as a Tibetan, counting the beads of his rosary, Nain Singh was actually measuring the distance by counting his paces and keeping a record of the same in the form of survey notes fitted discreetly in the prayer wheel, which was immune to custom inspection. He was the first to determine the latitude and longitude of the forbidden kingdom of Lhasa. His compass too was hidden in the prayer wheel. He is also said to have carried a supply of mercury in a coconut to measure distance.
To quote Edwin Atkinson in one of the excerpts - “Their intelligence is entirely the result of their own observations and experience; they seldom possess any education beyond ability to read write and to keep rough accounts of their trading operations, but what they may become we have an example in Pandit Nain Singh…”
His journals provide the reader with a glimpse into the nuanced experiences encountered by him, the unique style with which he wrote and addressed his superiors, his struggles with loneliness, and of course his groundbreaking explorations which would be revered long after his death.
Saga of a Native Explorer therefore is based on the three journals that have been translated in English, in order to make their content more accessible to readers. The author has tried not to lose the context that can easily happen in translated work. Apart from the main journals, the book also consists of excerpts from various talks on the explorations of Pundit Nain Singh. The author has also added a translated list of old Hindustani, Urdu and Turkish words to help the reader understand the text better, along with detailed description of the routes, including distances. All in all, the book does justice to what it set out to do, by unravelling certain aspects of the Pundit’s life to the reader.
ONE DAY AS A TIGER—Alex MacIntyre and the birth of light and fast Alpinism
John Porter. Pp 230, 24 glossy pages with 76 colour photos. (Vertebrate Publishing, Sheffield, 2014, GBP 20).
An interview with John Porter reveals that his book was 15 years in the making and eventually published in 2014 after the death of Jean, Alex MacIntyre’s mother. In the process, we are presented with a beautifully collated compendium of British climbing in the 70s and early 80s with Alex MacIntyre as the protagonist and the author as a commentator climbing alongside.
Winner of the Banff Mountain Book competition 2014, in the Mountaineering History category, its title is based on a Buddhist quote that’s inscribed now on a Memorial Stone at Annapurna Base Camp.
The narrative oscillates, throughout, between climbing and the author’s commentary on other facets of Alex’s life such as his progression from ‘Dirty Alex’ of the Leeds University Climbing Club to their first climb together in the Alps on the South face of the Fou and, later, to the Greater ranges. This commentary of his growth as a climber has been spiced up with plenty of insightful excerpts from Alex’s personal and professional life.
Having been close to Alex’s mom, Jean MacIntyre and other climbers in his life, and also having done seminal climbs with Alex right from his University days till his very end on the fateful Annapurna expedition, this book could well double up as a significant chapter of Porter’s own autobiography.
Porter has offered a detailed commentary on climbing in the early 70s, the development of the Alpinist ways, and how Alex, a rebellious Alpinist chose to climb as a light and fast low-budget ‘privateer’ as opposed to siege style, well-funded national expeditions that were more of the norm then. Porter has done full justice to climbers of those times by covering their climbing exploits as well as their interactions with Alex and himself.
The descriptions of the climbing of the North East face of Koh-i- Bandaka in the Hindu Kush are awe-inspiring and detailed, laced with wry humour of liaising with Polish climbers for acquiring false permits, of decapitated climbers and of smuggling the Lapis Lazuli stone. The interview with the Mount Everest Foundation (MEF) luminaries, prior to the epic route on the South buttress of Changabang and while seeking funds for climbing in Peru, makes for entertaining reading.
The book isn’t only about actual climbs. Sometimes, it does feel that the climbing descriptions are too matter-of-fact and end way too soon quickly reverting to worldly matters. But, the brighter side is that, one learns a lot about the history and development of British climbing with Chris Bonington leading the way. Porter throws light on the functioning of the MEF and British Mountaineering Council (BMC) in the 70s. During his time in the BMC, Alex believed in the democratic process and promoted mountaineering, raised money and sought partners for his own expeditions.
Alex’s clairvoyance as to how mountaineering would evolve and be in the realm of commercialism has been referred to numerous times. His premonitory fear of rockfall and his predictions of revolutionary changes in communications were remarkable.
The pace of the book feels a bit slow with more commentary initially. The pace picks up later with chapters covering Alex’s attempt on the difficult east face of Dhaulagiri, his failed attempts on Makalu and the Annapurna expedition that killed Alex.
