The breath does not come easily. Not because there´s too little air, but because there is too much. Every time I open my mouth, more oxygen than I require enters my lungs. 1 can feel the sacs resisting this intrusion, but the air pressure is too much. In the end, unable to withstand the effects of Low Altitude Sickness (LAS), I am bundled into a portable de-pressure sat ion chamber, the Pokhrel Bag, It is named after the Nepalganj doctor who invented it as an emergency measure to save highlanders from this lowland specific syndrome.
Inside the Pokhrel Bag, as the air was evacuated to simulate the Himalayan heights, I had time to meditate over how it is that I find myself here smack in the middle of the Grcal Plain of Bihar. I was in town to inaugurate and deliver die keynote address at a UNESCO-funded workshop entitled, “Stranded; How lo Take Advantage of Being in the Middle of Nowhere”.
As I said, the town is Muzaffarpur, and if you stand on your toes you can see Patna. That´s how flat it is. And it was this horizontality that first began to affect my health and wellbeing as soon as I got off the narrow gauge train from Jayanagar at die Nepalo-India frontier.
Without mountainous markers I was completely at sea, cr, plain. I kept searching for geographical signposts and there were none. Up where I live, that´s Makalu in the north and dint´s the Barun river jostling its way south. How do I orient myself here? There´s this mango tree coming up as 1 take the rickshaw to the conference venue, but its hardly any use as reference point. Mountains do not shift, but mango trees seem to.
The Great Plain is not only flat, it is also low. Here, we are barely four hundred feet above mean sea level. It is a wonder how ihe Ganga even knows to flow towards the sea in an incline so subtle. That must be why il is revered as a great river. Mountain rivers like Barun and its elder brodier Arun never needed any divining power to know which way lo go, so diey are treated rather matler-of-factly. Besides, compared to the Ganga´s serene flow, they make too much noise.
The symptoms of LAS had started to hit me as t began my keynote address. Its a little like how you feel when you blow loo many baloons in quick succession and begin to feel light-headed. I started feeling light-headed and began to make light-hearted comments about all sorts of things, flatness being one of diem. Apparantly I had even begun to make merry, for I noticed my Bihari colleagues in the audience beginning to scowl, and the organisers in the podium to squirm.
The next thing I remember was being escorted from the podium with a doctor muttering something about diese over¬confident highlanders that “come down too low too fast”. Apparently, a Great Plains Rescue Association (GPRA) had been formed to help individuals such as myself who over-confidently make fast descents to the flats without realising that diere is so much more pressure down here than up there. It has to do with the atmosphere, which presses down more heavily on Hindustan. Rapid descent by Himalayans is discouraged for it can lead to cerebral or pulmonary problems caused by the evacuation “of serous fluids from the intercellular spaces of tissue”. In simple language, the lungs and brains lose water and shrivel up.
My brain, certainly, was at that very moment beginning to shrivel up like a chuno freeze-dried potato´of the Andes. Otherwise, why was I thinking of all the unsavoury cousins of the word ´flat”? Horizontal, lowland, level are all value free, but that was not what came to mind. My mental thesaurus kept veering towards prejudicial synonyms: prostrate, dull, listless, bland, supine, passive, insipid.
But before long, though, 1 seem to have stabilised. The LAS seemed to have eased off, for my musings entered a gentler phase. There were advantages lo flatness, I decided. The foremost advantage seemed, to me, that in the plain you could walk in a straight line without a mountain or hill coming in the way. What fun! Take point A and point B on the diagrams that I have drawn for your benefit. Now, if this diagram were lo be superimposed on a satellite imagery of the Great Bihar Plain, your average traveler could do die journey like a crow would rather than a hill porter. Whereas, if diere weTe a mountain on the way (as denoted by the triangle), the same average traveler would have to circumnavigate the obstruction. In fact, it seems that in the plain you can go straight lo wherever you wani to. You will also notice that there is no need to traverse vertically in the plain.
So, in conclusion, there is no lateral or vertical deviation when you travel in Bihar. Whereas in the Upper Barun, there are many diversions before you make your destination. In a bag in Muzzafarpur, I had discovered the reason why the Himalayan region is under-developed. And going right to the source, the problem was tectonic. If only the Indian plate had not collided with the Asian plate, everything would have been, as they say over in the Great American Plain, hunky dory. Without geological deities, there would have been no Himalaya where you today have Himalaya — only flatness as far as the eye could see, with whole populations living in the middle of nowhere and perfectly content with that. Instead, successive Geology avatars had to create these mountains, and now everyone comes by wanting to get to the top.
If you asked ine why I want to climb Makalu or Chamlang, I wouldn´t say “Because it is there!” I would climb it only to get to the other side. And if there were a way to get to there without puffing all the way to the summit, I would lake that route. But Reinhold Messner just would not listen, although he did promise to keep our meeting secret.
Back to our discourse on Development. Dear reader, do not pity the lowlanders for having to stand up on their toes. Instead, envy them, for whom the Raj built the Great Indian Railway system only because the landscape was a flatscape. You have noticed — as the Empire Builders got closer to the hills, the broad guage became meter gauge, and then narrow gauge, until only toy trains were employed to carry parasoled ladies to hill stations.
Breathing lightly inside a Pokhrel Bag in Muzaffarpur, I am beginning to formulate a Plan of Action. The only thing to do in these Democratic Moments, is to Organise. As soon I gel back to my terrain, I´m going to make myself an NGO thai will agitate and let the world know that the Himalayan indigenes have finally realised, albeit a few million years late, that Geology is at fault. Now, they want Lhe Inalienable Right lo Live in the Flats returned to them. So let us have the entire process reversed.
…ah, Doctor Pokhrel, wherever you are, this low altitude affliction does seem to be getting to my head. Could I be evacuated to higher altitude?