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Published on: 02/14/18 7:13 AM

Book review: Becoming A Mountain by Stephen Alter

Becoming a Mountain
Himalayan Journeys in Search of the Sacred and the Sublime

By Stephen Alter (Aleph Publications)


Mountains, says Alter,   have been endowed through history with nobility, wisdom, omniscience, as well as described as fearsome, treacherous, demonic. Of course, all this is but the expression of human sensibilities towards the natural world.

The Garhwal and Kumaon mountain trails were a private sanctuary for Alter. But after a vicious attack by intruders on his wife Ameeta and him, which left both of them in a bad shape, Alter had a Plan: to recover his equanimity, his faith in men. And the only way to do that was to walk the mountains. And so he makes trips, to Flag Hill near to where he lives; to the base of Nanda Devi; to the Tiger`s Nest monastery in Bhutan; to Kailash; to Banderpunch. And in the midst of this arduous exercise, he muses, on men and mountains.

And of course, he records the sights he sees. At Bhugubasa, he comes across a field of brahmakamal growing in startling profusion, field upon field of them, looking like white giant poppies, their pale luminous shapes as delicate as Chinese lanterns.

At the already sinister Roopkund, he comes upon a stack of bones with a small plaque beside it reading: Himalaya Enjoyment Association. The idea that these trekkers, whose plaque suggested they came from Kolkata, should find enjoyment in the Himalayas by stacking up a  grotesque pyramid of human femurs, tibia, vertebrae and ribs gave the place an unsettling sacrilegious aura.

At times the author turns philosophical, as when he muses that happiness is a transient emotion that surprises us at moments when we least expect it. Suddenly the dark clouds of anger or distress and the opaque mists of depression lift to reveal a sublime panorama of mountains that reduce our human travails to insignificant proportions. Yes, of course, Alter links happiness with mountains!

This is part travelogue, part reflections on the habit of travelling to mountains. We believe in mountains because they symbolise so much that we fail to understand, another dimension that lies beyond those paths where our feet cannot take us, says the author, and the reader cannot but agree.

He rues the pious squalor of religious tourism, gives an account of the rising religious chauvinism, zealous fundamentalism. Natural phenomena are turned into religious metaphors and even ancient myths lose resonance here.

He then deconstructs the myths that envelop Kailash, saying that in and itself, Kailash is nothing but an enormous mass of rock covered in snow and ice. There are no hidden worlds hovering beneath its vast façade, no Shambala, no deities enthroned on its summit. The only mandalas are those projected in the minds of devotees. But for all that, Alter is unbearably moved as he sits and stares at the mountain.

He retells the charming legend   of a huge nugget of gold the size and shape of a dog unearthed near here. The miners took it to the Dalai Lama, who instructed them to carry it back to the shores of Mansarovar where it was reburied exactly as it was found, a stupa built on the spot and named Serkyi which means Golden Dog.

And nearing the end of the book, Alter offers an interesting fact: Dodital in Uttarakhand is full of brown trout but brown trout are not a native species of the Himalayas. They were brought to Garhwal from Scotland a century ago. DNA testing traces the fish back to Loch Leven but the exact process by which they arrived here is still unclear. Eggs or fingerlings carried by ship? By slow riverboat up the Ganges? Transported to these mountains by mules or porters?

A charming read for armchair mountaineers and everyone who loves adventure.

Related Links:

Book Review: The Himalayan Arc Edited by Namita Gokhale

Book review: Wild Himalaya by Stephen Alter

Book review: Himalaya, an Anthology edited by Ruskin Bond and Namita Gokhale

Book review: Walking The Himalayas by Levison Wood

Book review: Sikkim by Andrew Duff

Book review: A Step Away From Paradise by Thomas Shor

Book review: Where the Indus is Young by Dervla Murphy

Book review: Nanda Devi, a Journey to The Last Sanctuary by Hugh Thomson

BandarpunchBecoming a MountainKailashmountain climbingmountainsNanda DeviStephen AlterUttarakhand

Sheila Kumar • February 14, 2018

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