Stephen Alter at Kuari Pass, on his way to Nanda Devi
We may have gathered at Taj Bengal but were soon transported to the mighty peaks of Himalaya as writer Stephen Alter addressed the audience at An Author’s Afternoon, presented by Shree Cement and Taj Bengal, held in association with t2, Prabha Khaitan Foundation and literary agency Siyahi, at the Alipore star hotel. Excerpts from Stephen speak...
A brutal beginning
Becoming a Mountain: Himalayan Journeys in Search of the Sacred and the Sublime begins in Mussoorie, where I was born. I grew up and spent much of my life here. In 2008, my wife (Ameeta) and I were attacked in our home. Four intruders broke in around 5am, beat us, tied us up, stabbed us, smothered us and left us for dead.
It brought me closest to an awareness of my own mortality. I was convinced I was going to die, but I was fortunate to recover. This book is an effort to tell this story and to come to terms with this attack.
My first instinct was to run away, to leave the Himalayas. But my wife and I both chose to stay on in Mussoorie. Part of the process of healing for me was the process of coming to terms with the Himalayas, my birthplace. The journeys were an attempt to reconnect and re-establish that trust I had with the mountains.
I had been stabbed eight or nine times, mostly in the legs, and I was unable to walk for about two months. When I was finally able to walk on my own, I set myself the goal of walking to Flag Hill, a half-an-hour walk from my home.
The hill gets its name from the Tibetan prayer flags that are tied at the summit. The Tibetan refugee community in Mussoorie tie their prayer flag at the top. Once I got to the top of Flag Hill, I thought, well, I am looking out to these mountains, may be I should just keep going.
“This is a photograph of my home, taken in April, when the garden is in full bloom. This book begins there,” said Stephen Alter
‘I write with my feet’
I am an atheist. I don’t see being an atheist and searching for the sacred as being a contradiction. In fact, I have often said that for me the motivation is doubt rather than faith. For me what is most sacred is, of course, Nature — places where I find Nature in its most pristine form.
I often say that I write with my feet. Many of my books describe journeys on foot. The first draft is written with my feet as I travel along these paths and only when I come home do I revise that draft and put it into words.
For me ‘sublime’ is our encounters with Nature that often draw contradictory feelings. You see a mountain and you are overcome by the beauty of it. It is that moment where you are standing at the edge of a precipice, looking out there and you are struck by the beauty in front of you. Then you look beneath your boots at the cliff that falls away and you are absolutely terrified. That combination of beauty and terror is something that is very much a part of the sublime.
Filthiest hotel in Uttarakhand
Nanda Devi has always been a mountain that inspires me. To approach Nanda Devi, you must travel up the watershed of the Ganga. Many of the journeys I took approaching Nanda Devi took me along the tributaries of the Ganga, through Garhwal and parts of Kumaon.
One of the most beautiful confluences is the Mandakini and the Alaknanda coming together, at Rudraprayag. Jim Corbett used to sit up on the bridge, waiting for the man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag to cross the bridge.
To my mind, it is one of the most beautiful confluences anywhere on earth. I always stay at Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam Guest House, it’s the filthiest hotel in all of Uttarakhand. But I stay there because of the view. The sheets have not been changed in the 30 years that I have been going (laughs). I use my sleeping bag when I stay there, but you can’t beat that view.
During the course of this journey, there was physical healing, because I was getting stronger and I could trek further, there was psychological healing, as I came to terms both with the trauma of the attack as well as with my own sense of belonging in these mountains here.
Bharal or blue sheep at the Bandarpunch base camp.
Picture by Stephen Alter
The search for Nanda Devi
Nanda Devi doesn’t show herself that easily. From Almora you get wonderful views of the peak, in Garhwal, you have to work to get a view. Nanda Devi is often translated as the bliss-giving goddess. Both the mountain and the goddess are considered auspicious. Those who take pilgrimages in honour of the goddess are seeking a sense of release from all their anxiety.
Becoming a Mountain by Stephen Alter (Rupa, Rs 495)
For me the search for Nanda Devi was not so much that ecstatic joy the pilgrims get but a release from discontentment. There are many stories and mountaineering lore surrounding Nanda Devi that I’ve tried to incorporate in this book.
I have approached Nanda Devi from different sides, from the Joshimath side and then I’ve trekked up to Roopkund, which is also called Mystery Lake. This lake is frozen for 10 months of the year. It’s a mystery lake because it is full of human bones — nobody really has come up with any satisfactory answer for how those bones got there. I found myself depressed and pulled down by the experience. This definitely was a darker journey than the journey to Kuari Pass. In Kuari Pass there was this spectacular panorama of snow peaks (picture top). You felt a sense of elation.
Lord Shiva’s abode
And then I went to Mount Kailash in Tibet. Like Nanda Devi, it is surrounded by mythology, and Hindu and Buddhist lore. Lord Shiva is believed to reside at the top of this mountain in meditation. One of the most interesting and powerful experiences was that I was travelling with 14 pilgrims from Maharashtra and Gujarat. The only way I could get a permit to enter Tibet was to attach myself to this group of pilgrims. Watching them when they were in prayer and when they were venerating this mountain made this experience that much more powerful for me.
Did you know, veteran actor Tom Alter is Stephen Alter’s first cousin? #t2Trivia
Bandarpunch and blue sheep
After approaching Nanda Devi from different angles, I circumambulated Mount Kailash and I decided that I would try to climb Bandarpunch. Bandarpunch is a peak directly behind Mussoorie. It is a little over 6,000m in altitude, which is about 20,000ft. I looked out on it since childhood and I thought to myself… if I am going to climb any mountain, this is the one I am going to attempt. I made two attempts.
The first was in 2011 and we were 18 of us. Seventeen of the group made it to the summit. I turned back because when I was at base camp, I received a wireless message that my father was dying. I had that difficult choice of shall I go on or shall I turn back. I chose to turn back.
In 2013, I went back to try again, this time with a much smaller group. As with all of my journeys, the most powerful and memorable aspect was the natural environment that I travelled through and the different species I encountered, like Bharal or blue sheep near our base camp. Over the 10 days that we camped there, they became more and more used to our presence, until they actually came into our tents. It was wonderful to see these animals up close.
My second attempt failed as well, because when we got onto the glacier... it had broken up. I did not have the courage or the skills to continue. We had extreme storms and disaster in Kedarnath and Gangotri. We had storm below us and above us. There was lightning and thunder below us and above us and we felt exposed and vulnerable.
When I set out to write this book, I was having a cup of coffee with a friend and fellow writer, Ramachandra Guha. I told him about writing a book on climbing a mountain. Writers always encourage each other, so Ram looked at me and said, ‘Well, it will be a much better book if you don’t make it to the top.’
So I hope Ram was right and I leave that for you to judge.
Taj Bengal pictures: Rashbehari Das