The sudden crop of urbane books on Garhwal have brought forth strident criticism from certain locals, indignant at outsiders daring to say more about this neglected corner of the Himalaya. For some reason, Japanese, American and German writers who have produced picture books on Kashmir, Nepal and Sikkim never got around to doing justice to Uttarakhand. Three Indian names have now completed the panorama, the photographers Gurmeet Thukral and Ashok Dilwali and the well known author Ruskin Bond.
The general criticism about their books is that they are of the “coffee table” genre, a valid point in view of the prohibitive cost of such glossy productions. But to damn them for highlighting the beauty of the Garhwal and for using the best in printing technology seems unreasonable. The authors deserve praise rather than blame for seeking to expose the sublimity of the scene in high quality publications.
If they had focussed on the deplorable social conditions obtaining in the hills, perhaps an outcry would have been understandable. These books, obviously meant to attract the foreign market, do not wash dirty linen in public. One detects in the criticism more political ideology than honest appraisal of the publications.
Both Thukral and Bond are for all practical purposes Garhwali, having been born and brought up in the area. In what way are they “outsiders”? Dilwali spent excruciating nights on the mountains taking memorable photographs out of a great love for the area and its people. How can his tactful playing down of their poverty be viewed as exploitation? As it happens, Dilwali takes great pains to honor local customs wherever he goes. He also makes a point of sending those villagers he has photographed a copy for themselves. It is mischievous to bracket all photographers of the village scene as “interlopers” just as it is tendentious to assume that every tourist is a “cultural threat”.
No one is happy at the way tourism has been haphazardly introduced in the Himalaya, but the fact remains that the officials responsible for developing the trade are largely local men. They are the ones who designed and promoted scandalous projects like the Kasauni tourism complex costing IRs 80 lakhs, where there is not a drop of water for miles around. The argument that the U.P. hills could become another Himachal or Ladakh is not helped by the terrain or the attitude of the people.
Ladakhis are unique with the twin virtues of self help and cheerful survival. Kumaon and Garhwal are so caste ridden and fatalistic that many young men deliberately seek risk free jobs primarily for the pensions. To travel in Ladakh (and Nepal) where the land is not caste-ridden is to find flourishing tourist situations with both locals and visitors happy with a minimum of official intervention.
In Garhwal and Kumaon, however, local initiative is unknown and the Government is expected to provide everything. When outsiders do show enterprise, like the Punjabi dhaba owners or Bhotia hoteliers, they are accused of ripping off the local people. It is this same dog in the manger attitude which seeks to put down books designed to honor the land. Neither will they publish books of the hills themselves nor allow others to do so freely.
Bill Aitken is a writer from Mussorie. This piece first appeared in The Statesman.
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