This anthology has a heft in the hand, rather like a
pickaxe, though that might be wishful thinking since I am not about to strap on
crampons and scale the heights of Everest. Ruskin Bond and Namita Gokhale have
co-edited this anthology of pieces on the Himalayas that spans the range of
emotions evoked by India’s mystical mountain range — a strand of Shiva’s hair
flung down on the earth, someone said.

The fact that the Himalayas form such a great sweep down
India’s borders from the north to the north-east is made evident through the
setting of some of the pieces. So too is the fact that the mountains have their
ugly side. Presumably it is this combination of beauty and ugliness that makes
the mountains so inescapable. All the 44 pieces have something to contribute to
our knowledge of the Himalayas.

There is Mark Twain’s tongue in cheek account of his trip to
Darjeeling — with some tiger hunting thrown in for good measure and a blanket
wrapped viewing of the Kanchenjunga. Twain was reluctant to make the pony ride
to Tiger Hill at daybreak and preferred to sit for two hours at his window. The
notoriously evil Aleister Crowley makes an appearance and turns out to be
surprisingly normal where being a bara sahib is concerned, though his accounts
of leeches are unsurprising to Indian travellers. You can climb with Hillary
and Tenzing to the heights of Everest and perhaps compare Hillary’s camaraderie
with his sherpas with Mallory’s contemptuous references to coolies who were
always lazy and falling ill. You can also follow in the footsteps of various
spies embarking on the Great Game and covering their tracks while describing
their encounters with deadly dacoits and weather.

Mountains have always been a source of spiritual awe from
the Vedas to the Psalms and the gods have always lived in the Himalayas in
folklore. The snows stand for some kind of maya and the north is where the
spirit goes to rest. This is why Meditation 
is the collective applied to the second section. Peter Mathiesson’s
mystic wanderings in the snows after the elusive snow leopard comes as no
surprise;  what is unusual is Tagore’s
essay on a trip to Dalhousie made with his father who allowed him the freedom
to wander in pursuit of his thoughts.

Ruskin Bond could never escape their spell and dreamt of
them during his lonely days in London. Swami Vivekananda encounters a tiger
that watches him meditate, then walks away, leaving the Swami to believe that
his wanderings were under the protection of his guru.

The section on Life has an extract from Mountain Echoes, the
spoken narratives of four Kumaoni women that were written down,   the erstwhile Queen of Bhutan’s account of
her ride on horseback down from the hills towards Kalimpong, where she was
going to school and Ruskin Bond returns with a description of life in a village
in Garhwal. Ground realities of a different sort come in with Amitav Ghosh’s
discussion on the Kashmir troubles and the dizzying war on the Siachen Glacier
— to add its own note of danger that began with self-sought difficulties on the
slopes of Everest. In the case of Kashmir, of course, it is not an adventure
but the hard facts of political manoeuvring, another dimension of the death
that the Lord of Kailash brings with his dance.

Readers will have encountered many of these pieces before in
the books they come from, but are bound to welcome them again in this themed
volume.

By Anjana Basu

(The reviewer is a freelance contributor)