Quick aside, before I begin this review.
Since the pandemic started, I find myself increasingly drawn to non-fiction and the more adventurous the book, the better. Doesn’t take much deduction to conclude that I am missing travelling and especially being in the mountains, and so am compensating, by reading tales of derring-do and exploration.
Which brings me neatly to this intriguing book by Bill Aitken, a Brit turned Indian and a long term resident of India.
This is a fascinating book, and one that makes me almost ashamed at my own seemingly total lack of knowledge about a country where I, too, have lived for many years. Mr. Aitken’s knowledge of Hinduism and especially the rituals and beliefs of Garhwal and Kumaon, up in the Himalayas, is beyond impressive, and he easily weaves religion and tradition and customs into his years of exploring the Himalayas.
The author is at pains to point out that he is not a mountaineer, whom he views as someone drawn ever higher simply by the desire to climb another peak or notch up another record. For Mr. Aitken, it is the soul and the mystery of the mountains that attract him, particularly Nanda Devi, a mountain that bewitches him.
Mr. Aitken loves the mountains, loves exploring them and over the years he circles repeatedly around Nanda Devi, a peak that obsesses him. He meets villagers and shepherds and porters, coming across as someone who empathises with the people he meets, and certainly not standing on any kind of ceremony. He sleeps rough, he carries his share of provisions, he uncomplainingly eats the most frugal of diets and even the often horrendous weather he encounters cannot deter him.
Despite his love for the Himalayan culture and his immense knowledge and respect of its religion and customs, he is not blind to its societal faults either. He is fully aware of the tough lot of the Himalayan women, who assume much of the work, and have to move away from their homes and villages to live with their in-laws, who often ill-treat them.
“Hill society and its brutal compulsions seemed to be a doomed exercise in human relationships where male arrogance in punishing its women had led to its own emasculation of purpose.”
“…The mountaineering ladies of the village would return with head loads weighing 50 kg, swinging powerfully in their wrapped up skirts, then return 10 km at a fast gait, fortified only with a handful of gram… Hard work on a harsh diet has not made these exploited women any less maternal. On the contrary their willingness to go the extra mile showed that infinite inner strength, the distinguishing mark of the feminine. No physical labour could break these tough ladies. However on emotional grounds they could come to grief and it was not uncommon for those unhappy under their mother-in-law’s jurisdiction to be sullen and shrill.”
Mr. Aitken is also fascinatingly acerbic about peak-driven mountaineers and, in particular, reserves a lot of scorn for the Indian Mountaineering Federation (IMF), whose rigid bureaucracy annoys his more free-spririted nature –“I knew from personal experience that the IMF only heard what it wanted to hear” is one of his gentler comments.
“The IMF stepped in to manage mountaineering as it would a government department which meant that all decisions were based on political expediency rather than sporting sense.”
Mr. Aitken discusses the scarcely believable placing of a nuclear device on the mountain
“The folly of placing a nuclear device above the last discovered source of the Ganga as well as illustrating the panic-stricken nature of modern political decisions serves to distinguish the mountain lover from the modern breed of mountaineering mercenary. It appears that a whole generation of India’s climbers were seduced to work against nature and were forced by their official calling to conspire to pollute the sanctuary.”
This is such an important part of understanding the mystery that still surrounds Nanda Devi, which is now closed to all climbers, that I’m sharing here a link to to an article which explains the background to this quite extraordinary incident:
“And so, in October 1965, a group of Indian and American climbers began scaling the Nanda Devi, India’s second-highest peak, to reach its summit and plant nuclear-powered monitoring devices. These included seven plutonium capsules and surveillance equipment, weighing around 57 kg, to be placed near India’s north-eastern border with China.”
An intriguing, captivating book which covers mountains and goddesses and one man’s love for a mysterious, captivating mountain. It is also a chronicle of an India fast disappearing, as connectivity and mass-tourism alter forever the Himalayan dynamics.
A fascinating read.