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Essay

A View of Mt Everest

By Ravi Shankar

Everest up close. Photo courtesy: Ravi Shankar

The water was hot and the pressure optimum. For me the shower was a moment of pure bliss. I had heard poetic descriptions from fellow trekkers of the shower at the Eco Lodge. The hot water condensed in the cold air forming a welcome cocoon of warmth around me. Unfortunately, the shower duration was limited to five minutes. The water was heated using gas as was common throughout the Everest trekking region of Nepal. In the Annapurna region, north of the city of Pokhara, solar water heaters were common. Gas heaters always make me feel guilty about the environmental impact.  

The water washed away the accumulated grime and sweat. The shower was expensive, and I was on a tight budget. My funds only permitted a shower once every ten to fourteen days. We were researchers involved in a clinical trial on high-altitude illness. The participants were enrolled at Pheriche more than 700 meters below and the study end point was at Lobuche (4900 m).  Participants received two medical check-ups at high altitudes and two cups of tea/coffee for participating.

The Eco Lodge was an upmarket lodge in Lobuche in the year 2007 and we were staying there for over a month. Participants came to the lodge to complete the study and receive a second medical check-up. We listened to their chests, provided a physical examination, and measured their blood pressure and oxygen saturation. We had received a discount on the room rent but the food was expensive. Lobuche is situated at the foot of the Khumbu glacier. Everything had to be hauled from below.

For a long time, Lobuche had an unwelcome reputation due to the poor quality of the lodges. The restrooms were dirty, and the bedrooms flimsy. Maintaining hygiene in the cold dusty environment was a challenge. The Eco Lodge was the first upmarket lodge offering wood-panelled bedrooms with glass windows and clean toilets. The lodge had night toilets inside and day toilets outside. We were allotted an inside room in the main building. Dr Anup and I were the two doctors at Lobuche. The rooms were unheated and freezing though the main dining room had the ubiquitous cast iron heater burning yak dung. Yak dung is precious as fuel at these altitudes. It burns well with minimal smoke and residue and the flame is hot.    

We were also the only doctors camped at Lobuche though some of the larger groups did have a doctor and the Sherpa guides were well-versed in altitude sickness. We did receive occasional calls for assistance. The Mountain Medicine Society of Nepal (MMSN) and the Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA) conduct clinical trials in the Everest and Manang regions of Nepal every fall. These provide medical students an opportunity to work with foreign experts and develop an interest in the subject. You receive transportation to the site, the services of a porter and a subsistence allowance.

Participants in the study had been instructed to check in with us after they had settled in Lobuche. In the evening we used to go around the other lodges looking for participating trekkers who had not yet met us. The evenings were chilly, and a freezing wind blew from the high Himalayas across the glacier. On climbing the moraines of the glacier there were spectacular views of the snow peaks. Sunset on Mt Lobuche and Mt Nuptse is not to be missed. The peaks turn golden yellow, then red, different shades of pink and finally the light is slowly extinguished.

The dining room at the Eco Lodge was smaller than the one at Nuru’s place in Pheriche and there was no green house. Dining rooms are the beating hearts of trekking lodges. At Lobuche the Sun was often covered in clouds and a cold wind blew off and on. The lodge did have glass tiles in the roof to capture the Sun. At night the dining room was cosy, and we met some interesting persons there during our stay. In those days there was no telephone service and no internet. A satellite phone was available in case of emergencies.        

Nights in the room were freezing and I was reminded of Peter Matthiessen’s descriptions in the book The Snow Leopard of the long freezing nights in his tent at Shey Gompa in Dolpa. Our room was inside and out of the wind, and we also had a glass roof to catch the Sun. Anything kept outside in the room would be frozen solid by the morning. You had to keep stuff with you inside the quilt so that it could be gently warmed by your body heat. The long silent nights were conducive to meditating about life (and death).  

From Lobuche it is a four-hour hike to the Everest Base camp at 5400 m. The hike is through the Khumbu Glacier and through stones and boulders. Some of the boulders were larger than a house. Global warming has resulted in significant shrinking and drying of the glaciers and the Khumbu and Ngozumpa glacier in the Everest region have both retreated significantly. The hike passes through the settlement of Gorak Shep and the weather can change dramatically in a few minutes. I had started my trek on a clear, sunny day but halfway through clouds gathered and the mountains were shrouded in white. Soon it started snowing heavily. The boulders became slick and slippery in the snow and walking became difficult.

During a previous visit I had visited ‘The Pyramid’, a scientific research station run by an international consortium in association with the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST). The research facilities were great, and the station is located at a 20 minutes’ walk from the trail. The station is entirely powered by solar energy. The location is spectacular, and the station is located far from the trials and tribulations of our imperfect world.