The narrative draws a parallel to Alex’s life, where until 1980, he chose to be a purely amateur climber, uncontaminated by outside pressures and then evolved into an ambitious, innovative climber trying the hardest faces in the best and lightest style.
The book concludes with the author’s thoughts on the character that Alex was, while making an attempt to understand why, quoting Bernadette McDonald’s blurb, would this generation of climbers so fueled by ambition and adrenalin climb themselves into extinction.
The footnotes have valuable pieces of anecdotes and references and are unmissable.
This Banff Mountain book awardee definitely must be read and will leave the reader enlightened.
DR. ARUN NAYAK
Rajiv Dogra. Pp. 256. (Rupa Publications, Delhi, 2017, INR 695).
Military boots have trampled over Afghan soil for what seems like an eternity, with the British, Americans, Soviet, Pakistanis and Taliban dictating their agenda at different times with the brute force of weaponry. One would have thought that Afghanistan’s remote location, ragged terrain, intimidating peaks and its fierce populace— considered among the most ruthless warriors in the world—would be reason enough to repel any conquistadors. Alas, this wasn’t to be.
In a timely book, Rajiv Dogra, a former career diplomat narrates a harrowing tale of violence, perfidy and above all a lust for power that has brought insufferable sorrow to the proud people of this region who call themselves Pashtuns.
While it is true that Afghanistan has had a history of brutal rulers, the author laboriously points out that the supposedly ‘civilized’ British weren’t any better. He notes that a recurring feature of their influence in Afghanistan in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were periodic bursts of paranoia about an impeding Russian invasion.
Note: The Durand Football Tournament or Durand Cup is a Football competition in India named after Sir Mortimer Durand. It was first held in 1888 and is the oldest football tournment in Asia and the third oldest football tournament in the world. (Wikipedia)
This led to a frenzied ‘forward push’ to enable the establishment of a pliable buffer state. Unfortunately, the strong minded Pashtuns proved anything but pliant. And so, a churn of British machinations to depose one ruler for another ensued. Agreements were signed and forgotten; British emissaries were sent and ever so often brutally murdered. Fresh rounds of ruthless retaliation then ensued with entire marketplaces and townships being razed to the ground. This entire macabre spectacle repeats itself, over and over again in Dogra’s narration of Afghan history. And yet, in the end the British never succeeded in controlling the indomitable Pashtuns for any reasonable period of time.
The crux of the book however, lies in the setting up of events leading to and following the establishment of the so-called ‘Durand Line’- the current border between Pakistan and Afghanistan named after the British diplomat Mortimer Durand. In a series of incisive chapters Dogra vociferously argues against the border that has divided the land of Pashtuns into two. He first questions the suspicious circumstances under which the brief, undetailed agreement was signed by the Afghan Amir in a language he didn’t understand. Moreover, he questions the role of a wily British double agent and trusted aide of the Amir, Sir Salter Pyne in the signing of the agreement. Cryptically, while both Durand and Pyne were awarded the ‘Order of the Star India (CSI)’ Award immediately after the agreement, very little is known about the latter.
Dogra then moves on to the technicalities of the line by arguing that the British held a consistent view well into the twentieth century that the line only demarked ‘spheres of influence’ and not territorial rights, and hence, was a frontier rather than a border. He quotes leading British parliamentarians, secretaries of states and even ex-Viceroys of India to bolster his case. He claims that the sudden change to a hard border was the effect of Churchill’s diktat of “keeping a bit of India” in order to secure strategic British interests, leading to the eventual establishment of Pakistan. Finally, he argues against the legality of the transfer of Afghan territorial rights from Britain to Pakistan.
In this wide-sweeping book, Dogra also pens a few chapters on the present and uncertain future of this nation. He cautions that Afghanistan lies nestled between a volatile cocktail of nuclear armed nations—an expansionist China and increasingly muscular Russia on one side and militaristic Pakistan (a diminished yet key American ally) on another, with the rogue Taliban playing an overarching role. Depressingly then, Afghanistan’s geography may yet continue to condemn it well into the twenty-first century.
FLYING OVER THE HIMALAYA—Peak Identification
Tamotsu (Tom) Nakamura. Pp. 233, 180 colour photos, maps. (Nakanishiya Shuppan, Kyoto Japan, 2019, Yen 8000/USD 75).
