Top positive review
Gorgeous photos, exquisite illustrations and a gripping narrative
Reviewed in India on 22 January 2020
A book that is a delight to hold and behold – this is true labour of love. It is based both on the extensive personal treks of the author, as well as intense research on this massive mountain range. The narrative varies from the lyrical to the philosophical, neither overly scholarly, nor flippant or disparaging. The reader encounters the geology, geography, history, butterflies, animals, birds, religious rites (both sanguineous as well as botanical) and folklore of this natural wonder. Explorers, naturalists and scholars who have devoted their lives to the study of Himalaya are mentioned in detail. The photographs are stunning, capturing enchanting landscapes, exquisite flora and bewitching fauna.
The book ranges from the dammed Ramganga in the foothills to the pristine and spiritual Mansarovar, from the verdant forests of Arunachal Pradesh to the stark icy deserts of Tibet. The disconnected chapters are welcome – one chapter may describe a Mahabharat performance in the heart of the Garhwal hills and the next jumps to the sylvan valleys of the Kanchenjunga, the next ascending to the highest meadow in the world in POK.
Incidentally, from the Lepidopterist family of Smetaceks in Bhimtal, one of the brothers was my classmate in school in Nainital way back in the seventies. Like the author, I too am endemic to the hills, being born of a Kumaoni mother and spending my childhood in the Kumaon and Garhwal hills.
The author is disconsolate with the rapid degradation of the Himalaya and its environs:
"After seven days of the pristine forests of the Eastern Himalaya, we suddenly find ourselves in a smouldering wasteland of accumulated filth with mountains of refuse ignited by spontaneous combustion.
Perched on these huge piles of burning rubbish are hundreds of storks, stooped like solemn hunchbacks with bald heads and heavy beaks. Hanging under their throats is a loose pouch of skin that looks like a deflated balloon…. These flesh-eating birds feed on scraps of carrion brought here from butcher shops and road kills all over the city (Guwahati).
Children run about barefoot through streams of sewage and glaciers of broken glass, while grim birds look like creatures out of an apocalyptic image. Reminded of the giant man-eating birds of Sherdukpen folklore, I can’t help feeling that this is how our world may end, a grotesque vision of a polluted land, populated by carnivorous storks, who squawk and squabble over rotting skin, entrails and bones."
"Mountains and rivers are revered and worshipped as maternal deities yet the same streams of holy water are defiled with untreated sewage from ‘Vedic Resorts’… Poorly constructed, multi-story hotels with sanctimonious names encroach the riverside in defiance of regulations governing ‘eco-sensitive zones’. Himalayan vistas that once inspired the faithful to give up material pursuits are now hidden behind garish hoardings announcing the chauvinistic discourses of self-aggrandizing holy men, while the eternal silence of the Himalaya echoes with digitized hymns set to a Bollywood beat."
His anguish and anger are obvious:
"Piety and pollution seem to go hand in hand while godliness has become inherently grubby. Pilgrims who travel to the mountains, along with those who enable these spiritual journeys, believe that Himalayan destinations will cleanse their sins. In return, the mountains receive nothing but offerings of filth."
Sadly, no credit is given for the impeccable illustrations heading each chapter. Once again, just the gorgeous photos are a marvellous peek at the haunting beauty of the immutable Himalaya.
Finally, I'd like to add to the third man phenomenon experienced by mountain climbers. This is a hallucination due to a condition called Isolated High-Altitude Psychosis, distinct from High altitude cerebral oedema, and brought on by the complete deprivation of social contact and loneliness for prolonged periods.