Asha Menon strives to combine the specificities of a travelogue with an aesthetics of the sublime in his Himachalinte Nissanthwanangal from Mathrubhumi Books which seems yet another book on the majestic beauty of the Himalayas. Yet it traces the disconsolations of a writer who wanders the Himalayan way a second time. The author claims that this travelogue is by no means either a progressive or regressive re-reading of the consolations provided by his Himalayan sojourn 10 years earlier.
The preface records that every landscape flows by like a river thereby making it impossible for anyone to be on the same spot twice. Menon dabbles in the material and the metaphysical realms as he ponders over the reasons why the Himalayas seem so indelibly inscribed on his travel map. The deeply introspective preface sets the mood and tone of the journey.
While noting that nothing is ever completed or fulfilled, the fact remains that like the fish that dives into the depth of the oceans and the stag that roams the forest deep or the turtle that burrows deep into the desert sands, each journey into the unknown has a vague sense of the limitless and the infinite, though perceived through the limited and the finite. In a prose bordering on the poetic and the philosophical, Menon uses nostalgia as a technique to enhance the mystic and aesthetic value of the Himalayas.
What is most interesting in the narrative is the way people are projected as cultural curios where the beauty of the author’s interactions with those that he meets in the dhabas or wayside eateries, vehicle drivers, peddlers and village women, comes out through the way they are seen as culturally embedded in their habitats, at peace with their environment. People also become interesting in the context of the information that they provide, often not provided by ‘tourist information centres’, as also in the endless supply of myths and legends that they contribute to the travel story. The Manimahesh Kailash, which was the destination of the author’s journey, becomes an elusive metaphor for that which remains incomplete, tenuous or unattained in all journeys.
The book begins by tracing the journey across the Shivaliks from Delhi to Jwalamukhi and Dharamshala in Himachal. The description of an evening in Dalhousie, its colonial past, wooded streets, exhilarating mistiness and nature cures link the author’s quest with the land and its indigenous lives.
The reversing of the biological clock in the swift, gurgling wild waters of the Beas offers an interesting argument. Vignettes of Manali, Shimla, Rohtang Pass, Yamunothri, Badrinath, Kedarnath and Tunganath among numerous other places, graphic descriptions of the rivers Alakananda, Bhageerathi and Ganga and the commingling of their waters enhance the pictorial beauty of the book, as do the photographs by K.R.Vinayan.
The attempts at ethnographic descriptions remain rather amateur in the text. The stock device in travel writing, like its tendency to neglect history in search of ‘timeless truths’ and romantic notions of universal peace and harmony, can be found in plenty here too.
A lament on environmental degradation, waste management, depletion of natural resources, global warming and the disappearing indigenous tribes runs parallel to the narrative and attempts to critique the aesthetics of the journey in subtle yet significant ways.
This book has to be placed in the context of the numerous other books in Malayalam on the experience of the Himalayas from that of Rajan Kakkanadan to M.K.Ramachandran, all of which forge a continuum in imagining the majestic mountains of the subcontinent from the shores of the Arabian Sea. These are all books that write the surrogate pilgrimages that Malayalis have made through literature to these mystic terrains.
In the context of a shrinking world, travel writings have gained centre stage again, especially in view of the fact that travel erases margins and borders and offers contact zones for culture. But as far as many Indians are concerned, the metaphor of the journey to the Himalayas forms the very way in which life is conceived, as a journey from birth to death, the transience of consciousness as it moves from one world to another, a movement from ignorance and darkness to awakening and enlightenment. A book that will surely fuel the seemingly unquenchable thirst for the exotic allure of the Himalayas, and feed the rising literary market for poetic mysticism and soft spirituality.