There are too many hooks. But there are too few that are worth reading.
Recently, the author Ruskin Bond voiced his dismay at the lack of Himalayan literature. After we discussed this void in Mussoorie, I walked home and moodily viewed my own collection of titles.
What is probably the very first book I bought — from a pavement book stall in Calcutta in I960 — has been the most cherished, Swami Pranavananda’s gun-toting guide to the Mansarovar pilgrimage overcomes all the quaint desi usage to spellbind by its authentic capturing of the glory of the abode of Shiva. By contrast, Sven Hedin’s more professional and ponderous findings lacks the vital dimension of winged inspiration.
It was only when I returned to Delhi, where my bookshelf is more expansive, and browsed through my titles of eminently worth-keeping books that I realised Ruskin’s pronouncement required some modification. There are too few good books on the Himalaya. And there are all too many leaden-footed expedition leaders accounts that fulfil a sponsorship contract and fit in an appendix that lists the high street stores which provided long Johns and tinned tuna to the expedition.
So can we narrow do w n the problem to an absence in Himalayan literature of authentic feelings about the great range? (Ruskins own book about the Mussoorie foothills A Tree Grows in Dehra has just won Indias most prestigious literary prize, in the English language section.) This categorisation provides a clue as to why, from the literary point of view, so many books do not seem to be worth the paper they are printed on. The foreign egos breezing through mountains that are sacred to millions of Asians are blind to anything but their route to the summit. They are here not for darshan of the Mother Goddess, but to achieve a point plotted on a career graph. As an example of this tendency to append literature to the main job of topping out, when Chris Bonnington and Friends climbed Changabang in Garhwal, this most beautiful peak in the world hardly merited a write-up. The peak-weary Bonington had included an amanuensis in the party to crank out the obligatory post-expedition blurb, padded with interviews with the climbers wives.
Changabang’s dignity was restored by the ensuing Boardman-Tasker Shining Mountain, which went on deservedly to win a literary prize. Even so, the technical climbing details and the urge to bandy psychological jargon as the climbers lay strapped in their hammocks is hardly designed to make lay readers fork out rupees for what mountaineers consider a classic. And here is the crux of our literary ascent. Who decides when great mountaineering skill translates in long literary shelf-life?
In the Himalayan Club library (now housed in the India International Centre in Lodhi Estate, New Delhi) the policy in the face of a barrage of expeditionary titles is only to keep those of assured literary pedigree. (When one says “policy” one really means finance for the price of niftily produced glossies. Any librarian will think twice about acquiring what seems to the layman a treatise on how to dangle as many coloured ropes as possible on a rock face.)
For a minimum definition of mountain literature, we can safely say it is not more and more about less and less. Soaring thoughts commensurate with the range that inspires them are no doubt helpful, but the classic echoes an authors gifts as much as the numinous loom of the peak. For example, Walt Unsworth’s History of Everest is magical despite its reference format. He has been consumed by the subject and managed to make the ugliest of faces beautiful by his furious research. On the other hand Kenneth Masons Abode of Show, considered the definitive spread of objective wisdom on the Himalaya, lacks fire. You refer to it when you have to, but are never tempted to dip in to give your mood a lift and stimulate that ache for the distant mountains.
The Himalaya being an emotive entity, it is probably outside the scope of polite Englishmen to produce literature about it, and for real flavour perhaps we must turn to Bengali or Nepali accounts. But Harka Gurungs Vignettes of Nepal marches alongside Kenneth Mason in providing immaculate geographical information delivered in the cautious professorial prose designed not to arouse passions. It’s a bit like wading through Elizabeth Haw leys expedition debriefings that list how many Spaniards or South Koreans achieved the summit of Sagarmatha without falling off.
When I survey the shelves of the Himalayan Club collection, I am convinced that Ruskins despair is unfounded It is true that almost all the works smack of the colonial “first white foot” syndrome. But to balance the imperial posturing of Fanny Bullock Workman -—rich, lugubrious and indefatigable — who recorded the mysteries of Nun-Kun and the Karakoram but added to them with her voluble pen as she went along, there is Lady Canning, who crossed the Rupin Pass from Kinnaur to Uttarakhand as wife of India’s first viceroy. One senses Canning’s sheer enjoyment of the mountains and her sketches catch the high magnificence of the Sutlej gorge. Canning sent her letters to Queen Victoria and recently Charles Allen has edited them. Incidentally, the latter, like John Keay, has written rattling good accounts of the eccentric Himalayan explorers. Modern British authors, it turns out, do not exercise the patronising tone inherent in pre-war accounts.
I would agree with Ruskin on one point. Garhwal, perhaps the loveliest of mountain areas, has had very little homage paid to her by way of literary tribute. Inevitably the mountaineer passes through and what seemed a classic like Frank Smythe’s Valley of Flowers has settled into the lesser slot of erstwhile best-seller.
Shipton and Tilman neatly illustrate the divide between the feminine and masculine way of looking at the Himalaya. The first was content to enjoy and explore in foreplay while Bill, I fear, was not just the confirmed misogynist all his square Alpine Club buddies make him out to be. I detect a pent-up macho maniac of the sort I used to read about in the News of the World, thirsting to become intimate with the object of his desire. Shipton’s accounts of Nanda Devi are full of relish, whereas Tilman’s more clinically accurate recollections forever give off the hint of a poker rammed up his rucksack.
Nanda Devi, the goddess of bliss, has been poorly served by her suitors. John Roskelley waited for ten years before he waded into a justification for his spat with Willi Unsoeld and Adams Carter, a somewhat futile effort since the world is hopelessly hooked to the romantic version of how Nanda Devi Unsoeld became one with her goal. The latest book on Nanda Devi is William Sax’s sociological study on the cult that climaxes its cycle with the Rupkund passage. Sadly, this glorious opportunity is dismally sacrificed to the exigencies of a lumbering PhD demand.
Other areas are not so badly served. Kulu has had, in quick succession, the gifted pens of Penelope Chetwode and Christina Noble, while Ladakh drew poetic fire from Andrew Harvey and Helena Norberg-Hodge. Nepal has attracted international exposure and my favourites are those enthusiastic Japanese cartographers like Tomoya Iozawa, whose Trekking in the Himalayas ranks in my opinion as the sort of guidebook Leonardo would have written had his flying machine ever worked to get him here.
Possibly, the answer to Ruskin’s prayer is even now being contemplated by more than one writer across the Himalaya. A selection of articles from the Himalayan Club Journal has been under consideration for a long time and, hopefully, this will depict the range according to the Club’s brief “to extend knowledge of the Himalaya through science, art, literature and sport.” A supplement to include lower and more colourful contributors to Himalayan lore like the “Great Beast” Aleister Crowley — an accomplished climber as well as poet (whose works are included tin the Oxford Book of Mystical Verse) – could be edited by the inscrutable Yeti who lurks with literary gusto in the hind parts of Himal.