Under my byline

Mountain lines

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 19 September 2009


Denied the chance, by a beady-eyed weight-watching travel friend, to carry with me into the heights of Uttarakhand Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, I revenged myself by purchasing, at the highest (and wettest) place on our itinerary, a copy of Bill Aitken’s Touching upon the Himalaya: Excursions and Enquiries (Indus, 2004).

Now that I am back at sweat level in Delhi and have actually read the Goethe, I realise that young Werther would have made poor company. I would happily have pushed that relentless whiner off a cliff.

Aitken is, as always, a fabulous co-traveller. The book is a collection of his essays printed in the Himalayan Journal, organ of the Himalayan Club. It covers a terrific variety of mountain topics, most to do with the area Aitken himself inhabits, which is the area we were travelling through: Garhwal and Kumaon.

I snagged the lone copy of this book at the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam office in Ghangharia, a damp settlement in the crotchlike narrow valley between two awesome walls of slick black rock which leads, at the pointy end, to the Valley of Flowers and Hemkund, sacred to the Sikhs.

This was the highest point on our journey. Just beyond the final kink in the valley lay the fabled Valley of Flowers, above which Mt Kamet towers. But we couldn’t get there, because the rain had flooded the lone bridge and washed down a section of hillside. This was a sore blow to a seeker of height. We were limited to 11,000 feet. I had really wanted to rack up the zeros of altitude.

That night, amid the damp weather and disappointment, I opened up Aitken’s book and read: “There is the risk of sophistry in those who argue the Abode of Snow starts at the snowline. As a resident of the range I feel a hard-to-describe affinity with the lower and middle ranges precisely because of the interplay between — and matching character of — the terrain and people.”

He was totally right. From the brooding isolation of Ghangharia it was all downhill, back to homelier Raj-era sites like Kausani and Ranikhet. In the many buses and shared jeeps we took, I was lucky on occasion to sit next to a friendly and inquisitive Kumaoni with things to say that were foreign to my ears, but for whose revelations I had been primed by Bill Aitken. Such as the young man on leave from his job as a cook in Delhi who informed me that this road out of Gwaldum passed through dev bhumi, and that at night it was the playground of bagh (leopards) and chudails identifiable by the sound of anklets in the pitch blackness of night.

Or the weatherbeaten woman farmer with near-impenetrable dialect who patiently dissected the mutual relationships and places of origin of my fellow travellers in terms comprehensible to herself.

The difference is that Aitken went everywhere on foot. We went on wheels. Yet his book reminded me to keep an eye open for human and cultural geography as much as physical. Aitken appears to see on several planes at once: road, rail, pagdandi and trading route; livelihoods and technology; ways of speaking; people and their places; the lay of the land in terms of watersheds; the mountains as a sacred space, with the overlapping kingdoms of local divinities, Nanda Devi above them all; and much more. He offers a truly ground-level view. Not Kipling nor Corbett have Aitken’s immediacy for the modern-day traveller.

I feel as if, with Aitken’s book by my side, I got more than I had a right to expect on this road trip.


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