Tom san is well known for his travels in Western China, Sichuan or East of Himalaya as he calls it. Almost single-handedly he has opened this area to knowledge and future. Whatever he does, it is with passion and perseverance.
It took him 20 years to compile and identify peaks that make up this book. All pictures are taken from the air, requiring more than 20 flights on routes like Kathmandu to Lhasa, Kathmandu to Chengdu, Yushu and Lhasa to Ali, across the Tibetan plateau. He has taken hundreds of photos (Canon EOS 50mm~250mm and Canon PowerShot S95 35mm~100mm) and consulted many maps to identify each peak of the Himalaya seen on these routes. The result is this classic large size book. It will help climbers, students and researchers to understand the vastness of the Himalaya. There is so much to climb and explore in the range.
The areas from the Karakoram to West Sichuan Highlands are covered in 11 well-distributed sections. Peaks of each area are identified, and some from different angles. Many areas not open for exploration for political reasons but are now open to knowledge. This is the work of a lifetime – a book that defies time as mountains are not going to change.
Towards the end of the book, he has presented a list of his lifetime of work from 1934 to 2019. The scope of his accomplishments is amazing. He has travelled to many parts of the world and addressed many Alpine Clubs. He is an Honorary Member of nine Alpine Clubs, including the Himalayan Club, and the recipient of the Busk Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, London (2008). In 2016 he received the Piolet d’Or, Asia, Lifetime Achievement Award and in the following year the Japanese government honoured him with an Award for Lifetime Sports Achievement. All well deserved.
Personally, I am thankful to him for help that I have received almost instantly, which is his nature. When I was exploring Arunachal Pradesh, I received invaluable inputs from him with maps of Russian and Chinese origin. The routes I followed and mountains I saw are well covered in this book as aerial views. He generously shares the wealth of information and resources he has.
But I have one complaint. The book does not cover many parts of the Indian Himalaya, like Kashmir, Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Sikkim, not from the south anyway. Perhaps the restrictions of the Indian government are responsible. Hopefully that is for another book, energetic Mr Tom san!
HAM BHI GHUMAKKAD THHEY (in Hindi) [We Too Were Wanderers]
Dr. Sher Singh Pangtey. Pp 280, B/w 16 Photographs / Illustrations (Tribal Heritage Museum Munsyari, Pithoragarh, INR 400)
Pandit Nain Singh Rawat, also known as ‘pundit,’ in the International Geological Survey fraternity was a legendary surveyor. His name evokes the spirit of adventure in the hearts of travellers across the globe. His writings on Himalaya in general and Uttarakhand in particular, have remained a great source of inspiration and curiosity for later explorers. Pandit Nain Singh Rawat literally walked across the length and breadth of Tibet, sometimes as a porter and mostly as a man on a surveying mission. And while he walked, he not only kept a count of number of steps taken, but also maintained a daily diary of his journeys.
This book is a simplified translation of his diary. It is in Hindi, the language spoken in most parts of Indian side of Himalaya. The book has two parts, part one details early days of Nain Singh Rawat, his first journey as a porter, and simplified translations of his diary entries. Part two details his original diary entries the way he wrote it with a vernacular touch.
Nain Singh Rawat accomplished amazing feats as a surveyor, sometimes disguised as a ‘bushahri pahadi’ and sometimes as a monk to avoid the vigilant eyes of Chinese. The narration of all these events keeps you glued to the book. The first chapter details how Nain Singh Rawat became an explorer by a sheer stroke of luck. And once opportunity knocked at his doors, fuelled by his passion to scale mountains and break free from the chains of poverty, Nain Singh never looked back. The author, a native of the Uttarakhand Himalaya himself, having lived in the same region as Nain Singh Rawat has fittingly described what it meant to be poor in that region back in the day and what it meant for Nain Singh to escape from that vicious cycle.
While everyone knows about Nain Singh the explorer, this book also throws light on Nain Singh the educator. After his first journey to Ladakh in 1856, which turned out to be bit disappointing, Nain Singh almost gave up on his dreams of exploring the high Himalaya. Afterwards, he worked as a school teacher until 1863. His commendable efforts to educate the children of the valley and his passion to uplift the youth of his region by means of education are well narrated.
The second part of the book gives insights into his original diary. Because the writing style has a vernacular touch, it does become a bit trying to understand some of the sentences.
Overall, this book is a great read, bringing to fore many aspects of Nain Singh’s personality which were hitherto unknown to the general public. As you flip through the pages of this book, you get to know not only the journeys Nain Singh made but also the person he was.
