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Contemporary Hindi independent scholar
YĀTRĀ VRTTĀNT: DIFFERENT PERCEPTIONS OF THE HIMALAYAN REGIONS IN THE TRAVEL NARRATIVES OF GAGAN GILL AND ANIL YĀDAV
From time immemorial, the Himalayas and their surroundings have been a destination for different kind of pilgrimages. People from urban areas visit this region in a quest for experiences that will restitute a sense not to be found in their comfort zone (also the place of routine and alienation). Valentina Barnabei analyses two different expressions of this phenomenon in Hindi literature: Avāk. Kailāś- Mānsarovar: ek antaryātrā and Vah bhī koī deś hai maharāj.
The Timeless Charm of the Himalayas
The Himalayan high plateau, stretching for about 2500 kilometres between India, to the west, and China, to the east, and its surrounding regions exert a timeless charm on those who cross through them or dream about them. Furthermore, this high plateau has a peculiar importance for Buddhists, for Tibetan followers of the Bön religion, for Hindus, because their Trimūrti resides on Brahmalok, Vaikuṇṭh and Kailāś (Consolaro 2013:1), and even for Sikhs. Indeed, Guru Nānak in person made a pilgrimage to the sacred places of the Himalayas (Consolaro 2013:2). Nowadays, an important part of any discourse linked to the Himalayas concerns their contradistinction to the world of the plains, characterised – according to some – by chaos and the absence of simplicity. Indeed, it seems that the Himalayan region emblemises the importance of cultural differences in building the Indian identity (Pozza 2015: 52). Even now, this region continues to be the destination of numerous travellers who reach its summits with the most diverse aims. Such travellers include writers who, thanks to their yātrā vRttānt (Hindi for “travelogue”), have become part of the long discourse of literature concerning the Himalaya and its cultures, enriching it with their accounts. Such authors, contemporary women and men, for different reasons and at different times, decided to leave temporarily the large towns and metropolises where they live, and choose the Himalayan region. Among those who have made a major contribution to Hindi travel literature in the modern period, we should mention Gagan Gill and Anil Yādav, authors of Avāk. Kailāś-Mānsarovar: ek antaryātrā (“Speechless. Kailāś-Mānsarovar: an inner journey”) and of Vah bhī koī des hai maharāj (Is that even a country, Sir!) respectively1. These two writers, who share a journalistic background, have published highly different accounts concerning their experiences in the regions of the Himalayan chain. Their two points of view will be analysed through their own words. The analysis will focus particularly on how the authors describe the places and people that are part of their journeys, observing the relation between their descriptions of these places and of the inhabitants of the Himalayan regions.
Avāk – the speechless journey of Gagan Gill
Avāk. Kailāś-Mānsarovar: ek antaryātrā is the prose and verse work by Gagan Gill devoted to her pilgrimage to Mount Kailāś and Lake Mānsarovar. This account bears witness to the double journey, both inner and outer, which the author took for about two weeks with the aim of circumambulating the area of Mount Kailāś and Lake Mānsarovar. What interests Gagan Gill above all is the peak of Dolma-Lā, a site of religious interest in Tibet, where worshippers leave to the Goddess Tara objects that belonged to their deceased loved-ones. Indeed, the reason for which Gill decided to leave New Delhi for a time, where she lives and works, is the loss of her companion Nirmal Verma, also an author of travel narratives and pioneer of the literary movement Nayī Kahānī (“new history”).
Besides practical advice to Indian citizens who have to ask the Chinese government for a visa to visit the region, Avāk expresses very clearly the political ideas of the author, a fervent partisan of the Free Tibet movement2. Below, we shall deal with the encounters and places that form an integral part of Gill’s journey, a journey not without difficulties. These elements will help us understand Gagan Gill’s view of the Himalayan region and will allow us to analyse how the author – narrator of the work – expresses her impressions and interactions with the Himalayan context.
Gill interacts with various people, only two of whom are locals. At the border between Nepal and Tibet she meets a child of ten-twelve. Their dialogue is emblematic of her exchanges with other characters cited in the work.
“What is your name?”
A light-skinned kid of ten-twelve is pulling my handbag out of my hand, insisting that he is going to take it to the other side. […]“First tell me your name!” I ask him again.
The child sees nothing interesting in this superfluous discourse. He simply wants to know whether I am about to give him my bag to carry or not. If not, he will look for another traveller!
“Fine! If I give you my bag, will you tell me your name?”
“Yes, my name is Viṣṇu.”
“You’re lying?” (Gill 2009: 46-47)3.
The whole dialogue, presented in direct speech, is characterised by Gagan Gill’s distrust and the insistence of the child, whose real first name is Ratan.
Suddenly, Gill has a revealing flash and understands clearly the harshness of this child’s life, until that moment perceived only as an annoyance: “His companions, coming and going, are signalling to him. He doesn’t look in their direction. He is totally lost. Such a great problem for such a young life!” (Gill 2009:49)4.
From this moment on, Gill becomes more affectionate toward her interlocutor and accepts to call him Viṣṇu. When she states that the child is a god, he reacts in an unexpected way, affirming with tears in his voice, “If I am a god, why did I fall down here?” (Gill 2009: 50)5.
