Above and beyond
It is a large room, and he a figure behind a broad desk at the far end. The wall to the right is a set of windows with an unusually wide door opening onto a broad balcony. On the long wall to the left is a panoramic photograph taken from the top of Mt Everest, in the snowy blue shade of morning and high altitude. On the wall nearest the entry is a mid-size oil painting of Registan Square in the city of Samarkand, Uzbekistan, with its three tall darwazas.
But one doesn’t see all this, not at first. Until well after I have crossed the room and settled into one of the stiff chairs on this side of the desk, the only thing I can see is Major H P S Ahluwalia.
It’s not just that the major is a big man, not his large turban, nor the powerful forearms revealed by his bush-shirt. It is the fact that his attentive, sceptical eyes focus on you the moment you enter, with little by way of welcoming gestures to distract from the scrutiny. That, and an impression of impatient energy, despite the fact that he is confined to a motorised wheelchair.
Hari Pal Singh Ahluwalia, 75, is the chairman and founder of the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre (ISIC) in Vasant Kunj, New Delhi, and this is his office. He is a soldier and war veteran and a respected Indian mountaineer. He was part of the first Indian team to reach the top of Mt Everest in 1965. We are meeting for tea.
The immediate occasion is the release of a book. It is called Tracing Marco Polo’s Journey: The Silk Route (Niyogi Books, 2011) and is his account of a 10-week expedition he led in summer 1994 through Central Asia, western China and Tibet — territories that, a millennium or more ago, were part of the wider Indian world of ideas, notably Buddhism. Ahluwalia, even then wheelchair-borne, did this arduous trip by road (mostly) with about a dozen fellow expeditioneers, including his wife and 11-year-old daughter, in Mahindra jeeps.
It took Ahluwalia seven years to get all the official permissions, especially from China. He got some support from China’s leader Deng Xiaoping’s son Deng Pufang, who is a wheelchair-bound paraplegic. Today, however, a road trip like this is virtually impossible.
The book is in coffee-table format but has more text than the typical picture book. Why wait so long to write it? Well, Ahluwalia explains, to begin with he lost his taped notes; they resurfaced only a couple of years ago. Then, he says, “We as mountaineers are not classic writers” — which is true — “but we are storytellers. [Even so,] it is important that all the links are correct. I needed to check the records. It took time.” So did finding a publisher and getting the book done.
His earlier books have been chiefly about mountaineering, in particular Mt Everest and its history of expeditions. All this came after his 1965 climb, a thrilling adventure that included a desperate search for crucial oxygen cylinders lost in an avalanche near the top of the mountain. Ahluwalia recovered the cylinders at last and was, therefore, able to summit on 29 May.
His description of the moment is reassuringly prosaic. “There’s a lot of anxiety, the mind works overtime, the body is working overtime. And then when you reach the summit it’s a beautiful moment of not only joy but (a) you’re worried, whether the weather is going to be good or not, in our case it was beautiful. It was so beautiful. You are close to the sky. It is deep blue and the feeling that you get is (b) that there is a job you had to do and the job is well done.”
“You will not,” he goes on, “have that feeling of bravado like some climbers, ‘I kicked the bastard’, that kind of thing.” That may be a reference to what the first Everester, Edmund Hillary, reportedly said after his ascent in 1953: “Well, we knocked the bastard off.”
Up there “on top”, Ahluwalia says, he looked south towards Nepal and India. Then he looked northward at “mysterious” Tibet and beyond, and felt the call of Central Asia. His expedition answered that call 30 years later.
“Climbing those days was different,” he says. He speaks with quiet contempt of “travel agents” at Everest base camp who fix ropes up to the summit and then charge “climbers” a steep fee to use this route. “That is not climbing.”
One climber he wholly approves of is Eric Shipton, who joined or led most of the British Everest expeditions of the 1930s; in 1951, Shipton helped identify one route to the summit. He also served as British consul at Kashgar in western China — twice, the second time with his young wife (though without their baby daughter).
Ahluwalia met Shipton and his wife in Delhi in the 1970s, while the idea for the Central Asia expedition was already growing in his mind. “Eric Shipton was a very fine person,” Ahluwalia says. “He told me a few stories about Central Asia, and that made me more certain that this is a good idea. It suited me because I was in a wheelchair and I couldn’t climb.”
Ahluwalia’s own story pairs triumph with tragedy in an almost movie-theatrical way. In 1965, war broke out with Pakistan. Just three months after his success on Everest. he says, “My CO called me up and said ‘Look, you’ve come after a very big adventure. This is another type of adventure and you’ll not get another chance. Come and join your unit in J&K.’ Which I did.”
The climber was posted as an instructor at the High Altitude Warfare School, but he soon went to the front. His unit came under fire, and that is when the young officer received the injury that confined him to a wheelchair. A bullet entered his neck and damaged his spine. His CO died in the same attack.
For Ahluwalia a long, painful and imperfect recovery followed. “What took two and a half years to do for me in various hospitals [including one in England], we [at ISIC] do in six to eight weeks.” The lack of expertise in India in spinal injuries is what led him to set up ISIC.
While he proudly describes the hospital and its various departments, overseas linkages and educational programme, a bearer brings in a belated “Tea or coffee?” and a quarter plate holding half-a-dozen digestive biscuits. This is the extent of our repast.
As we sip, the major urges me to take a biscuit. I do, he doesn’t, and I realise this is because his hands, though strong, cannot perform delicate work. (Later he says he has stopped taking photographs “because that fine pressing I cannot do”.) So this is why, I think, it took so long to set up this meeting; at a restaurant this difficulty would have been much more discomfiting.
He talks about the period after his injury. “I was unconscious for 15 days. Sometimes in your dreams you are skiing down a mountain, climbing a mountain, that kind of happy dreams. The moment you get up it was sad, because you saw yourself over a big slab of ice, temperature 105, and then felt it was better to remain unconscious than to go through all this. And so many tubes, so many tubes.” He has a sudden spasm, and gently thrashes his left hand against his thigh until it subsides.
The years he lay prone, he spent observing and thinking. Later, when he began working to raise interest in his hospital project, the insights he gained from this low period turned out to have been useful. But it was only after his Central Asia expedition that he identified an ideal shape for his hospital. The building is a shrewd reinterpretation of the caravanserai-with-courtyard that Ahluwalia saw so many examples of along the way.
Being observant is essential for a mountaineer, soldier or traveller. This book, like the major’s earlier ones, is filled with insights and excerpts from the recorded observations of previous explorers whom he cannot praise enough — like Shipton, Francis Younghusband, the “pandits” Kishan and Nain Singh (Indian spies who walked across Central Asia and Tibet in disguise collecting information for the Survey of India at the turn of the last century).
Though he is not of their number, it is plain that he sees himself, in some small way, as one of their distant and grateful heirs.
(The photograph of the author at the top of this article is from the Wikimedia Commons, here.)