Pangtey, who authored several books on Uttarakhand’s history, folk and culture, had knocked on various doors in in the upper Himalayan villages to personally collect items for the Munsiary museum. He passed away in 2017.
Nain Singh, before the world of Trigonometric Surveying welcomed him, walked the traditional route taken by shepherds of Himachal in Chamba-Lahaul. He crossed the 4900 m high Chobia pass in 1854. It gives me immense pleasure to know that a legendary explorer walked on my side of Himalaya too.
EDMUND HILLARY—A Biography
Michael Gill. Pp. 542, illustrated. (Vertebrate Publishing, Sheffield, 2017, GBP 24).
“It is not the mountain that we conquer but ourselves”. This epic quote by an equally epic personality reminds us of the very essence of mountaineering. Thus a biography of that person—Sir Edmund Hillary—would create ripples for obvious reasons, even more so as it is his centenary birth anniversary.
Edmund Hillary—A Biography is the story of a New Zealand beekeeper who became the first human in history to have climbed Mount Everest. A man who against expedition orders drove his tractor to the South Pole, a man honoured around the world for his pioneering climbs yet who collapsed on more than one occasion on a mountain, and a man who gave so much to Nepal yet lost his family to its mountains.
There were many biographies, some written by the man himself (as he said ‘I write my own books!’). But this is a story from another person’s perspective. The author, Michael Gill was a close friend of Hillary for more than 50 years; he accompanied him on many expeditions and was involved in Hillary’s aid work—building schools and hospitals in the Himalaya. He also had access to a large archive of private papers and treasured photographs after Hillary’s death in 2008. Building on this unpublished material as well as his extensive personal experience Michael Gill profiles a man whose life was shaped by both triumph and tragedy.
The first two chapters of the book are about his grandparents and parents that create a backdrop to Edmund’s life. It was evident where Ed’s affinity for adventure came from along with apathy towards war. Living in the first half of twentieth century has affected the lives of millions through World War I and II and this family was no exception. These chapters also provide a socio-economic context and an understanding of New Zealand of those days.
Chapter 3 introduces the readers to Ed’s childhood and growing years. It is said that every event in one’s life shapes a person and prepares him for the future. It was no different for Ed. He had a happy childhood like most other kids. Despite that and being a genius in junior school, he was basically lonely. However the long arduous train journey to high school everyday taught him to excel and fight back in every situation.
The next chapter describes miserable years with no academic ambition and pitiable social skills. These years are marked by failing university exams and getting involved in the family’s beekeeping business which made him physically strong and capable of carrying huge loads on his back. This phase also introduced him to mountains which later, defined his life. He got know about the school of Radiant Living which brought harmony and helped him find answers. It gave him much needed confidence and improved his writing, story telling and public speaking skills.
The excellence of any human being is catalysed by few events, opportunities and a mentor. Chapters 5 and 6 narrate the story of Hillary’s air force training that gave him ample chances of trudging the mountains and climbing peaks. But mentor Harry Ayres turned him from a amateur mountaineer to one of the best mountaineers in New Zealand with great technical skills.
But the experience of big mountains was yet to be tested. Chapter 7 and 8 narrates the story of him getting invited to climb in Garhwal Himalaya. Though he couldn’t summit either Neelkanth or Mukut Parvat, the experience provided him with a big lesson: Conserve energy for the crux of the climb rather than consuming it at the beginning. Later he got a British invitation to join the Everest reconnaissance in 1951. He built a rapport with British climbers and it provided an opportunity to acclimatize at higher altitude—this was the stepping stone towards being selected for the epic 1953 Mt. Everest expedition.
The next five chapters discuss earlier Everest expeditions which were instrumental in planning for this expedition.
The most important section of the book provides minute details about planning and execution of the big Everest summit story. This reviewer felt goose bumps while reading about the summit moment. It also talks about who touched the summit first.
The next chapter talks of another defining moment of his life. But happiness or sorrow never linger long enough. An expedition the following year brought about a serious and lifelong health problem, preventing him from climbing to extreme altitudes He then changed his focus to Antarctica.
There are intricate details of the political situation driving the Antarctica expedition. This trip was legendary as Ed drove a tractor! Post Antarctica he was involved in expeditions in different parts of the world besides public speaking and writing assignments. But of foremost importance was to serve Nepali people over the next few decades.
