I read this sadly out of print book a year ago, when I visited Nagaland and became fascinated with the tale of Ursula Graham Bower. Ms Graham Bower’s “Naga Path” (that is a link to my review, obviously) covers her years in Nagaland, and “The Hidden Land” takes up the story. Ursula is now married – only just – and with her husband, Lt. Col Tim Betts, they set off on their new posting, to the virtually unknown, uncharted Lower Subansiri region of Arunachal Pradesh.
Now, let me stop here for a moment and give you some background information.
Ursula and Tim’s daughter, Catriona Child is a friend of mine in Delhi, and we have just returned from an amazing trip together to Arunachal, following in the steps of her parents. A friend and passionate historian accompanied us, identifying places where Catriona’s parents lived, camped, visited – nothing short of amazing, recreating a journey of over 60 years ago.
So, having read “The Hidden Land” once and found it poignantly sad compared with “Naga Path,” I re-read the book before our trip, and no sooner had I closed the last page, on a frosty morning in the Apa Tani valley, than I turned right back to the first page and re-re-read it.
And that I have never done. Ever. Read a book literally back to back.
But so fascinating was it to put faces to names, and to put the exciting adventure that the Betts couple live into perspective, that it made sense to keep on reading this book which is still so fresh that it is hard to imagine that the events in it took place in a very different India. To read about the men whose families we would meet was both moving and highly emotional.
Ms Graham Bower is still desperately in love with the tribal North East during her years in Arunachal, but their time in the Lower Subansiri district was a trying one, with feuding and sparring tribes to contend with, as well as the couple’s growing anxiety about their future in India after Independence. (I did just say that they lived in a very different India, remember).
And so off they set, to trek into this virtually uncharted land – the hidden land of the title – in their pragmatic, down-to-earth way. Supplies were in desperately short supply, in those years immediately after the Second World War. Porters were hard to find. They had no idea if the tribes would be hostile. And the going was physically tough, but from the very start, from the opening paragraph, you are captivated and ready to accompany Ursula and Tim on their big adventure :
The famed Apa Tani valley, a place that captured the heart and the imagination of this intrepid couple still is beautiful, despite “progress” in the form of buildings and traffic and satellite dishes, but to the Betts’ it was literally breathtaking :
They loved the country with a passion, and the hidden land of the title becomes hidden to them for ever, as they walk out of the Valley for the last time, unable to look back, such is their grief.
This book is a wonderful read.
If you know India and especially the north east it is compelling.
Track it down online – I have added an Amazon link below – and let yourself be swept back to a time when voyages of discovery were literally possible.