Staying in a trekking lodge for over a month is a different experience. Trekkers come and go but we continued to remain in the lodge. The cold was our constant enemy. The tips of your fingers became numb after a few minutes in the cold wind. The ultraviolet rays were strong at the high altitude, and I was soon tanned a dark shade of brown. Lobuche was the highest altitude at which I had stayed for nearly 40 days. All things considered I still preferred staying with Nuru at Pheriche where the climate is more hospitable, and life was gentler.

My friend Anup left at the end of the month. I had changed my place of work and still had some time before I joined a new medical school being set up in the Kathmandu valley and could stay longer till the next group of doctors could reach Lobuche and manage the study. The settlement of Lobuche was set up to meet the requirements of trekkers to the Everest Base Camp and to Kala Pathar (black rock), a famous Everest viewpoint. I was alone in my room, and it felt strange. The second team soon reached us, and I briefed them about what had been done and handed over the study material. Soon it was time to trek down to Pheriche, Pangboche, Tengboche, Namche Bazar (the Sherpa capital) and eventually fly out from the Tenzing-Hillary airport at Lukla to Kathmandu.  

As mentioned, Lobuche for a long time had a terrible reputation. The quality of the lodges has steadily improved from bunk beds in dormitories to individual rooms. I was searching for lodges in Lobuche on the web recently. Many lodges now offer free wi-fi. The Pyramid also offers lodging at the 8000 Inn. With all these welcome developments, Lobuche can confidently and maybe, indignantly shrug off its reputation as the ‘arm pit’ of Nepal!  

The Himals. Photo courtesy: Ravi Shankar

Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.

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Essay

Kabir & His Impact on Tagore

By Mozid Mahmud

Kabir. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Kabir’s life still holds importance in a society in pursuit of the one true Lord, steeped in religiosity and caste. He was born at a time when the Hindu-Muslim strife was raging across the subcontinent. Divided into various sects, Hindu society was already engaged in conflict and the arrival of the Muslims and the expansion of Islam intensified the conflict of the time. The two camps – followers of foreign and indigenous religions – could not find a way to come together. Arbitrary rituals and sacrifices were damaging their dignity and short-selling God’s glory. In such a time, Kabir was the most significant of intellectual sages who bridged gaps through his clarity of thought, unwavering devotion to the Lord, and humanist reading of all belief systems. In simple, clear and logical language he pointed out the irrationalities of men, without outright attacking any faith. His teachings were not only effective to his devotees but were helpful to adherents of other doctrines as well. One did not have to be part of his sect to receive his teachings and capture the meaning behind his words. Anyone free from the shackles of self-interest were able to accept it.

Though there is little to deny in Kabir’s words, there is much debate among the experts regarding the period of his birth and death. The historical facts contain many contradictory components as well. Evidently, one sees that there are two versions of Kabir’s life visible. One has been constructed through analysing historical data, the other through beliefs and commentary provided over the ages by his followers and devotees, though all such projection by his disciples cannot be understood in the same light. Yet it should be noted that the accuracies regarding some of Kabir’s facts of his life do not pose any doubt to his teachings and appreciation for beauty. Still, in light of the contemporary commentary, a brief biography of the poet is outlined here.

According to Kshitimohan Sen (1880-1960), a scholar and acting chancellor of Visva-Bharati, Kabir was born on 1398 in Varanasi and died on 1518 in Maghar village. While specifics are understandably hard to gather, most experts agree that he was of the time when Sikander Lodi (1458-1517) ruled over Delhi’s throne. Kabir had met the man, too. Lodi had arrived at Varanasi in 1498. Rabindranath had talked of this in his translation of Kabir’s One Hundred Poems, which was published from Macmillan. There, it is said he was born in 1440. Though Kabir’s Hindu devotees liken him as a devotee of the Vaishnava poet-saint Ramananda, it is still a matter of debate, for Ramananda was born in 1298 and most texts that refer to their connection can only be traced a hundred years after Kabir.  

In his writings, mentions of the poets Jayadeva (1170-1245) and Namdev (1270-1350) are found. Though one was active in the 12th century and the other in the 14th. Moreover, one can find references to Kabir in the works of Raydas, Garib Das, Dharma Das, Pipa and Tukaram. Some of Kabir’s verses can be found in the Sikh religious text Guru Granth Sahib too.