The good times didn’t last long as a tragic incident put Ed in depression and changed him as a person forever.
The events mentioned in this book are all well known. Sir Hillary himself has written three autobiographies. But what makes this book stand apart is the neutral stand on different events. It also provides a context to each character so that readers feel connected.
The book never raises Ed to a pedestal. Rather it presents him as an ordinary man with many flaws and extraordinary grit, a man who faced success and failures in equal proportion, a tough man with great empathy towards friends, colleagues, family, countrymen and others followers around the world. But most importantly a person who touched millions of heart and changed their lives for good!
ONE MAN’S CLIMB—A journey of Tragedy & Triumph of K2
Adrian Hayes. Pp. 234, 4 colour pages/20 photos. (Pen & Sword Books Ltd., 2018, GBP 12.99 / USD 19.95).
Why would anyone want to climb K2? Though it is the second highest mountain in the world, it is arguably the most difficult and dangerous of all the eight-thousanders; a mountain which has claimed the life of one climber from every four it has allowed to summit. Adrian Hayes tries to answer this all-important question at the start of his book and the answer is not as simple as George Mallory’s famous quote for Everest—“Because it’s there.” Whether to agree or not with Adrian is up to the reader to decide, but his logic and reasoning cannot be faulted.
One Man’s Climb describes the painstaking preparations which are required to have a reasonable chance of success on K2. But as the story unfolds you realize that in addition to all the planning and execution you still require a sprinkling of luck and co-operation from nature, without which the best laid plans, can come to naught.
When reading the book, the reader will also appreciate how thin the line is between success or failure and life or death on such a quest. How circumstances can lead to even the most experienced people in their field to err in judgement, leading to the most tragic endings.
If you have ever set for yourself a challenging goal, then you will be able to relate to the author’s intense and innovative physical training regime. You will be able to justify the sacrifices which the author made in terms of family for achieving such a prize. You will understand the complete focus and determination and the mental state of mind one must be in to successfully accomplish a feat like summiting K2.
Reading this book, you will definitely take in some important lessons on life, relationships and teamwork. Many parallels can be drawn between what was so important for success during the course of the expedition and how the same can be implemented in our daily lives. This is also a book about human emotions because climbing a mountain as difficult and dangerous as K2 is as much of a mental game as it is physical.
One Man’s Climb is a great read and is recommended for adventure enthusiasts and armchair enthusiasts alike. At the end it will make you reflect on the priorities in your life and what we are losing out by living in this increasingly connected world.
LAND OF LOST BORDERS—A Journey on the Silk Road
Kate Harris. Pp. 305,13 photos, 1 map. (Harper Collins books, New York, 2018, USD 24.99).
When one hears of the Silk Road or Silk Route, it evokes a sense of romance, adventure and nostalgia. The Silk Road is a trading route which linked China to the West. It saw caravans trade silk, tea and other goods to the west and gold, silver, wool and animals to the east. It is widely thought as the route which brought the plague bacteria responsible for the Black Death pandemic in mid-14th century Europe. During the eighteenth through the twentieth century, it was the stage for the Great Game between Russia and Britain. Currently, it is fragmented into numerous countries and concrete roads, an aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Republic. In current times, new ideas of reviving it with a trans-continental railway across various countries has emerged.
Harris’ book covers some of the Silk Road’s dusty recesses or more recent tribunals. She travels parts of this road on her bicycle with her childhood, red-haired friend Mel. She bicycles the paths for a different reason. A world where digital connectivity is a birth right and a sense of adventure conjures a different meaning, Harris is portrays it as a personal journey and experiences of her 27 years existence – less than 1% of the time for which the silk route has existed and more importantly seen events and transformations far more epical, brutal and interesting.
Harris weaves her story in a personal narrative of her experiences and what she thinks were her struggles. Her childhood with her siblings in Canada, her ambition to go to Mars, a personal struggle to overcome a broken relationship, a short stint at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, to answer the question of Siachen Conflict through scientific collaboration and eventually dropping out of MIT’s microbiology programme since freedom and travel made more sense to her than sitting in the laboratory working on bugs which survive in extreme environments. These confines of walls constrain her idea of freedom and roaming the unknowns. A fourth of the book dwells on these parts and personal borders.
