No normal person can be left untouched or unmoved by mountains. And when you’re fortunate enough to be born and raised amongst the greatest, grandest mountains in the world, the mighty Himalaya, it’s pretty much given that they’re going to rule your life. They can impart fear and sorrow as well as sublime joy, and more riches than all the gold in the world. Stephen Alter, a “naturalized” American born and raised in Landour, Mussoorie, was one such lucky person — and he has given back to these mountains as much as they have given him in his lifetime, by writing an immense biography of this 2500 km long, 9 km high, shining mountain range.
Wild Himalaya is a well-organised book, with different sections dealing with different aspects of the mountain range. Naturally, we start at the beginning: how these monumental mountains rose up from the floor of the seabed due to continental drift — when the Indian subcontinent crashed into the rest of Asia millions of years ago. Alter delves into geology and geography, picking up ancient fossils as he treks. He moves smoothly into the next section dealing with the geography, the great physical attributes of the mountains: the mighty (and now threatened) glaciers, the rivers that are born here and become lifelines for the entire subcontinent, the climate (and how it’s being disastrously affected by global warming), the fetid wetlands, and the forests.
Sections on flora and fauna follow, detailing birds, insects (both of which make monumental migratory journeys) and mammals which have adjusted their lifestyles to suit the often hostile, severe conditions, be they snow leopards, red pandas, blue sheep or bears. In the section ‘Ancestral Journeys’, he outlines the stories of people who moved into these Himalayan landscapes and settled there, or just went up and down the mountains according to the seasons. There were also the pioneering explorers — brave, great, even venal and selfish — who mapped these mighty mountains west to east and north to south, surveying their heights and valleys and plotting the courses of their glaciers and rivers.
No Himalayan story could be complete without its army of mountaineers, that often grim bunch of men and women who were determined to get to the top, sometimes at any (occasionally selfish) cost. The peaks took their blood money too, as many perished on the slopes. Alter tells us of the strange psychology at work here: a climber is never happier than while climbing, though he or she may be in pain, exhausted and just driven upwards by grim determination and willpower. The relief when he or she is back safely down is enormous, but staying at home causes depression and they can’t wait to get up again. But as one famous mountaineer is credited with saying, it’s worth remembering that “you do not conquer Everest, Everest allows you to climb her.”
The final section deals with mythology, Himalayan art and legends — including of course the ever-elusive yeti. As much as it is about the Himalaya, this book is about the people who went there and lived there, whether as explorers, mountaineers, trekkers, surveyors, botanists, birdwatchers, biologists, geologists, farmers, shepherds, yogis and people mostly like you or me, who must get their dose of the mountains at least once a year. Alter has trekked north and south and east and west, meeting such people, observing festivals and listening to legends. Any mountain range as monumental will have attracted its share of superstitious and religious fervour — with the Himalayas it’s mainly Hinduism and Buddhism.
The problems associated with people and the mountains are also examined throughout the text: the effects of global warming (causing flash floods), our reckless meddling with the rivers, rampant damming (which could cause earthquakes), mountaineers and tourists littering everywhere, and (often hideous) infrastructure — like hotels springing up like warts on the slopes. In addition, the Forest Department (beginning with colonial times) ravaged the forests and grew what could produce a quick and hefty return on investment — often not the right choice, botanically and biologically speaking. As always, the driving force is getting obnoxiously rich very, very quickly and at any cost.
I would (if I could!) make this book mandatory reading for anyone planning to visit the Himalaya. (There are stupendous pictures too!) Hopefully, it will help you stop demanding wifi and cable TV from your hotel and make you go out to the window, and stand and stare. You can be sure, that as they have been doing for millennia, the mountains will reach out to you, and gently deflate your overblown ego in the best way possible.
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher