History in geography

The alluring north
Hugh and Colleen Gantzer
Niyogi Books
2011, pp 169
Rs. 595

Hugh and Colleen’s book appears to be a nod to the spiritual and the supernatural, of which there are a plethora in India — the legends, myths and traditions enshrined from time immemorial in each mountain, valley, lake, forest and village.

I was pleasantly fascinated by the “strange sounding names”, even within my own country, such as Lakhmandal, Kalpa, Naggar, Harsil and Mana to name few. Woven along with the physical and topographical descriptions, are narratives of the people and their customs. I found the small italicized insets, with a hoary legend or two, on some of the pages, interesting. The book covers some of the areas on the Himalayan foothills with spectacular vistas of the snow clad mountains.

Therefore, it was a little confusing to see chapters on Lucknow, Mathura, Chitrakoot, Pinjore, Anandpur and Chandni Chowk also included. It looked a bit cobbled together and unfocussed towards the end. The first 7 chapters captures the essence of Ladakh and the Kulu Valley — the solitary grandeur of the snow capped peaks of the Himalayas and the resilience and nobility of the people who live there, the beauty of the “many textures and colours of the Pangong Tsa”, the little known tribes of the Dahs who are supposed to have descended from Alexander’s army.

They describe the “high and icy road” through Zoji La, which was fascinating, although I wondered if the story of the Indian Army’s exploits in that area would have provided a more dramatic backdrop and imbued the writing with the spirit associated with it.

The story of the British Raja in Harsil made for interesting reading, for the annals of Indian history is full of accounts of such adventurers who have left their footprints behind. The holy places of Patal Bhubaneswar, Gangotri and Badrinath have been written about so much that I merely skimmed through these chapters, not expecting and not getting anything out of the ordinary. But, the sojourn to Mana, the last village in India had all the romantic overtones expected from the “Indian end of the caravan trail in the old Indo Tibetan trading days.”

The essay on the Thaaru feminists — from a little known tribe — who cook their husbands’ food, put it on a plate and then kick it towards them instead of serving them was amusing.

What was very endearing and human was that the men, although they seem to have accepted this unusual custom, showed a childish petulance in discussing it with the authors!

Their question to the authors — “is it true that some of your families kill girl babies even before they are born” —is telling. The authors’ comments on this are honest.The style is easy and unpretentious. The opening sentences of some chapters are provocative: “for two days and nights we journeyed on a trail that was thousands of years old. And yet it was brand new.” “Once upon a time we met a God.”

A map would have been useful, to position exactly the places visited by this intrepid couple.

In the end, it is an easy dialogue with the authors about their observations. However, at times, there is the wish that they had really entered the world they had traversed.

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