Traversing the silk route on a bicycle across by any stretch of imagination is an intriguing and a challenging proposition. But she is covers almost forty per cent of it by train or air. This does not make this book exactly a journey through the Lands of Lost Borders an adventure or an exploration. It misses the nuances and the fractals of history, cultures, geography, brutality, politics, conflicts, science, ecology and people which lace the Silk Road.
Kate and Mel start their journey in Istanbul, through Central Asia, western China, Nepal and culminating it in Leh. Her prose is poetic but research on various subjects could have been better. She does bring out the nuance of leaving the newly formed borders alone for the ecology and wildlife to heal and the roles of peace parks between conflict zones to ease political tensions. With her narratives she is desperately trying to seek the meaning of freedom. Unfortunately, the narrative moves around with her and her friend on their bicycle like a personal halo with a hint of hubris and subjective conjectures.
I was too good at school … After being on an achievement bender most of my life, the prospect of withdrawal, of doing anything without external approval, or better yet acclamation, kept me obediently between the lines I couldn’t even recognize as lines.
Nature is typically the victim of our blunt and inflexible borders, with barbed wire and brick walls fragmenting ecosystems into useless bits…
The book has thirteen black and white photos at the beginning of each chapter and only a single map. It does not help follow the journey through such vast country. Finally this book with its brilliant title and a daunting idea of adventure is short on what it promises.
I wish Kate had ventured further west of Leh to Tithwal in Kashmir, her poetic verse would have done wonderful justice to Lands of Lost Borders not just on maps but also in hearts and minds of the Kashmiri people who deal daily with lost borders.
TALES FROM THE HIMALAYA.
Henry Edmundson. Pp. 423, 171 Photos, 11 Maps. (Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2019, USD 59.50).
Spread over India, Tibet, Pakistan, Bhutan and Nepal, the Himalaya has played a major role in shaping the socio-economic, cultural and religious compositions of these regions. Geologically, the Himalaya is a complex mountain system, but equally complex are its people, their way of life, history and politics.
Our understanding of the Himalaya in terms of documentation is very recent. People have inhabited these regions since time immemorial and have crossed over high passes and remote areas for purposes of trade and exchanges. While these trade routes were more or less orally handed down generations, it was only in the mid-19th century that the British undertook the exercise of mapping and documenting the range with the intention of furthering their prospects. Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan being virtually closed to foreigners were completely shrouded in mystery until recent times.
Tales from the Himalaya is Henry Edmundson’s personal perspective of diverse aspects that impact life and living in this region. After over five decades of trekking and climbing in this region, Henry is in a position and authority to mark the changes that have occurred over time and how people from various walks of life have been impacted by them. Having developed an affinity and understanding of the people he has interacted and associated with, Henry now has a deep insight into the cultural, religious, societal and political composition of the local inhabitants.
The book is categorized under the themes of religion, geological understanding, regional politics and societal constructs to highlight the life of people here. The impact of historical events has been analyzed from the perspective of these four themes and how they shape and influence modern society.
Travelling in the mountains over decades and interacting with his support staff from the local communities, Henry has been deeply influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. Though Hinduism, Islam, Jainism and Buddhism in many variations exist in the Himalaya, Henry has chosen to focus on the Tibetan branch of Buddhism. The western fascination for this esoteric religion is very evident in his narrative. The fact that Tibetans are the only large community of people in this region to be displaced from their homeland, a direct consequence of their religious beliefs and strong refusal to follow China’s diktats is highlighted. The author’s historical narrative delves into the origin of the various off-shoots of Buddhism and how Tibetan Buddhism which is very different from the original preaching of Buddha, evolved. The political ramifications between India and China caused by granting asylum to the 14th Dalai Lama when he fled from Chinese atrocities and how it has impacted the way these two countries engage with each other has been discussed under the tales of politics.
The author considers the era of the Great Game that played out amongst various contenders wanting to exact influence over Central Asia and the subcontinent, led to a spate of expeditions and explorations that have contributed to our current knowledge of the Himalaya and how this geological feature affects the lives of people in this region. Our current understanding of tectonic plates and how a seismic activity along fault lines cause earthquakes is as recent as the 1960s. The fragile Himalayan belt lies along a major fault line and is a sensitive zone for major seismic activity. The formation of these young mountains and the physical composition that they present was a great puzzle that baffled many leading geologists. The history of geological exploration and theorizing about the formation of Himalaya has been a fascinating one. Equally fascinating have been the technological advancements that have enabled one to assess and prove the formation of these mountains. Accurate prediction of seismic activity and earthquakes can be a game changer when it comes to saving lives of people here.
