Stephen Alter speaks to Supriya Sharma about his new book. Excerpts:
What was the biggest difficulty you faced while writing about your journey of healing?
I think any writer has to decide how much of himself or herself they put in a book. I could have written this book like a travelogue, but I chose to also write about the attack we suffered in a way of framing those journeys as that was the motive behind the journeys. And I think that is a difficult choice for a writer, because here I had to place myself within each of those journeys more actively than I ordinarily would. So rather than taking a more objective perspective on the journey, it became personal. Once I resolved that and realised I am going to be talking about the attack I understood where to place myself.
What made you choose these three mountains?
Half an hour away from our home in Mussoorie is a small ridge called Flag Hill. It is a place I go to often and look out on the snow peaks. And the peak that is right in front of me is Bandarpunch. The other mountain that I can see from Flag Hill is Nanda Devi. So in a sense these two mountains were like landmarks on the horizon for me. Flag Hill gets its name from the Tibetan flags tied there that carry prayers across the Himalayas to Kailash. Even though I can’t see Kailash from Mussoorie, I was aware of its presence. So for me they became the three points in the story. I associate Bandarpunch with healing. It was named after Hanuman who came to the Himalayas to find the herb of healing. Nanda Devi represents bliss and contentment and on a higher level, Kailash represents some level of transcendence where you overcome suffering. So those three peaks form the triangle which provides the geography for the book.
Has writing this book helped you find closure?
I am suspicious of books as therapy. Barring your soul on the page doesn’t always help you in that way. But for me it was important for two reasons. The journeys themselves were cathartic. In the book, I talk about writing with my feet. So the first draft of this book really was the journeys.
Putting it down on the page was the next step of the cathartic process. It helped yes but not to get a complete closure. The attack will always be a part of my experience. It made me question whether the Himalayas were my home. For me those journeys were a way of reconnecting with the place and being able to say ‘yes, it is safe for me to walk here. Yes, this is a place I can continue to call home’.
Are you still an atheist?
Yes, I am an atheist but at the same time I continue to be interested in sacred beliefs, stories and rituals. I use the word atheist in the broadest sense. Being one allows me to appreciate a situation when I am visiting a sacred site like Kailash or going to a temple for darshan. I can respect the beliefs of those around and at the same time ask myself ‘What is the origin of these beliefs?’ Because there was a time when none of these religions existed. And that is one of the central questions in the book. I don’t state it directly but when I talk about the sublime—that experience where you see the beauty in nature and at the same time you are terrified by the face of the mountain, the precipice at your feet... that to me is the point at which all of this started. When human beings look at nature—mountains, an ocean during a storm—when we confront nature in all its beauty as well as destructiveness, we are moved to search for some meaning in all of that. And I think often the sacred impulse is driven by that paradox of simultaneous beauty and fear.
What is the most important thing you realised?
That when we set ourselves apart from nature, we are making a huge mistake. If we climb a mountain simply to conquer it we are losing the real experience of establishing a connection with it. During the course of the journeys, I realised it is much more important to understand our place in nature rather than step out of it.