There is much debate over his parentage and religion too.  However, it is taken as fact today that he was born in a Muslim family or was raised in one. It is hypothesised that he had come from a family of Muslim weavers, who had a trade in cloth. Another legend had him as the virgin son of a Brahmin woman, born through seedless conception and then he was abandoned and found floating in a basket. The fact that he was born in a Muslim family is mostly evidenced by the fact that he had an Arabic name, which meant “Great”. There is further doubt on his race and caste. According to Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, Kabir belonged to a Yogi community, for he would refer to his father as Gosai, meaning Guru. They were principally disciples of Nath-Panthis – worshippers of Shiva. While they had accepted Islam as their religion, they continued in their old ways as of yore. But Kabir did not proclaim himself as either a Hindu or a Muslim. As a result, many surmised that he probably wanted to be known as someone from the lower caste, who remained out of these two binaries.

The issue of caste might have irked him as well. It might have had no importance to him. This reticence had led to most communities intending to co-opt him for them, constructing all sorts of imaginary relationships. A Muslim guru of the time, Sheikh Taqi, had complained to Lodi that Kabir saw himself as a deity. His low-born caste led him to a path of constant discrimination. There are accounts of this discrimination in texts. He had been humiliated for proposing the idea of a formless God. Many a time he had been tied behind his back and beaten up. Let me account some of the accounts of his torture here.

The Emperor of Delhi, Sikander Lodi, had demanded Kabir be arrested and brought to his court. When he was somehow brought over, he stood there in silence.[i] The Emperor grew angry and asked, “Why don’t your curse at the Emperor, Kaffir?”
Kabir answered, “Those who understand the other’s torment are called Pir, and those who don’t are termed Kaffirs.

When the Emperor asked him why it took him so long to get to his court, he replied that he had seen such a scene on the way that he could not but be late. A line of camels was entering a gully as narrow as a needle’s eye. The Emperor thought he was being ridiculed and grew angrier. But Kabir said, “Oh Emperor! Can you feel the distance between the heavens and the Earth? The distance between the Sun and the Moon can be filled with innumerable elephants and camels, yet we can see these stars through a drop in our eyes.” The Emperor was so moved by the statement that he let him go.[ii]

Once, after a few Brahmin priests had complained, the Emperor ordered his death by tying him to a stone and throwing him off a boat. But while the boat itself drowned, Kabir was said to have been found unharmed and floating. When they tried to burn him, the fire wouldn’t take to his skin. They even accused him of being a witch and tried getting a mad elephant to stamp on him. But the animal got scared seeing Kabir and ran away – there are numerous myths of these nature surrounding Kabir.

Kabir did not receive a formal education. He did not know how to read and write. There is no evidence of him attending a school to learn of language and philosophy. Moreover, he had barely any experience with his weaving. Many are of the opinion that the “guru” he talks about in his texts refer to God or the Creator and that he did not have any mentors. However, researchers at times hold the opinion that he was a devotee of the Sufi mystic Sheikh Taqi. It is evident he was influenced by Sufism.  He had similarities with the Persian poets Attar, Hafez, Khayyam and Rumi. Besides, he was considered a key disciple of the Hindu monotheist mystic Ramananda. Kabir hadn’t mentioned anyone directly in his texts. But through his songs, various interpretations are made by the public. Kabir’s best teacher seems to have been just life. The hypocrisy, short-sightedness, superiority regarding one’s beliefs and inconsistencies of men and society around him angered him, it made him anxious. This torment had put him to the path of sage hood. Kabir characteristically expressed his perceptions through simple and irrefutable arguments devoid of any personal animosity toward anyone.

Kabir was not an ascetic who abandoned his family to attain higher forms of consciousness. He lived with his wife and son and daughter. In his writings, he showed contempt against the sages who left their families. His wife was called Loi and his son and daughter were Kamal and Kamali. His second wife was Ramjania. According to Dr Ramkumar Verma, the second wife was possibly a prostitute. However, Kabir was not quite happy in his marriages. His devotion to his poetry and philosophy made him less attentive to the task of earning a livelihood through weaving.  Some days, his family found themselves short of food after feeding his visiting devotees. He was thin, meditative and enthusiastic, and hated to beg for alms to survive.

We know from his works that he visited many places. It is believed he had gone on pilgrimage to Mecca. But it isn’t clear if he really physically visited the place or had a transcendental experience. Similarly, there isn’t any evidence of his visiting Baghdad, Bukhara and Samarkand. But it has been proved that he had visited many of the local pilgrimage sites around him.

Like his birth, the date of his death is cloaked in controversy. Some say he lived till the age of eighty. Others maintain that he was alive when he was 120. There’re broadly four dates that could refer to his passing. 1447, 1511, 1517, and 1518 AD.[iii] There is doubt, too, about his resting place. Some say he died in Ayodhya, some claim in Puri. The latter place is mentioned in the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s book Ain-i-Akbari.