Since ancient times, Himalayan kingdoms have always been in skirmish against each other, displaying power play and land grabbing prowess. The third tale focuses on the politics of this region and how British rule and policies have continued to influence the present day political scenario. Be it the current Kashmir situation or the way India engaged with Sikkim before its annexation or the manner in which India deals with Nepal or Bhutan have all been an outcome of British influence. The boundary issues between India and China too have their roots in British diplomacy. The Great Game has been a game changer for all stakeholders here and continues to impact current politics.
His final narrative digs into the complex feudal system of the underprivileged Nepalese society. The story of a society struggling to rise above penury despite much international support and aid is a story of a society deeply mired in traditional casteism, upper handedness of the high caste and the Maoist insurgency which is trying to root out this evil. This is the sad story of a society unwilling to give itself a chance to a better life.
With remarkable pictures, illustrations and maps, Henry Edmundson has brought to life each of these stories. The gripping accounts, his insight and depth while presenting an understanding of the entire Himalayan region is unique and outstanding. This book is a rare combination of history, geography, society and politics that can cater to a wide range of audience.
THE HIMALAYAN ARC—Journeys East of South-East
Edited by Namita Gokhale. Pp 333, 8 B/W Photographs (Harper Collins Publishers, Noida, INR 699). Also available on Amazon Kindle.
When you pick up a book about Himalaya, usually you are inclined to think that it has something to do with the hidden valleys, lofty peaks, climbing and obscure trails, forgotten trade paths or sometimes with the flora and fauna untouched by humanity. However, as you read through this book, you realize that you could not be farther from the truth. This book is anything but it is not another attempt to capture in words the indescribable beauty of Himalaya. This book is about Himalaya but it’s also a book about the way ‘life’ happened to people who lived in their close proximity, just the way it happens to the rest of us.
The Himalayan Arc is a collection of short stories and poems. There are 28 short stories and seven poems in total and each one of them is better than the previous one. The stories are based over different eras, some dating back as far as 18th century. Together, these stories make a string of pearls held together by a common thread: Himalaya. Those pearls don’t look the same for they are stories of different people, their lives and experiences, unfolding at different times and regions in the lap of Himalaya. Yet these multicoloured pearls are woven in such a manner that they all look indispensable to each other.
What is unique about this book is that though the narratives are based in Himalaya, it brings to fore the influence these mountains had on the lives of people inhabiting them, even if it was for a brief period in time. Sometimes you’re gawking at the vastness of the Gorkha empire and a few pages later you’re wondering about the Tibetan world that we’ve lost to the communists. Towards the end of the book, you read about Su Kyi’s struggle in Burma and question its relevance in the modern world.
The stories are told by an array of writers, who spent a better part of their lives in mountains and could not decide whether it was the mountains who were holding them back or they themselves, from moving on. How some of them had a bittersweet romance with them, wishing to go back and live in their shadows forever but knowing that they left for the better but they are still not able to come to terms with the finality of never going back. How a monarch hopes to make his country, the happiest in the world but still trying to preserve their ancient traditions. The stories don’t follow each other like they do in a typical Himalayan book that takes you on an expedition, yet all the stories seem to be connected with each other at a deeper level.
This book gives the reader a sneak peek into the lives of people who wittingly or otherwise found themselves in these mountains, from different parts of the world for different reasons and how it left an indelible mark on their minds and souls forever.
These are reviews of three books on the little known northeast region.
THE OXFORD INDIA ELWIN
Verrier Elwin—Selected writings. Pp. 351. (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2009, INR 795)
Verrier Elwin is a household name to anybody even slightly interested in the tribal culture of Central and North East India. This book is a compilatory selection from all the major books written by Elwin through his working life. The various chapters not only bring out the phenomenal work done by Elwin in the field of documenting tribal culture, but more importantly bring to light his lifelong effort for the overall welfare of the mistreated tribal communities.
Verrier Elwin was an English born Oxford alumnus, who dedicated the most part of his life working amongst the much neglected tribal people of Central India. He was instrumental in unveiling the civilization of India’s tribal communities. For the first five years in India he mainly participated in the freedom struggle with leaders like Jamnalal Bajaj, Sardar Patel and Gandhiji, who eventually motivated him to work with tribal communities. Finally in 1932 he started with his lifelong associate Shamrao Hivale, to the jungles of Maikal Hills, living with various tribal communities for the rest of his life.
