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The world in an arc

The book might appear to lack unity of purpose, but the comprehensive collection of pieces definitely opens a window to a wider horizon

Bidita Sen 

The Himalayan Arc

Journey East and South-east

Namita Gokhale (Ed)

Harper Collins

333 pages


Everyone knows that it’s tough to turn into movies. How do you deal with internal monologues? With the world-building that good writers do effortlessly, and in the background? Do you just give up on conveying the tone of the writer’s words, and focus on the narrative?

Three lines from an essay titled “A Poet’s Impressions of Nepal And Bhutan” sum up life in the Himalayas: “Steep climb in the Himalayas/ Mules and men walk together/ Each with their own burden”. But to say that The Himalayan Arc: Journeys East of South-east is merely about the Himalayas and the communities born there is to underplay the wide spectrum of life, religion, politics and diplomacy to be found in this gargantuan arc, straddling Afghanistan in the northwest to Myanmar in the east.

The introductory note by celebrated writer Namita Gokhale offers an intense overview of the world’s tallest mountains preparing readers for a contemplative journey through the mystical and the physical. Accounts of dynamic political games, shrewd diplomacy and espionage liven up drab, historical facts. The geopolitical equations among the countries in the region have always been tricky, sometimes even towering over the majestic peaks. But beyond the intricacies of high diplomacy lie the humble lives of simple people.

The 30 essays, fictional and non-fictional, dig out facts little known to us. Take the case of “Gangkar Punsum, The World’s Highest Unclimbed Mountain” by Tshering Tashi. As the name suggests, the mountain holds the distinction of being the tallest unexplored peak in the world, because Bhutan enforces a complete ban on mountaineering.

Mr Tashi presents plain historical facts in the form of a well-knit story. A British expedition in 1986 had prompted the Bhutan government to clamp an embargo on climbers, to preserve the sanctity of the Three Sibling Mountain, as it locally called, located on the border of Bhutan and China, standing tall in its reputation for remaining unconquered even after four exhaustive attempts.

John Elliott’s “A Young Monarch’s Dream For His Country’s National Happiness” offers a peek into Bhutan’s monarchy and its governance. The piece conveys the author’s deep reverence for Jigme Singye Wangchuck, father of the current monarch, drawing a stark, unsparing contrast with the British monarchy, famous for its hype and hoopla. The Bhutanese monarch’s notion of good governance is to ensure prosperity, harmony and social stability in his kingdom. This was the basis for the popular notion of Gross National Happiness, which germinated in the royal mind way back in 1987.

takes you time travelling through another Himalayan nation, Nepal, in “The Making of the Gorkha Empire”, tracing the journey from a tiny hill state of the Gorkhas to its present position.

Again, the complex and persistent statehood movement by the Gorkhas in India has been carefully explained by Prajwal Parajuly in his “Downhill in Darjeeling”. The book goes beyond the mystifying beauty of the hills to catch a glimpse of struggles of the people reeling from ethnic discrimination.

Some of the pieces add an element of thrill. “Operation Mustang” by Thomas Bell has a gripping plot on espionage and spying. Sujeev Shakya’s “A Himalayan Citizen” is thought-provoking. It is interesting to see how a personal journey turns into a soul-searching expedition to establish a shared identity and the sense of belonging.

A section on short poems paints the Northeast with violence, bloodshed, death, and separation to portray the troubled life of people in the region. These lyrical passages attempt to resurrect the strife that plagues this part of the country.

Religion is like an incandescent lamp in the region. “Dharma in a Changing Landscape” is a spiritual journey by Sudhindra Sharma and Kanak Mani Dixit, a quest for understanding “practices ranging from extreme asceticism to philosophical erudition to unquestioning ritual”.

Amid these deeper truths of life rests a poignant story of a newly married couple on their honeymoon trip to Nathu La via Sikkim. “Boongthing” is the musings of a young woman on her love and new life. Meghna Pant’s mastery lies in her ability to hold the reader’s interest to the end. Jacqueline Zote’s “The Other Side Of The Looking Glass” is a punch on the face of patriarchy wrapped in obscure Mizo folktales.

Finally, there is Manoj Joshi’s “Tibet, India and China,” a documentation of the changing political equations between the two Asian superpowers, with Tibet caught in between.

The book also unveils a treasure trove of rare photographs of people under the great arc in colonial India. These timeless pieces of evidence speak a thousand words.

Has development actually changed lives in the mountains for the good? It is a question that persists through The Himalayan Arc, but is left for the readers to analyse.

The book might appear to lack unity of purpose, but the comprehensive collection of pieces definitely opens a window to a wider horizon. Every essay stands its ground as an independent and contemplative account of one facet of Himalayan life or the other. Any attempt to integrate these short narratives into an organic whole wouldn’t have worked because geography is the only thematic thread holding the book together.

First Published: Fri, June 15 2018. 06:50 IST