Kabir’s literature and philosophy

The divisions and discriminations of religion had a profound effect on him. The communal conflict and the blatant ownership of God deeply tormented Kabir. He realised that God did not exist for any particular religion or people. He wasn’t a single entity either, but omnipresent. His realisations were a result of the overarching philosophical conflicts of his time. The clash and assimilation of various cultures into the Indian way of living had given way to myriads of philosophies and religions in the region. Among them, the radical ones, which professed to one sect’s superiority over the other were beginning to widen separatism in society. The first of these great conflicts were between the Aryans and Non-Aryans. It took many years for the two to assimilate.

Kabir and Rabindranath

Rabindranath had a prominent role in spreading Kabir’s words in Bengal. About a hundred years ago in 1910, he had written a preface to a book of translations of Kabir’s poetry. Kabir was among the few poets whose works were preserved at Santiniketan. Kshitimohan Sen had grown up in Varanasi, among the saints there, nursing a love for Kabir from a young age. A few months before his translations had come out from Santinektan’s press, Rabindranath had published Gitanjali. It was not possible to avoid drawing comparisons, with some claiming Rabindranath was inspired by the sage’s poetry. In Prasanta Kumar Pal’s biography of Tagore, the matter is discussed at length. He had written that in the original manuscript of Gitanjali, there were poems of various poets of such ages written over. Dr. Rameshor Mishra thought they were written by Rabindranath, but Pal could not agree with him. He had maintained that Kabir had been well-known as a poet over the years. Even before Kshitimohan’s translation, it would not have been unlikely for the young poet to have been aware of Kabir. Kshitimohan himself had dwelled on the matter saying that he had introduced Kabir’s poetry to Rabindranath after reading Gitanjali and finding the similarities in the balance of tone.

Whatever the case was, the fact that Rabindranath and Kabir wrote in a similar spirit cannot be denied. Rabindranath was heavily influenced by the Persian Sufis. One could clearly see the presence of both Sufism and Vaishnavism in Gitanjali. Rabindranath’s father was a devotee of the Persian poet Hafez. Hafez impacted Rabindranath as well. He had talked about this when visiting Iran at the end of his life. “My father was an admirer of Hafez,” he had said, “I have listened to his recitations and translations many a time. It is that beauty of Iran that has entered my heart during my travels here.”[iv] Around this time, he was studying Sufi theory as well. Therefore, one cannot claim it was solely Kabir who had an influence on Tagore’s Gitanjali. But Kabir did have an effect on Rabindranath, if for a little while.

Rabindranath began to work on Gitanjali in the early 1900s. He had written to Kshitimohan around then, saying, “I have been expecting Kabir. Do not delay.” The next year he wrote back to say, “Give my respects to him.”[v] From these letters we can see that Rabindranath had a good deal of interest in reviving Kabir. In one of those letters, he had maintained, “I have told you. One should not deviate from the principle aspect. If there is ambiguity regarding the literalness, then be it. Some of it is needed, or else the poetry loses some of its meaning.

“It is better to use the next most literal word when there is no direct translation possible. Kabir uses ‘word’ to express his songs and it seems that particular word does not work in all instances. There is a historicity to ‘word’ – one thinks of a child’s first cry, the first chants of creation. It is quite simpler and more complex than a song.”

Published as part of Santiniketan’s book series, Kshitimohan wrote in the preface of his translation that without the encouragement and help of Rabindranath he would not have been able to publish a work like this, that he was quite grateful to him. Rabindranath had a hands-on approach to Kabir’s translated poetry. That this happened around the time the poet was working on Gitanjali was a thing of co-incidence. Kshitimohan himself had talked of how he had brought Kabir to the poet’s attention after hearing about Gitanjali.

However, the matter has refused to die down. In books on Kabir, there have often been calls for Rabindranath to recognise the debt of Kabir in his texts, that Tagore’s mysticism had arrived solely from Kabir, which was merely given an occidental polish to accommodate the Poet’s international audience and that Rabindranath’s fame came from a decoration of mysticism for the pleasure of Europeans. Even as one notices the ludicrousness of such claims, it is understandable that much of Rabindranath’s spiritualism is a product of Sufi mysticism. Moreover, there was always a strain of India’s old traditions that included Kalidasa and the worship of beauty. He had discovered the bauls (minstrels) when looking for folk literature in his youth. He was fascinated with Lalon. However, Kshitimohan Sen had claimed that Rabindranath was not one to be heavily influences by these mystics. “The era of Gitanjali came head-to-head with the revival of these mystics. No one is indebted to anyone here.”

