Book review: Wild Himalaya by Stephen Alter
Wild Himalaya by Stephen Alter. Aleph Books.
Stephen Alter, our go-to Himalaya man, has delivered up a real treasure trove with this book.
It is divided into eight sections dealing with virtually all aspects of the mighty mountain range: orogenesis (the process by which the Himalaya was formed through deformations in the earth`s crust), the topographical features of the mountain, flora and fauna and avian life up there, tracing the arrival of the first inhabitants, stories of people who spent a large part of their life traversing these ranges, all interspersed with the most charming of Himalayan fold tales.
And when you have read and turned the last page, you will be filled with such a sense of contentment, that even if you haven’t or won`t be climbing the Himalaya, you now know so much about it.
What are these things you now know?
How rock and slate is the primary building material in Himalayan villages, with homes, water canals, cobblestoned paths, drinking troughs for animals, millstones, temples, statues of deities, cairns are all fashioned from this stone.
How even at 2 kms above the highest tide, catastrophic cloudbursts, prolonged droughts, widespread forest fires, flash floods and other such extreme events are eroding and affecting the mountain ranges.
How to pronounce Sir George Everest`s name.
How there is a museum filled with Tibetan iconology in the mediaeval Swiss town of Gruyeres, a piece of the Himlayas in the Swiss Alps.
There are brief meditations on saligrams, tracking the riverine trail of the vanished Saraswati river, Nepal`s bounteous water bodies, angling in Himalayan rivers, the long-tailed marmots of Deosai, on senseless trophy hunting, on the monkey killers, on the silent tree chatter that pervades a Himalayan jungle.
There is a lyrical passage of taking a dip in Manasarovar lake, another magical one on George Schaller who got to run his hand over a tranquilised snow leopard’s body, and a whole chapter on the ecologically conserved wonder that is Bhutan. Another of these describes watching the sun rise over Everest at Kala Patthar.
Alter demythifies that old trope `the law of the jungle` which posits that ferocious creatures are always engaged in a fight to the death with each other…not so, he says, throwing light on human savagery and brute ignorance.
There is an account of being atop an elephant (Phool Kali) who was attacked by an angry tigress more than four times during the ride, at Corbett National Park.
There is a nod to the Yeti legend as well as the Third Man phenomenon many mountaineers swear by.
At the highest altitudes, says Alter, nature often becomes an abstraction, sometimes capitalised to suggest an invisible presence greater than ourselves —Nature as a synonym for God.
It`s not a slim volume. It`s not inexpensive, either. But by god, this natural history of the Himalaya is a book to buy, keep and dip into whenever the soul needs some nourishment.