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Flights of Fancy

In the hill town where I live,most of my friends are trekkers.

In the hill town where I live,most of my friends are trekkers.

In the hill town where I live,most of my friends are trekkers. They come back after climbing up and down glaciers,sunburnt and wild-haired. Then,with inexplicable relish,they trade stories of how someone fell off a cliff and hasn’t been seen since; or how they spent days in soaking shoes when it rained non-stop; or how goats chased someone who had retreated behind a bush for some discreet communion with nature.

My earliest memory of a bathroom is a pair of holes in the grassy earth. My brother and I,both infants then,were led to these holes and told what they were by my geologist father,who ensured that we spent most of our early childhood in tents among mountains and trees. Once,out in the wilds,when my father had searched out a suitable clump of thick scrub,one of the bushes cleared its throat and told my father — before matters got more complicated — that it was not nettle,but part of an army unit on camouflage training.

It didn’t end at bathrooms. Those tents of the ’60s were mere canvas sheets held together with ropes. My mother tied us to herself at night so she’d feel a tug if a hyena decided to dine on her children. My brother could not walk in a normal house when introduced to one at age three. He thought boulders and moss were the fundamentals of flooring.

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So I listen to my friends’ stories with admiration,but never with longing. Since I live in the hills I can walk in the forests all day if I please — always knowing my warm bed and my blue-tiled loo are within reach. When my friends finish their trekking stories and leave,I put a pot of coffee on the hob,choose from the Himalayan travellers on my bookshelves,and go on a journey with one of them instead.

A favourite travel companion of mine is Frank Smythe. I inherited my copy of The Valley of Flowers from an elderly hill neighbour who gave me all his books before he died. His old blue hardback had been annotated in the margins in the days when he and his wife went on treks. The notes have little to do with Smythe’s poetic,contemplative prose,or his thoughts on solitude,freedom,nature,humankind. “Remember to take napkins for cleaning dishes etc”,says a scribble next to a paragraph about the expedition cook wiping dishes on his filthy shirt. Closely underlined are ration lists and reasons for climbing accidents.

Where Smythe is exhilarating for the poetic joy with which he evokes mountains and their flowers,travelling with Bill Aitken gives me history,philosophy,acerbic humour,and a detailed introduction to every aspect of hill life. In The Nanda Devi Affair,Aitken writes of a peak I can see from my window,which sometimes looks like the face of a hooded woman,at others like the hump of a bull. Every subtle change in light alters it. It is forever mysterious,so much that people regard the peak as a divine being. Aitken,a young Scot fleeing Britain because of a failed love affair,had not been in India long when a glimpse of it made him understand he could exist nowhere else but at Nanda Devi’s feet.

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“For the first time in my life I was able to think,” Smythe had said in The Valley of Flowers when he reached the mountains. “I do not mean to think objectively or analytically,but to surrender thought to my surroundings.” This is the overriding feeling in Aitken’s writing as well. He plunges body and soul into the hills,his passion for the mountains,and Nanda Devi in particular,at once sensual and spiritual. He rejoices in the simplicity of life in the Himalayan interior,finding that happiness is a glass of cold water,a lump of molasses,and a wooden floor to sleep on.

Among the books I inherited was The Snow Leopard,in a broken-spined paperback. With Peter Matthiessen,you are searching for an elusive animal — but the animal is a pretext. You sense from the start that you won’t glimpse the leopard however high you climb and however close you seem to get. The snow leopard symbolises the ineffable,the immaterial,the just-beyond-reach. It is a deeply romantic travel book,as much a moving account of recovering from loss as it is about the mountains and Buddhism,and the delicate relationships between people imprisoned together on a tough journey.

Matthiessen’s companion on his travels was the biologist George Schaller,who was on the trail of the real,physical snow leopard,and a good companion to Matthiessen’s book is Schaller’s The Stones of Silence. Reading the two,it’s difficult to reconcile them as accounts of the same journey — which is one reason why they are greatly suited to being read together. Schaller’s prose is crisp and plain,his focus is wildlife. He scarcely spends any time talking of his own hardships. This,I discovered years later,when I met Schaller,is because he cares not at all for physical comfort but rejoices in the solitude of bleak,vast wildernesses which bring to him the animals he wants to study.

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Few books on the Himalayas are by women,but I did find one among a carton of books a friend had gifted me. At Home in the Himalayas is an account by Christina Noble of the process by which she fell under the same spell as Aitken; how,after a trek across the Western Himalayas,she could not bear to return to England and instead began living in Manali. With Christina,I wasn’t travelling across the ranges,I was visiting her at home: finding out how she married an Indian man,earned a living,learnt the local language,and brought up children far away from anything familiar. Domestic difficulties,battles with masons and plumbers,trekking,friendships,weddings,temple ceremonies: her book is an Out of Africa for the Himalayas.

In this,her book is a world apart from almost the only other book on the Himalayas by a woman that I’ve read. This is the American novelist Jamaica Kincaid’s Among Flowers,which takes you on a plant-collecting expedition through Nepal,her first.

She hates it. She is terrified of leeches and Maoists,fed up with village children who stare as if “we were a living cinema”. She detests hunting for bushes private enough to pee behind. She’s petulant about not finding plants she can grow back home. She mourns the lack of an umbrella. The umbrella becomes a recurring plaint,appearing every few pages.

I was ready to abandon her,infuriated by her grumpiness. It was only halfway through,when Kincaid began to interrupt her complaints with observations of startling beauty and intelligence that the penny dropped. She was making us travel with her,past bewilderment and misery and alienation and fear to the wonder and awe she would leave the mountains with: “Had I been the first person to walk on the moon,I don’t think I would be able to speak for one hundred years afterward… as it is…the foothills of the Himalayan mountains have left my tongue somewhat stilled,perhaps permanently so.”

(Anuradha Roy is the author of The Folded Earth and lives in Ranikhet)

First published on: 20-05-2012 at 11:16:42 pm
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