But how much of Kabir was on Rabindranath’s mind? Many would go ahead and say a great deal. That he had devoted to Kabir more so than Gitanjali in this period. Perhaps the indulgence toward both texts was a united effort in the pursuit of true worship. Two events around this time are noteworthy. One is Ajit Kumar Chakravarty’s translation of Kabir under Rabindranath’s guidance and the other is his own translations of Kabir. This was when Ezra Pound, too, was interested in Kabir’s poetry. There is no doubt that it was Tagore who had got Pound into it during their discussions on mysticism. Helped by his encouragement, Pound, who had little knowledge of Hindi or Kabir, made ten translations of Kabir’s poetry with the help of Kalimohan Ghosh. They were published in the 1913 January issue of Modern Review under the title, “Certain Poems of Kabir/ Translated by Kali Mohan Ghosh and Ezra Pound/ From the edition of Mr. Kshitimohan Sen.”

Rabindranath could have had the biggest scandal in his life regarding Kabir due to Ajit Kumar’s English translation. Ajit Kumar had decided to translate about 114 poems from the 4-volume work of Kshitimohan Sen while enjoying his summer vacation in Orissa. He was helped by Pearson. Rabindranath had to face quite a lot of criticism after winning the Nobel, both at home and abroad.

In his travels to America and Britain, he had to explain the mysticism apparent in Gitanjali. Moreover, when the text was published there, many Christian preachers had taken to saying that Christ had said it way before already. That Rabindranath had written these inspired by Christ’s sayings. This was a reason why Rabindranath felt it was important for the West to be acquainted with medieval poets and mystics such as Kabir, so that the long Indian tradition of spiritualism wasn’t co-opted by the West as one of their own. He even wanted to take Kshitimohan there and get to translating some of this poetry himself. He wished to show that the sages in India were preaching these truths long before the Europeans had arrived in their shores. If there is a sliver of debt that Rabindranath should recognise it is in this context. Gitanjali is not a deviation from Indian poetry; rather it is part of the land’s grand tradition. However, Rabindranath’s own translations did not seem to have gone far enough. He relied on Ajit Kumar’s.

Before leaving for America, Rabindranath was introduced to Evelyn Underhill, a Catholic writer and pacifist. She was a great admirer of both Jesus and Indian mysticism, authoring a book on the subject in 1911 called Mysticism. Rabindranath had referred to her as quite highly educated and influential in his letters. Tagore had even told Kshitimohan that with her help it would be possible to publish Kabir’s biography and poetry from Harvard University, urging him to take all necessary equipment with him. He had told Ajit Kumar that with the help of Ms. Underhill they would polish their translations and make it worth publishing. A review of the correspondence is enough to see that this translation project would come out under Ajit Kumar’s name. But that did not happen in the end. It came out as One Hundred Poems of Kabir, as translated by Rabindranath Tagore with a preface by Underhill.

Both Ajit Kumar and Kshitimohan were upset with this. How this had happened no one could know clearly. Whether it was Underhill’s doing or of Rabindranath himself, one could not know. From reading Rabindranath’s letters, it was quite evident that he had also thought the manuscript would come out under Ajit Kumar’s name. He had assured him as such in more than one letters. That Underhill might cut him out bothered Ajit and Rabindranath had written to him saying, “You have misunderstood. Evelyn does not wish to take your name off the Kabir Manuscript. Secondly, it is not my wish to leave you and Kshitimohan out financially.” In another letter he had said, “I don’t know how your book would do financially. Of course, there won’t be any lack of trying, but it is better to not hope much. Be content with what they give you.” [vi]

All we have in this case are conjecture. No concrete facts. Underhill in her preface had merely thanked Ajit and Kshitimohan and nothing more.

This had sparked a bit of controversy then and Rabindranath was accused of depriving Ajit Kumar of his credit. Rabindranath’s explanations regarding this matter was that it wasn’t intentional. That he did not even know this had happened until it was too late. It was Macmillan house that did this to bring more sales to the book. Rabindranath claimed to have sent in Ajit’s name under the title, but the publishers had disregarded it. It was the West’s commercialism at play, he said.

“Getting into the literary scene here is quite difficult. One is hard-pressed to enter if they don’t possess any reputation beforehand,” he said. But whatever Tagore’s excuse was, many did not see it sympathetically. Referring to his letters to Ajit, many pointed out his growing fascination with the manuscript. In one of the letters Rabindranath had said, “I finished the Kabir book after all this while. It seems that if I had done these translations it would’ve taken me far less an effort to read them through. I’ve had to write many poems but yours does make one clap.”[vii] There is no doubt that Rabindranath got most of the credit for the Kabir book that Macmillan had published. But many found the omission of Ajit had left a bad taste. Many felt his name should have at least been part of the conversation.

