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Sleeping upon a mountain

Mukul Mangalik | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on February 27, 2015
Awe and majesty: Stephen Alter writes, ‘A climber’s hands can feel the rocks long before he touches the mountain’. Photo: K. R. Deepak

Awe and majesty: Stephen Alter writes, ‘A climber’s hands can feel the rocks long before he touches the mountain’. Photo: K. R. Deepak   -  The Hindu

Becoming a Mountain: Himalayan Journeys in Search of the Sacred and the Sublime; Stephen Alter; Non-fiction; Aleph; ₹495

Becoming a Mountain: Himalayan Journeys in Search of the Sacred and the Sublime; Stephen Alter; Non-fiction; Aleph; ₹495

A poetic and exceptional account of the explorations and essence of the Himalayas

Stephen Alter’s Becoming a Mountain is an extraordinary travelogue. Carefully chosen words strung together in simple prose resurrect memories of Sacred Waters, Alter’s memorable account of journeys on foot along old pilgrim trails to the multiple sources of the Ganga in Garhwal. The urge to seek out ‘spectacular view(s) of the high Himalayas… Bandarpunch… its twin turrets of ice trimmed with sunlight… Nanda Devi… delicate as a moth with folded wings’, appears to be even stronger now, as does Alter’s love of forests and wildlife. Darwa Top and other ‘bugyals’ remain, for him, ‘the summer gardens of the goddess’. Dodital, ‘its clear water the colour of moss agate’, is still irresistible, while the shades of rocks around Kailash fascinate him no end. The craving to be awake at daybreak, because ‘at no other time… do the mountains seem so alive, so full of sounds and smells’, is as intense as ever, the lust for air that ‘has never been breathed before and light (that) is young’, unquenchable.

Folklore and mythological stories — often contesting versions — continue to animate ‘the natural splendour of the Himalayas with echoes of an epic imagination’, helping Alter understand social relationships and everyday life. Remarkably, despite his deep awareness of ‘the mountain and the goddess’ he chooses, at times, to write tentatively, ‘I have looked at this mountain all my life… yet… the mountain’s myths and its natural history have an elusive, enigmatic quality.’ It is equally significant that while recognising the impact of myths on historical processes, Becoming a Mountain is emphatic about distinguishing historical personages and events from the mythological, Alter’s ‘convictions as an atheist reaffirmed by the material reality of Kailash’.

Conversations with people and environmental activists are woven into the fabric of both books. Becoming a Mountain stands out, however, for its accounts of exploration and climbing around Nanda Devi, Bandarpunch and Kailash-Manasarovar, not least because of the poetic empathy with which Alter writes, ‘A climber’s hands can feel the rocks long before he touches the mountain.’ Equally singular is its unequivocal critique of religious tourism and Hindutva, ‘the politicized face of Hinduism has evolved into a grotesque visage spouting dogma, prejudice and venal theologies… Natural phenomena are turned into religious metaphors and then debased by the tawdry embellishments of faith. Even ancient myths lose resonance here.’

A thread binds the journeys which Alter writes about in Sacred Waters, but the three journeys that cradle Becoming A Mountain are ‘driven mostly by a need to overcome the physical and emotional trauma of a violent incident’ in 2008, when Alter and his wife Ameeta were brutally assaulted at their home, Oakville, Mussoorie. A chill runs down the spine reading about the attack, the sheer terror experienced and the terrible ‘sense of violation and loss… as if I have become a stranger within the sheltering mountains of my birth’.

Alter, the scars still eroding his ‘physical and mental confidence’, seeks healing, solace and calm, the feeling that all that he has lost is restored, and ‘the simple contentment that frees us from terror, anguish and anxiety’ . This quest for the sacred, his own reflections on walking the mountains, combined with his immersion in the histories of wandering, as also in the varied meanings of faith and of mountains for human beings, prompt Alter to scale ‘those staircases of rock’ on Bandarpunch, and undertake journeys to Nanda Devi and Kailash, climbs that leave him with feelings of ‘reverence as well as trepidation’. This is possible because like Aldo Leopold, who urges us to ‘think like a mountain’, or Tom Longstaff, who wrote ‘To know a mountain you must sleep upon it’, Alter too seeks ‘to surrender to the mountains with humility’. Instead of ‘conquering and colonising high places,’ he tries to ‘become like the mountains’. This constitutes the book’s distinctive core and is a wonderful prescription for wayfarers and travellers. Alter’s suggestion, however, that Becoming a Mountain could also work as a panacea for 2013-like Himalayan disasters, may at best be a necessary first step in confronting capitalism’s tightening grip on landscapes and minds, rather than a complete solution.

Interestingly, a hint of this core concern is present towards the end of Sacred Waters, ‘whatever I encountered seemed to lie within myself, as if the snow peaks and the waterfalls, the glacier and the river, the rocks and the flowers, had been absorbed into my body’. To the extent that the new book appears to take off from where the old ended, it is very likely that even if Alter and Ameeta had not been ‘touched by evil,’ he would still have served up a similar, though differently textured treat, rooted in other ‘Himalayan Journeys’ undertaken at some other time.

Memories came alive while reading this book, a silent tribute welling up towards the end for shoemaker Staudinger, who, in his 80s and fit as a fiddle, died walking his favourite mountain path in Tirol.

The book is over, the reading done, but Bruce Chatwin’s question, ‘What Am I Doing Here’ has taken hold as also a relentless urge to return to ‘old ways’, seeking to become a mountain.

(Mukul Mangalik is an associate professor of History, Ramjas College, DU, a keen mountain wanderer )

Published on February 27, 2015
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