Saturday, May 31, 2014

High on the Mountain

Published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine Dec 8, 2013

In the darkness, someone whispers, “Here, here. Come here, there’s space.” My spouse Rom and I settle into the hard wooden chairs, in time to hear the musicians break into The Ventures’ ‘Walk Don’t Run.’ Under the blazing stage lights, young men with distinct northeastern features strum guitars casually. Rock gods normally strut the stage, fling their guitars and arms triumphantly, and dance with the tireless energy that only the chemically-high possess. But these youngsters from Shillong, led by Felix Langstieh, are keener to mimic the musical prowess of the rockers than their flamboyant stage presence. Rock songs roll after country – Elvis Presley, Jim Reeves, Pat Boone, Chuck Berry – and the audience squeals, sings, and claps along. The energy in the auditorium is electric. Age is no bar – everyone from the elderly to teenagers sway and snap fingers. And thus the 6th Mussoorie Writers’ Mountain Festival warms the hearts of all seated in the Woodstock School auditorium.

For two days we sit indoors, swaddled in pullovers, jackets, and scarfs, cocooned from the cold Himalayan wind, celebrating the outdoors and icy peaks. Stories of mountaineers, who defy all earthly odds to drag their bodies across slippery ice to the pinnacle of the world, make me giddy. Freddie Wilkinson goes on a holiday to Alaska, decides to climb the 3000-metre Moose’s Tooth on a lark, and succeeds. Daniele Nardi scrambles up the glacial walls of K2 with the agility of a monitor lizard, while Krzysztof Wielicki specializes in climbing mountains at their most inhospitable, in the dead of winter. I’m enthralled by the quixotic folly of these men pitting their grit against the mighty mountains.

The exploits of these unique specimens of the human race extract a terrible toll from their families says Maria Coffey, bringing me tumbling down the slopes to the ground. While her boyfriend tries to summit Everest, she tries to live life as normally as a young woman could under the circumstances. But he and his climbing partner perish on the mountain, their corpses untraceable. Maria’s descriptions of her anguish constrict my throat.

Despite the price mountains extract, Dawa Steven Sherpa offers his energy to them. Along with other sherpas, he systematically cleans the slopes of garbage. From being one of the filthiest mountains, the Everest looks whiter now. Building on the success of this enterprise, Dawa works to reverse climate change and promote better water use.

Every evening, our taxi hurtles down or spews exhaust as it struggles up the narrow concrete hill roads. On one such trip, Daniele, who sits quietly next to the driver, comments, “I should take a video of this and show my Italian friends. It’ll show them you can drive without cursing and fighting.” That’s true; no Mussoorie driver even silently gestures his disdain for another’s driving skills. They manoeuvre around inconsiderately parked cars and edge perilously off the road to allow a mini bus through. At the end of these crazy road trips, wine, dinner, and conviviality awaits.

For most of one evening, veterinarian-photographer Dag Goering and I stand beside a warm fireplace at the Alters’ discussing how to solve conflicts between elephants and humans. His real concern is captive elephants, but he’s also keen to do something for wild elephants. For part of the year, he and Maria live on a hippie island in Canada that grows a lot of weed and shuns electricity from the grid. The rest of the time, they run adventure tours in exotic remote locations.

It’s cloudy and colder than I expected. I’m twice my girth with warm padding and still I shiver. Steve reminds, “The mountaineers were a lot colder than you are now.” A sobering thought and my muscles momentarily stop jerking. I feel like a tropical plant displaced from the greenhouse among the other guests, who seem well-acclimatized, until Maria rubs her fingers exclaiming, “It’s cold.” Steve had said this was the best time of year to be at Mussoorie and I wonder if I’d survive the winter here. The mere thought makes my teeth chatter. Steve clarifies, “Usually, we have warm, sunny days in November. This is unusual.” Poetry, scheduled to be read under the iconic lyre tree that’s also the school’s emblem, moves indoors.

Under a clear starry sky, I try to thaw my hands at a blazing brazier at Rokeby Manor’s rooftop. I can’t find the right distance – too close and the fire roasts my fingers; too far and digits turn to icicles. Ecologist Theophilus lives in a remote village near Munsyari, eastern Uttarakhand, where he bakes his own bread in a clay oven. Rom had one built at home recently, and I wonder if I can bake with my silicone bakeware. Theo says, “Use tin pans, no? You just have to butter and flour them.”

“But I don’t want to buy a whole range of bakeware for the clay oven.”

“In Delhi, you can buy aluminium pans lined with silicone. Maybe you can use those.”

Conversation turns to bread recipes, solar-powered refrigerators, and other homely subjects that bond two people who share a similar lifestyle in the boondocks.

With 20 participants, Mussoorie Writers’ Mountain Festival is small enough to get to know everyone, and when we take leave, it’s bitter sweet: I look forward to returning to the warmth of the plains but the time spent with new friends is much too brief.

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