For eighteen years he worked solely in Central India, so most of the passages are from his work in that region. The opening passage talks about his experiences with various tribes like Gonds, Baiga and Agaria interweaving cultural facts with his experience with the locals, in his typical humorous style. As one reads further, you get to learn about various aspects of smaller tribes like Muria, Bondo, Saora, whose existence most people don’t even know about. Some of the pieces are heavy reading with intricate details. Elwin mentions religion, dances, songs and various traditions, reflecting his passion towards them.
What is even more inspiring is his approach, continuously fighting for their rights and getting them justice.
In 1950 he started the second innings of his work life, travelling through the remote frontiers of the north east, in those days labelled as North East Frontier Agency. He was immediately captivated by the awe inspiring landscapes and hospitality of the local communities in those parts. His zeal for exploration took him to remote places like Daporijo in the Subansiri valley, Tuting in the Siang valley and Tirap. One can well imagine the difficulty he must have faced to visit these places, which even today are difficult to reach. The last few sections are drawn from the four books he wrote on this region, talking about the art, independent culture and democratic systems of the Indo – Mongoloid tribes.
The book, which at times gets a bit heavy with details, is a good read for those interested in tribal culture and welfare.
SKY IS MY FATHER—A Naga Village Remembered
Easterine Kire. P. 175. (Speaking Tiger Publishing, New Delhi, 2003, INR 350).
Historically every Naga village was an independent kingdom in itself, with no village ruling over the other. In those days it was common practice to raid other villages, for head hunting as well as to prove dominance. as an act of strength. One such village which stood above the rest was the village of Khonoma, which is the setting for this book. This village of the Angami tribe (one of the sixteen Naga tribes) was fabled as a warrior village, with a long history of fighting against British invasion.
This is a well-researched book by award winning author Easterine Kire, who herself is in Angami. It is set in the 19th century, a cusp period for the Nagas, with the penetration of the British and Christian missionaries. Through the eyes of Levi, the protagonist of the story, she masterfully brings to life the oral narratives, taboos, festivals, village life and history of Khonoma in the pre British era.
The initial three chapters make for a slow read, with difficult to remember names and cultural introductions. But as the story unfolds, it becomes interesting as she artistically colours the day to day life of the Angami tribe from Khonoma. We learn a great deal about Angami culture as she talks about the village structure, the Thehou or male dormitory – the central institution of the village, the field work and Gena days, the various taboos, the marriage and death customs.
In the midst of life in Khonoma, Easterine skilfully introduces well researched historical facts of the many battles the people of Khonoma fought against the British. She details the siege of Kohima laid by Khonoma with assistance from other Angami villages, literally bringing the British to their knees, and the retaliatory attack led by Colonel Johnstone. She showcases the bravery of the people and the sense of independence every Naga village had of not being ruled by anyone else.
All in all a great read for those interested in the culture and history of the little known state of Nagaland.
JANGAM—A forgotten exodus in which thousands died
Debendranath Acharya. Translated by Amit Baishya. Pp. 365. (Vitasta Publishing, New Delhi, 2018, INR 399).
The novel written originally in Assamese by Debendranath Acharya won the Sahitya Academy Puraskar in 1984, and has now been translated into English by Amit Baishya. The book is based on actual events from World War II, recounting the story of the exodus of an estimated 4,50,000–5,00,000 Burmese-Indians who fled the Japanese invasion and ethnic violence in Burma by escaping into Assam in British India across densely forested mountains and fierce rivers, fording through a merciless terrain.
At the heart of the story is Ramgobinda, who with other Indian Burmese resides in the village of Manku, near Mandalay. When the news of Rangoon falling to the Japanese, and of Burmese rebels killing Indians, reaches Manku, Ramgobinda and the other Indians in the village are alarmed. They plan to leave Burma immediately, and thus begins their treacherous journey to Assam.
The word Jangam, translates to movement, though in this novel it also means exodus. Acharya continuously alludes to the ‘movement’ the refugees have to make in their struggle to live, despite all the hurdles and hopelessness the journey throws at them. Hope and despair run together through the narrative as the refugees lose their belongings and their sanity, with the fear of death their constant companion.
This book holds an important place in history, talking about an event which has conveniently been erased from the annals of World War II. Through the story Acharya reiterates the dark side of war on humanity, and the will to survive against all odds.