In Avāk, most dialogues between the writer and others are developed in the form of direct speech. At the same time, the presence of the author’s personal impressions, interrupting the flow of interactions with her interlocutors, constantly place history’s focus on the narrator’s perspective.
The journey presents numerous difficulties, especially for those who, like the author, live in a polluted environment at low altitude, as in a town, and are not accustomed to living in the mountains. Despite all this, Gill shows great enthusiasm for the Himalayan countryside. Before starting her journey, Gill describes the Lake of Mānsarovar and Mount Kailāś as places on the border of reality, where peace can be attained. In Chapter 20, entitled “One of the purest of waters”, she reaches the foot of Mount Kailāś and her ideas seem to be confirmed: “In the snows of Kailāś there are ladders. It is the southern face of this mountain. Are these the ladders of paradise?” (Gill 2009: 112)6.
Not only does the strictly natural aspect charm our author, but also the atmosphere experienced in some of the Himalayan villages, where the simplicity of the buildings harmonises with the beauty of Nature.
Who knows when time began to elapse?
Not only have we left civilisation somewhere behind us, but its importance is no longer felt either. We are heading towards a time that is pure and original. Nowhere is there electricity or running water. No pipes, nor toilets, nor drains. There is a village frozen in time, its name is Prayang. It stands at an altitude of 4400 metres.
Our last stop on the way to Mansarovar. It’s like going back five hundred years, to encounter our ancestors. And as soon as we arrive: infinite peace. Authenticity.
In a magnificent room, there are six wooden seats. Walls of earth; roof of earth. The walls are painted in the colours of Tibet, on the walls is a border of green, blue and red.
The colours of natural elements. So that no one forgets they are encircled and established.
Tomorrow we reach Mansarovar.
The house. The yard.
In the middle, a well, with a wooden cover, locked with a chain and padlock. When the sherpa draws water from it, I ask him:
“May I take a look?”
“Yes, yes, why not?”
The sky swims at the bottom of the well… Exactly as in a film by Tarkovski…(Gill 2009: 91)7.
Nowadays, an important part of any discourse linked to the Himalayas concerns their contradistinction to the world of the plains, characterised – according to some – by chaos and the absence of simplicity
It is quite clear that Gagan Gill’s view is strongly influenced by those ideas considering the Himalayan regions as places that have retained their purity and authenticity, unlike the towns and villages of the plains. The protagonist’s sensations in this “primitive” place are clear and decided. Her interaction with her surroundings starts with a return to the natural, simple era of the ancestors and concludes with the image of the sky reflected in the crystalline water of the well. The vocabulary and the images chosen reflect a universe made of purity, impossible to find elsewhere. Himalayan nature, which knows no human intervention, constitutes an essential element guiding the deepest thoughts of the author-protagonist. In the following passage, the sight of a solitary swan in a natural setting of astonishing beauty leads Gill to reflect on consciousness, perception and gratitude.
In the sky a swan flies. One. Alone.
Such a lonely swan in such a beautiful nature…
Does he know how beautiful this land is? How lucky he is?
Is he grateful for being himself?
If I were a bird, how I would have said “I am grateful!”
I am grateful for having eyes that can see, for having a body that has brought me here, for having a mind that perceives.
I am grateful for being this. I saw you, god…(Gill 2009: 200-201)8.
Although the relationship between the author and the locals is characterised by hesitation and uncertainty, her description of nature and the Himalayan landscape leaves no room for negative emotions.
Vah bhī koī des hai maharāj: India’s mysterious North-East seen by Anil Yādav
Vah bhī koī des hai maharāj is the account of the journey of the journalist Anil Yādav and his friend and colleague Anhes Shashwat in the region of India’s north-east. The reasons that spur the pair to undertake this adventure are very different from those of Gagan Gill. Indeed, the journalists are in the economic doldrums and hope to improve their situation by writing articles on the highly complex political and social conditions of this region. The author travels through Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and Manipur. The result of this experience is consequently a literary work rediscovering a geographical area often forgotten, perceived by other Indians as remote, peopled by bizarre folk; a place of mysterious and frightening events.
The narrative, packed with information about the politics of the situation and groups of the locations visited, pays great attention to the locals’ viewpoint. Several times, the inhabitants of the north-east express themselves without the mediation of the narrative voice, even though they are sometimes presented by the author. The following is a passage in which Yādav presents women of the Khasi ethnic group:
In Khasi folk-tales, the sun is female and the moon male. Indeed, Khasi men are only seen in the light of their women. Here, property is transferred to the name of the youngest daughter, called ‘kā-kuḍḍū’. When a man has to obtain a bank credit, it is a woman who validates the guarantee. But these girls were lovely so long as they smiled. The moment they laughed, a wave of terror began to rise in me. The teeth of most of the women, open like red-coloured saws embedded in gum, were worn down owing to the custom of chewing kway (the tāmul9 of Meghalaya) since childhood. The beautiful faces that supported these teeth recalled the villains of Puranic tales (Yadav 2017:33)10.
