In the mountains

In the mountains

The Himalayan Arc: Journeys East of South-East is an anthology of writings edited by Namita Gokhale. Positioned as a travel book with a difference (that’s what the book’s jacket says), The Himalayan Arc focuses on the stretch of the Himalayas, east of the Uttarakhand-Nepal border. Save one beautifully written piece set in Dharamshala and a couple of other articles concerning the Himalayas as a border and therefore viewing the range in full, we are treated to writings on and from Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, northern Bengal, North East India and Myanmar. This is also the portion that historically received less attention in the popular literature. The northwestern stretch of the Himalaya enjoys adequate space in Indian imagination.

The book is a departure from the regular travel book in a few ways. First, it is not entirely in travelogue style. The anthology is a mix of writing from the region it has focused on, plus writing by outsiders as opposed to the diet of outsiders, and their view of the Himalaya we have grown up with. Portrayed thus from within, a certain no-nonsense quality and depiction of reality (including the harder realities) usually associated with the more intensely reported plains, characterises this anthology.

Second, there is serious writing from well-known literary figures and articles authored by journalists. My favourites were the chapters from Sujeev Shakya; Amish Raj Mulmi, Thomas Bell, Sushma Joshi, Tsering Tashi, Manoj Joshi, Catherine Anderson, Prajwal Parajuly, Janice Pariat, Indira Goswami, Ma Thida, David Malone and Tulsi Badrinath.

However, it is precisely in my preference that I find this anthology a tad confusing. Besides featuring more writers than the names mentioned above, the book also hosts poetry and a collection of photographs. It would be a shame to conclude on the basis of my limitations that the other writers and poets aren’t as engaging as the ones capturing my interest. I am a creature of my tastes; I dig certain types of writing and I nurse little empathy for poetry.

As a reader, I would have liked it if the anthology — even as it stays within the mandate of being a ‘’ travel book with a difference’’ — was more narrowly cast in terms of what it wishes to show of the region and what style of writing it uses for it. That allows folks like me to settle into a cocoon and read the book from cover to cover. I found the shifts in genre and variation in the intensity of prose and quality of observation, making for a bumpy ride. None of it can be blamed on the authors. It is just that readers bring their acquired taste to the table. Editors can challenge these habits within a limited bandwidth; which they should, ensuring alongside that the rocking boat doesn’t capsize. For example, well-researched non-fiction on a region, an insightful travelogue from that place and an intense piece of fiction with that place for backdrop can be gone through in one sitting because even as genre changes, there is no slackening in the quality of engagement. Some jolt between chapters is therefore welcome. Question is – what makes it too much to bear?

I also felt that the subjects covered overlooked certain traits of the region. It mentions music in passing. But it doesn’t explore further despite the music being there all over the Himalayas and India’s longest bridge over River Lohit named after Bhupen Hazarika. Equally overlooked was sports. A state like Manipur is a powerhouse in Indian sports; the North East is home to some robust football clubs. Similarly, while Nepal’s Maoist movement and Darjeeling’s Gorkhaland agitation find mention, aside from a powerful chapter by Indira Goswami there is little on life under the gun — be it insurgent’s or the state’s — in the North East. Such life was prolonged in some states. The blockades endured by Nepal find mention but not the blockades that choked Manipur. On the other hand, there is nostalgia — writings harking back to World War II and vignettes of life from the waning days of local kingdoms.

Aside from the fact that the anthology serves as a catalogue of writers and poets, all of who open windows to the region, I was unable to string it all together into a sensible whole. What I relished was the honesty in the occasional observation, the occasional outburst in travelogue or work of fiction. That was a welcome departure from tourism’s marketing campaigns.

This book could have been a more pointed read. But it is still worth adding to your collection for some of the chapters are thought-provoking. And, like I said, I am not the only one gazing at the Himalayas. Another reader may like what I choose to avoid.