Bibliography

  1. Rabindra Kokkhopothe Khitimohan Sen By Pranati Mukhopadhyay
  2. Gurudeb O Shantiniketon  By Syed Mujtaba Ali
  3. RabiJiboni By Prasanta Kumar Paul
  4. 100 poems of Kabir By Rabindranath Tagore

[i] Who Invented Hinduism: Essays on Religion in History. David N. Lorenzen

[ii] The Bijak of Kabir. Kabir. Oxford University Press.

[iii] Bharatiya Madhyauge Sadhanar Dhara. Kshitimohon Sen. Pg.61

[iv] “Rabindranath Tagore’s Syncretistic Philosophy and the Persian Sufi Tradition”. Lewisohn, L

[v] Rabijibani Vol. VI, Prasanta Kumar Paul, Ananda Publishers, Kolkata. Pg.414

[vi] Rabijibani Vol. VI, Prasanta Kumar Paul, Ananda Publishers, Kolkata. Pg. 416

[vii] Rabijibani Vol. VI, Prasanta Kumar Paul, Ananda Publishers, Kolkata. Pg. 370-371

Mozid Mahmud is a poet, novelist, and essayist based in Bangladesh. Some of his notable works include In Praise of Mahfuza (1989), Nazrul – Spokesman of the Third World (1996), and Rabindranath’s Travelogues (2010). He has been awarded the Rabindra-Nazrul Literary Prize and the country’s National Press Club Award, among others.

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The Good, the Bad, and the Benign: Back across Bass Strait

Photography and Narrative by Meredith Stephens

“What! A text message at this hour,” exclaimed Alex, reluctantly looking at his phone.

Then his expression turned to concern.

“Gregory, our boat neighbour in George Town, says the boat hatch is open.”

George Town, Tasmania, was a two-hour flight and a one-hour bus ride away from Adelaide. Who could have entered the boat from the hatch? They would have to be both slim and lithe. What could they have taken? Could they have taken the chartplotter – used to navigate, the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) – used to aid search and rescue or the Automatic Identification System (AIS) – used to track other vessels? We couldn’t sail without them.

“I can’t really bring our flight to Hobart forward because all the seats are gone during the Easter break. We’ll just have to hope for the best.”

Meanwhile, Alex decided to text Gregory back and ask him to take a look through the hatch to determine what might have been stolen. Gregory kindly obliged, and sent Alex a photo of the interior of the boat. The equipment appeared to be in place.

Alex checked the location of the boat on the AIS. It should have been updated daily, but it had been inactive for a few days. That did not bode well.

We spent the next day packing our bags as carefully as possible to avoid excess charges. On Friday Alex, Verity, Katie and I caught the plane from Adelaide to Hobart, and then picked up our rental car. We drove north through the centre of the island to the lush agricultural lands of the Tamar River, passing through towns lined with Georgian buildings constructed with convict labour.

Sculpture at Evandale

We were particularly looking forward to partaking of the best vanilla slices in the world, located in the township of Ross, and I confess that this distracted us from our concern for the safety of the boat equipment.

We sat outside the bakery savouring the vanilla slices as slowly as possible. Who knew whether we would ever be able to come back to Ross?

Then we continued our drive northward to George Town, Australia’s third-oldest settlement, meandering through other towns lined with Georgian buildings. As night fell, we arrived at George Town to our boat home. My fellow crew members were able to climb on the boat from the wharf unaided but I wasn’t tall enough to do this. Alex positioned an upside-down bucket on the wharf so that I could clamber on board. With trepidation we opened the door, now unlocked, and ventured inside. The equipment was still there but it had been unplugged. The lid of the clear plastic box under the monitor was open.

“They’ve taken the spare keys. The gold coins have gone too!” Alex observed.

Alex had prepared a collection of one and two dollar coins in a plastic bag in the clear box to be used for laundromats on shore. So this is what the thieves had been after!

Next Alex checked his wine collection in one of the bilges, “the boat cellar”. This was untouched. The thieves must have entered through the hatch and left through the door. Other than the keys, the only goods that had been stolen were the gold coins for the laundromat – or so we thought. Perhaps they were planning to return, next time through the door.

The theft of gold coins reminded me of advice I had received at the beginning of my teaching career in the 1980s in the city of Whyalla in South Australia. I had been assigned teacher housing by the education department. I was advised by a colleague that when I was away from home, I should leave gold coins in obvious places for youngsters who might break in.

Alex was relieved that they had not taken any navigational or safety equipment, and I was relieved that they had not taken my boat slippers. We were well into autumn and it was cold underfoot.

Despite the break-in we were very fond of George Town, not least due to the camaraderie of our boat neighbours.

