Himalayan exoticism has turned out to be an economic commodity, and not just for those who live here. All kinds of Western (the term including Japanese) professionals continue to make hay under Himalayan sunshine -tour-guides, filmmakers, photographers, novelists and political scientists.
Even spies have found employment by virtue of the mysteries — mystical or otherwise — of the Himalaya. After all, the venerable Indian pundits who infiltrated Tibet in service of the Raj were not following the footsteps of Padmasambhava, the Indian sage who brought Buddhism to Tibet. And doubtless, the shenanigans of the KGB, the CIA and other services continue to provide employment in the Himalaya. Kalimpong used to be the un-challenged hotbed of international sleuths right up to the 1950s. And remember the American “mountaineers”who set up a nuclear-powered observation unit on top of Nanda Devi to monitor Chinese activities in Lop Nor?
Speaking of using Himalayan mythology to advantage, there is also the story that around the turn of the century, at the height of the “Great Game” to secure dominance over Central Asia, a Siberian lama tried to convince the thirteenth Dalai Lama to side with the Czar against the British, using the argument that Russia, being north of Tibet, was the true Shambhala of Tibetan myth.
It is undeniably true that many foreigners, particularly scholars, come to study and to empathize. Quite a few have a genuine regard for the Himalayan people and the challenges they face. In fact, some Western social scientists know more about Nepali communities and traditions than their colleagues in Tribhuvan University. But then there are always the “carpetbaggers.”
Even among Western academics, there are those who use Nepal solely to get on the tenure track in universities, never to look back at the communities they studied. There are the photographers out to catch Himalayan exoticism before it goes out of fashion. These lensmen prowl the bylanes of Kathmandu and are engaged in cut-throat competition to get into glossy magazines like Geo and the National Geographic. They routinely disturb intricate rituals with strobe lights, or use telephotos on unwary women at Pashupati’s bathing ghats. Or they steal each other’s picture ideas in a mad rush to come out with the first coffee-table book, say, on Dolpo or Mustang or some place so forbidden by the Government that it cannot even be named in the text. There are, certainly, scholars and photographers who have a feeling for the place and keep coming back to friends and community, but such individuals rarely get published or tenure.
Pulp novelists have discovered Shangri-La. The number of spy thrillers that send their protagonists up the Himalaya is on the increase. Actually, the heros and villains invariably seem to head up the Kali Gandaki gorge. The exoticism that attracts them there includes the natural wonder of the deepest gorge in the world, Mustang’s walled township, and the possibility of infiltrating Tibet to the north. Two recent best-sellers use these motifs to the full. In Shelkagari, by Harold King, a daring American heiress, a Russian aristocrat and a reckless Englishman arrive in search of a huge Tibetan diamond which many centuries before had jinxed Alexander the Great’s Indian campaign. Another novel, All the Grey Cats, by Craig Thomas, is the unlikely story of a Russian plot “to seek to determine the future of Nepal,” whose denouement is an attempted airborne invasion which ends in fiery disaster on the tarmac of the Tribhuvan International Airport. Both books take extensive detours through the upper Kali Gandaki Valley.
International do-gooders flock to the Nepal Himalaya as they do nowhere else – to build cheese factories, organize environmental symposia, electrify monasteries and set up integrated hill development projects. Bhutan is also an increasing attraction. If they had full access, surely development agencies and “development persons” (for want of a better word) would overrun the Indian Himalaya and Tibet as well with their benevolence. It is a fair guess why those that rush to open schools and health clinics in the high valleys do not show the same “help thy neighbour” attitude for the Terai population.
One American, who helped bring hydroelectric power to a Sherpa monastery, was still distributing a self-glorifying article about his role in the project months after the monastery itself’had been reduced to ashes. In some instances, it is clear, aid to the Himalaya is a response to its exoticism and art attempt to link one’s name to that exoticism, often for profit — rather than a genuine regard for the place and the people.
The latest in the line of western experts to succumb to Himalayan charms may have been the environmentalists. If you believe that the Himalayan ecosystem is pristine and that there is total harmony between man and nature in these mountains, then it becomes so much easier to believe that the man-environment “balance” is about to collapse horrendously, wreaking starvation in the hills, floods in the plains and islands made up of Himalayan soil arising in the Indian Ocean. Carried away by this vision of absolute horror soon to be visited upon Shangri-La, some think that Nepali hills and dales will be transformed into a highland desert by the turn of the century, never mind the monsoon rains. While the ongoing environmental dislocation in the Himalaya is sadly all too true, exaggerations and unscientific claims that emerge from those who are expiating their own demons might do more harm than good in the long run.
Smitten by the same well-meaning regard for the Himalaya, some local experts also tend to get carried away by ecological simplicisms. Take this Indian environmentalist’s prose: “The highlanders and the ‘Sons of the Himalaya’ have now awakened to the reality that the Himalayas are the repositories of India’s physical resources (plant, soil, water) and they must guard against the robber’s economy rather zealously.”
The imagery of the Himalaya as the annadata (provider) of the Sub-Continent occurs again and again in Indian environmental writing. At times, it seems that every natural resource of the Indo-Gangetic basin derives entirely from the hills: the water, the topsoil, the air, the weather…