Despite their authority within the community, these women play a passive role in the narrative sequences given above. The absence of any direct communication with the protagonist creates a distance between them, turning them into objects to be described rather than active subjects, and the reader.. The description of these women, both distinguished and dreadful, is only one of the innumerable passages presenting characters of a strongly ambivalent nature. The ambivalence of the people is reflected in the territories of India’s north-east: the lands are naturally rich (Yadav 2017:132), but they are characterised by poverty and political instability as well. Indeed, political instability and danger feature throughout the narrative. The areas travelled through by Anil Yādav are, in his opinion, the most disastrous and dangerous in all India. The author often describes situations of violence, danger and open unrest. Furthermore, there is no lack of passages in which the element of danger is manifested through allusions and sibylline phrases.
The need for a permit to enter Naga territory and the warnings against the region’s inhabitants help create a disturbing atmosphere that implies in readers’ minds an omen of future dangers. Locals’ opinions expressed in the incisive form of direct speech are typical of Yādav’s narration. Indeed, the author, a journalist, often utilises this expedient to make the events narrated even more credible. Furthermore, the use of direct speech and the detailed descriptions of characters and places encourage the readers’ emotional participation. The following is an example:
Number Four is the code for heroin introduced here covertly, passing through Moreh, from the Golden Triangle – Laos, Thailand and Burma. Groups of boys and girls who dissolve the drug in water and inject it have become a distinctive sign of this district. Their characteristics are red eyes, inexpressive faces and a slight fever. Manipur is ashamed of them, the militants shoot them; they are tied up with ropes in centres, both governamental and not, for detoxification. Despite this, their number continues to grow. […]Chalambi was proud that neither she nor her child had resulted positive to any test. She has become a single mother at seventeen and has no idea who the child’s father is. Somebody gave her the child in exchange for Number Four a year-and-a-half ago. Her family refused to let her stay with them. […]She didn’t agree that shared syringes caused the spread of AIDS in the north-east. She says, “First the dealers make the girls addicts, then they turn them into women who will prostitute themselves for a dose. That’s the reason for this spreading of the disease”.
“[…]Everywhere there’s such a disaster that children eat raw potatoes and start stealing as soon as they are a bit older.”
She was saying that children eat raw potatoes before going to school, which is why the teachers don’t identify the smell of alcohol (Yadav 2017: 148-150)12.
This passage shows the desolation, sickness and violence in which many inhabitants of the State of Manipur live. Yādav describes the young heroin addicts in eloquent detail (their inexpressive faces, in Hindi “patthar caharā”, faces of stone) without using words that might suggest any kind of moral judgement. Indeed, the fact that the journalist merely chronicles the situation without providing personal impressions does not mean that he holds a bad opinion of the persons described. On the contrary, the absence of any personal comments, the wish not to use terms that might mitigate the actual living conditions of these young people, and the space given to Chalambi’s voice and her story, represent Yādav’s strategy to bring his readers closer to these unfortunate characters.
The passages analysed show us how the authors chose to portray two of the most important aspects of their travels in the Himalayan regions: the natural and the human aspects. Gill and Yādav present them to their readers in very different ways. The author of Avāk devotes many narrative sequences to describing the beauties of Himalayan nature and the reflections roused by its contemplation, whereas the journey of Anil Yādav features disturbing presages suggested at once by people, nature and events. However, whereas in Gill’s work communication with the locals is relatively limited, in Yādav’s narrative it plays a fundamental role. Indeed, when the locals express themselves in direct speech, the author tries to avoid any personal comment that could shift the narrative focus towards his own point of view.
The passages analysed here allow us to note opposite trends in portraying the Himalayan regions in the two works: in Avāk we recognise a contrast between enthusiasm for nature and a kind of prudence characterising the author’s interactions with the locals, while in Vah bhī koi des hai maharāj we observe an organic way of representing society, culture and landscape. Albeit very different, these two literary examples share a major characteristic: showing the Himalayan regions as places on the threshold of ordinary reality, whose nature is opposite to the landscapes of urban areas, where human experience is pushed to the very limit.
Consolaro, A. (2013). “Politics and poetics of a sacred route in Gagan Gill’s travelogue”. Karvan – International Journal of Afro-Asiatic Studies, n° 13, pp. 1-16.
Gill, G. (2009). Avāk: Kailāś-Mānasarovar, ek antaryātrā. New Delhi: Vāṇī Prakāśan.
Pozza, N. (2015). “Wandering Writers in the Himalaya: Contesting Narratives and Renunciation in Modern Hindi Literature”. Cracow Indological Studies, Vol. XVII, pp. 49-84.
Yadav, A. (2012). Vah bhī koi deś hai maharāj: Yātrā-vr̥ttānt. G̲h̲āziyābād: Āntikā Prakāśan.
Yādav, A. (2017). Is that even a country, sir!: Journeys in Northeast India by train, bus and tractor. Translated by Anurag Basnet. Anurag Basnet translated Vah bhī koī deś hai maharāj into English as Is that even a country, Sir!
This fascinating subject can be plumbed in the article “Politics and poetics of a sacred route in Gagan Gill’s travelogue. Avāk : Kailāś-Mānsarovar ek antaryātrā” by Alessandra