On the day of departure, as always, Alex got up before the rest of us to commence the day’s sailing. We were due to head north across Bass Strait towards the mainland. The harbour was generously lit up by the lights in the supermarket carpark on the other side, facilitating the safe exit to the Tamar River.

One of our favourite boat meals was freshly caught fish. Only when looking for a rod one evening did we discover yet another item had been stolen — a heavy-duty tuna fishing rod. This time, rather than using the rod we trolled with a hand reel, and had no trouble catching smaller fish.

Meanwhile someone in George Town was enjoying spending our gold coins and fishing with Alex’s special rod. At least we had our technology to guide our decisions as we crossed Bass Strait, where identifying marine traffic and the right weather conditions was critical. We followed the course Alex had plotted, stopping at the offshore island of Badger Island overnight, East Kangaroo Island and Whitemark for a few hours the following day, then anchoring at Settlement Point for our second night. Based on the Predict Wind forecast, we decided to tuck in for shelter at Outer Sister Island for two nights to wait out a front bringing strong winds. The shore looked tantalisingly close. I asked Alex if we could take the dinghy ashore but, pointing to the shore break, he told me that if we did we would likely capsize. We stayed indoors for the day, reading, writing and longingly looking at the forbidden shore. My preferred pastime is writing, but every now and then I had to force myself to stop and fix my eyes on the horizon as the boat danced over the anchor, to recover from bouts of seasickness.

The forecast was for calmer conditions the following morning. We were ready for the long stint to the mainland, during which there would be no more coves in which to shelter. Alex got up first and departed Outer Sister Island at 6.38 am. We persevered sailing through both day and night. During the day we were rewarded by dolphin sightings as they played alongside and in front of us for about ten minutes a time, before suddenly veering away. During the night Alex and I roused ourselves at midnight to take our turn on the three hour shift until 3 am. Well, to be fair, Alex did the night watch while I forced myself to keep my eyes open.

We arrived at Eden, New South Wales, at 4.20 pm, and secured the boat on a public mooring. Too tired to venture ashore that evening, we relaxed on the boat, ready to explore Eden the following morning.

We had crossed Bass Strait availing ourselves of the technological support of the chartplotter and the AIS. Although the equipment did not spare us the trials of the night watch, it did help us avoid commercial trawlers and container ships in the shipping lanes. If it weren’t for our boat neighbour Gregory back in George Town, the thieves may have returned to steal the crucial equipment which made our crossing of Bass Strait safer. No less importantly, the notorious Bass Strait had been kind to us.

Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist from South Australia. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Muse, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ Magazine, Reading in a Foreign Language, and in chapters in anthologies published by Demeter Press, Canada.

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Essay

Living up to my Seafaring Name in Tasmania

Narrative and photographs by Meredith Stephens

When I asked my mother why she called me ‘Meredith’, she told me that she had named me after one of the children in the class she had been teaching before she got married. Still curious, I looked up the meaning of my name and found that it meant ‘leader of the sea’. But it wasn’t until my seventh decade that I left the cloistered world of academia and became a seafarer. Then I was finally able to live up to my name, at least partially. Not only did I become a sailor, I also became a serious hiker, and learnt how to replace my daily shower for sporadic dunks in the ocean.

Alex, Luke, Verity and I were sailing south along the rugged western coast of Tasmania to Port Davey. The morning we arrived I ventured onto the deck and noticed that there was no beach, and the foliage was scrub rather than forests. As we entered Port Davey, we noticed still waters and jagged mountains. Several other yachts were anchored in the cove. Kayakers wove their way hugging the coast. I sat on the stern of the deck taking in the scenery that few people have the chance to observe. Port Davey is only accessible by small plane or boat, not by road.

Once anchored we decided to climb Balmoral Hill. Luke chose this because it promised the best rewards for the least effort; it would be a relatively easy climb with spectacular views. We made our way in the dinghy to the shore. We followed the wombat tracks, pushing our way through the bushes and native flowers, and reached the summit in under an hour. Balmoral Hill lived up to its promise. Views of Port Davey extended in all directions. The climb down was more challenging than the climb up, and I found myself lagging behind the others as usual.

We returned to the boat and it was still only 3 pm. We hadn’t been able to take regular showers because of the limited supply of fresh water on the boat. Luke and Alex decided to have a swim. Alex begged me to go in too.

“If you go in, I’ll give you a gin and tonic,” promised Alex.

He knew that was a sure-fire way to entice me in. I donned my swimsuit and secured my hair on the top of my head. I poked my feet into the water. Alex kept encouraging me to go in and finally I braved the cold brackish waters. I willed myself to stay in for a minute or two before climbing back up the ladder. Then Alex offered me a brief but hot shower on deck. True to his word, he brought me a gin and tonic with my favourite snack of hummous and seaweed crackers.

