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Loss of innocence

Stephen Alter pulls his punches when it comes to social commentary but sparks begin to fly when he becomes one with the trees and the birds, says BILL AITKEN.

A MEMORABLE travelogue arouses in the reader a lingering desire to follow in the author's footsteps, even when the mountain terrain he covers is as formidable as in this book on interior Garhwal. Sacred Waters will appeal either to hardened trekkers, for the authenticity of its flavour of the high hills, or to newcomers, unacquainted with the area and its Dev Bhumi associations. Stephen Alter is the best of guides, having grown up in Garhwal. He brings to his affection for the folklore a scientific regard for the birds, animals and minerals along the trail, a talent not shared by his editor who, instead of "muleteers" gives us "mule tiers" (a radish on radials?).

Few are blessed with the inputs of two civilisations and Stephen Alter puts to good use his dual cultural background by interfacing with the villagers along the way on their terms. However just as the subtitle of his four treks to the Char Dham is ambiguous (he walks to three of the "many sources"), his social commentary, while scoring useful points, pulls its punches. The fledgling state of Uttaranchal badly needs advice from footloose wanderers on how best to develop its tourist assets but Alter's prescriptions, while agonising over the slum status of pilgrim places like Gangotri, fail to offer any drastic alternative. After trekking 600 kilometres, on and off over a year, he spends exactly an hour in Badrinath. What should have been the climax of his pilgrimage ends in revulsion at the mix of saffron ecclesiastical pomp, white sepulchral khadi and black cat successors to the kala kambliwalas.

Again, with his well-informed views on the environment and interviews with the Chipko leaders Sunderlalji and Chandi Prasad, he is content to cast doubts on the viability of eco-tourism rather than fulminate against its schizophrenic potential. Similarly the Tehri dam is assailed more for the ugly scars it has left on the landscape and the lives of the oustees than for the monumental folly of its conception on a known geological fault line.

Teaching English at MIT, the author treads softly as befits an academic and sparks only begin to fly off his anvil when he clears the contentious level of human habitation and, like a latter-day Thoreau, becomes one with the trees and birds. Walking alone through a Himalayan forest just after dawn, a pale grey light filters in between the trees sharpening the edges of the shadows and giving the shape of branches a subtle adumbration. The air is clean and moist and bird songs erupt from all sides "(providing) an overture to the day."

What starts as a physical pilgrimage turns accidentally into an enquiry into the meaning of true religion. In all his writings, Alter probes the conundrum of whether a person's deepest level of being is Christian, Hindu, both or neither! If the "ultimate enigma of the human soul" eludes him, he recognises how spontaneous acts of kindness by laymen speak more of godliness than the quivering greed of guardian priests. He is struck by the unlikely beauty of Gujjar graves on a Panwali buggial and meets a herdsman carrying his daughter to a doctor two days away. She has been paralysed by a stroke of lightning and 15 buffaloes have also been electrocuted in a storm that ravaged their encampment. Contrast their huge financial loss with Amitabh Bacchan's helicopter trip and his ride to Kedarnath in a palanquin borne by four coolies.

Sacred Waters is well structured and to emphasise the capriciousness of nature the author introduces the local lore of the Devi who mutilated her body in order to find a mate. Echoing this demonic theology is the dark denouement of a missing French trekking couple. The woman's body is found gruesomely murdered (by goatherds) with her hands tied behind her back and her head severed. Such things were unthinkable in Uttaranchal until very recently and it is grim irony that Stephen Alter's book, concerned to demonstrate the paradisiacal aspect of this pahari ilaka should announce Garhwal's loss of innocence.

Sacred Waters: A Pilgrimage to the Many Sources of the Ganga, Stephen Alter, Penguin, p.356, Rs. 295.

Bill Aitken has written a number of travelogues, including

The Nanda Devi Affair.

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