Photographs never lie but they also never forget.
At least that’s what the old adage once had us believe. Cameras were considered omniscient instruments of truth, while a pen could only be as honest as the human mind, which directed our fingers to scribble words on a page. Hence, a book that contained both images and text combined the supposed infallibility of light with the inherent unreliability of language.
Today, technology has given us the paradox of digitized images and words, both of which are now made out of the same malleable stuff. On my iPhone screen, I can cut and paste sentences or paragraphs dictated through a voice recognition app while manipulating the colour, tint and contrasts in a picture taken on the same device! Of course, there was a time in the dark and distant past, when neither “word processing” nor “Photoshop” could be found in the Oxford dictionary. As someone surely must have pointed out already, in those days Apple was either a forbidden fruit or a record label and Amazon, a river in Brazil or possibly Raquel Welch in 100 Million BC (and if you don’t know what I’m talking about then Google it).
Wanderings Through the Garhwal Himalaya
All of this brings me, in a roundabout way, to the subject of a new book by Ganesh Saili, Wanderings Through the Garhwal Himalaya (Niyogi Books, November 2017), a photographic and literary tribute to his homeland. Though Saili has lived in the foothills of Mussoorie for most of his life, his roots lie in the heart of the Himalaya, overlooking the swift, glacier-fed waters of the Alakananda. He has the privilege of being a Garhwali but over the years, he has also acquired an outsider’s perspective through his research, teaching and travels. This new book is both a personal journey that traverses ancestral landscapes as well as a panoramic view of the mountains seen from afar.
Unlike many glossy publications today, Wanderings in the Garhwal Himalaya is not entirely the product of digitised media. Most of the photographs were taken on Kodachrome film, which has its own recognizable pigments, textures and optical integrity. Saili’s images of the Himalaya come from half a century of peering through a viewfinder, while manually focusing his lens, setting f-stops and adjusting shutter speeds, often as he balanced at the edge of a precipice or lounged on a bugiyal meadow, high up in the mountains.
At the same time, his research, which underlies the narrative, comes from numerous volumes that line his study, rather than pre-packaged information procured online. Despite pilfering bookworms, of both the six and two-legged variety, Saili has been able to collect and preserve one of the most extensive libraries on the geography, history and cultural heritage of Garhwal. While his new book is full of first hand accounts of walkabouts in the hills, it also draws generously from sources like E. T. Atkinson’s Himalayan Gazeteer and Frank Smythe’s Valley of Flowers. But as he writes in his introduction, the true inspiration was his father who “had joined the male exodus from our village in the remote hills of Chamoli, in search of any job that would give him some money.” Years later, Ganesh’s father recalled how, as a young man of sixteen, he stood in a queue at the Rishikesh bus stand and bought the cheapest ticket available, which happened to take him to Mussoorie. In a sense, this book represents a reverse migration, a return to the inner mountains of Garhwal, on a quest for origins both personal and historical.
Chapter titles like, “Not So Quiet Flows the Yamuna,” “Travels With the Four-Horned Ram,” and “Mana’s Mystic Magic,” give a sense of the various destinations as well as the romance and nostalgia that guides his journeys. Photographs of terraced fields clad in yellow mustard blossoms, white snow peaks reflected in the frozen surface of a high altitude lake, or a sorrowful bride being carried away from home in a palanquin, complement the rustic stories that unspool, like raw wool yarn, rough-spun on a drop spindle.
Which takes me back to the essential process of writing and publishing a volume like this. Today the design of a book often seems to be as important as the contents, with computer graphics programs that lay out words and images in a way that catches the eye but constantly interrupts the text. A reader faces the challenge of focusing on the story, which is broken up into extended captions or simply serves as an abstract frame of words that set off the pictures. Fortunately, Saili’s publishers have restrained themselves and allowed his language and photography to stand together equally on the page, without intruding on each other.
I’m sure that this book would have made the author’s patriarchs proud, for it is dedicated to his grandfather, Govind Ram Saili’s memory, but more than that, it is like buying a one-way ticket back home.