Book Review: A saga with mountains

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This is one man's tryst with majestic mountains. Author Stephen Alter, an American passport holder, was born and raised in Mussoorie, an idyllic retreat in the foothills of the Himalayas. So he grew up with the mountains, fell in love with them, and embraced their myths and natural history. Alter was fascinated by Bandarpunch, or Monkey's Tail, in particular. 

An impulsive decision led Alter to travel to Mount Kailash and Mansarovar. Squeezed into a pilgrim group already approved by the Chinese government, he makes a memorable and, at times, tough journey into a spiritual world. Mansarovar, which Hindus believe was created within Brahma's imagination, is the highest freshwater lake of its size in the world, its waters reflecting the purity accorded to it in mythologies.

But Alter is no fanatic devout. To him, Kailash is nothing but an enormous mass of rock covered in snow and ice. "Whatever mysteries confront us are not mysteries at all but simply enigmas of our own making. Its summit is neither sacred nor celestial. Kailash is a mountain, nothing more or less." This is one reason why Alter despises the increasing mass of pilgrims who dirty spiritual spots, lending an uncanny link between faith and filth.

Bandarpunch - originally climbed in 1950 by Tenzing Norgay - represents a challenge Alter wants to overcome. He organises a full-fledged team to conquer it. But on the journey, he suddenly loses the pull of mountaineering. Climbing Bandarpunch, he feels, is a selfish objective, a personal indulgence that puts everyone at risk.

Admitting to his "cowardice", Alter decides to retreat. His team members persuade him to stay on the path. But nature forces them to return after all. It is a wise decision, Alter realizes, because it is June 2013 and the clouds open up all like never before, causing a catastrophe that claims thousands of lives in and around Kedarnath. "If we had continued with our attempt on Bandarpunch, we would have been stuck on the mountain in the storm."

For one who has spent much of his life in the lower Himalayas, Alter blames the 2013 devastation on poor planning, shoddy construction, badly engineered roads and jerry-rigged guest houses, most of them illegal, in the mountains -- once man decided that profits were more important than respecting nature. The uncontrolled expansion of towns and settlements along the rivers only made the situation nightmarish.

Alter concludes, finally, what is to be done vis-à-vis the majestic mountains. "Instead of trying to tame and subdue the Himalayas, we must approach them with compassion and logic, as well as intangible questions of faith." The Bandarpunch failure itself makes him come to grips with the mountains' magnitude and beauty -- and the danger of their sublime countenance.

For centuries, the Himalayas have been depicted as the pristine seat of spiritual enlightenment, the fountainhead of Hindu tradition. But Alter sees a growing number of pilgrims who bathe in the Ganga "absolving themselves of every sin except religious fundamentalism". He complains that the politicized face of Hinduism "has evolved into a grotesque visage spouting dogma, prejudice and venal theologies". He always felt at home in India while growing up. "Only in recent years have I begun to experience doubts and discontentment, the uneasy, persistent ache of alienation."

If you love the mountains, this book is for you.

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