It was still early afternoon.

“Do you want to go ashore again?” Alex offered.

A narrow strip of white shore was enticing us. We made the 100metres trip to the shore in the dinghy. The shore consisted of white granite pebbles. We walked up and down the pebbles so that they could massage the soles of our feet, providing a shiatsu-like treatment.

The next morning Alex and Luke were looking forward to climbing Mt Rugby.

“How long does it take to climb?” I asked Luke.

“About six or seven hours.”

Alex had always encouraged me to go on daily hikes with him, and I was worried that I would have to undertake a six hour hike up Mt Rugby. Alex read my mind, and I realised that he was not expecting me to accompany them. He reminded me how to use the VHF [Very High Frequency] radio in case we needed to summon help. Verity and I stayed on the boat, working on our laptops in the saloon, gazing through a window at Mt Rugby, as the boat gently swayed back and forth. I went onto the deck periodically to scan Mt Rugby to try and sight Alex and Luke, but couldn’t find them. Before I knew it they had returned.

That evening, while positioning the dinghy, the rope became intertwined in the propellor. Alex donned his swimmers and dived quickly into the cold water to cut the rope. Every now and then he emerged from the water with his mask. His legs and feet were visible beneath the surface of the tannin filled water every time he dived back in. Eventually he cut the rope and returned to the boat.

The next morning we continued to Joe Page Bay to see the swans. After anchoring we hopped into the dinghy and headed for the lagoon. We noticed flocks of swans in the distance but as soon as they heard the engines of the dinghy they took off. The water was too shallow because it was low tide. We were at risk of hitting the river bottom, so we eventually turned around and returned to the boat.

It was another two days before we exited Port Davey. We headed back in the direction of the open ocean to anchor for the night, ready to leave the next day. Alex and Luke carefully chose the calmest spot in the north-west corner of Brambell Cove. Mt Millner was beckoning so we took the dinghy ashore and headed up the mountain.

“What if I can’t do it?” I asked Alex.

“You can rest on the beach if you like,” came the reply.

We entered a shady grove and found the path. Verity and Luke took the lead and Alex the rear, so I wouldn’t get left behind. The wombat track was studded in deep holes and it was hard to enjoy the view of the islands while being careful where I placed my feet. I thought we had nearly reached the summit, but it kept stretching ahead.

“You go ahead. I don’t need to get to the summit. I’ll rest here.” I pleaded.

Alex was having none of it.

“Look! We have reached the saddle. You can even go downhill for a bit before we ascend again. Not much further to go!” he encouraged me.

How could I disagree when Alex had so much confidence in me? I continued to clamber up the mountain. The bare surroundings turned to dense scrub and I had to push the branches away from my face to clear the way. Then in my haste I found myself falling backwards. My landing was cushioned by some thick undergrowth. My feet, bound up in my heavy hiking boots, stretched before me and I was tempted to rest a bit longer, but I worried about holding the others up, so I took a deep breath and summoned the effort to get up. No sooner had I reached the summit than I realised that it was another false summit. Rising before me was a steep incline to the sky.

“I can’t do it Alex!” I called behind me.

“You’re very nearly there. Then you can say that you climbed to the summit.”

I didn’t really care about being able to boast that I had reached the summit. Would anyone be impressed by that? But again, Alex’s enthusiasm pressed me on. With such encouragement it would be surly to refuse.

After climbing the steep incline I really did reach the summit. I caught a glimpse of the seascape below and the conical islands dotted in the bay. The fierce sun was oppressive and so I turned away, gratefully sat down on some heather, and pulled my hair away from my neck. Alex gave me some water.

“Do you want to walk to the other end of the summit?” Alex invited me.

If you walked to the other side you could look down on an ocean bay, but I could view it from my seated position and this time I really did decline.

After sitting there for twenty minutes I was cool enough to brave the descent. Luke and Verity climbed down quickly and waited on the shore. Alex took the rear and we trod along the wombat path trying to avoid the holes. Finally we reached Luke and Verity. We removed our hiking boots, hopped into the dinghy and motored back to the boat.

We had to ration fresh water and did not want to waste it taking a shower. I didn’t relish bathing in the ocean but I was both hot and perspiring so I felt I didn’t have a choice. I popped on my swimsuit, asked Alex to pull down the ladder, climbed down and immersed myself in the water. Finally, I was cool and clean. I couldn’t imagine being any more tired after the strain of the climb, the punishing sun and immersion in cold water. I am surprised I managed to mount the false summits and reach the real summit. It shows how encouragement can push you beyond the goal you set for yourself.

Alex prepared dinner. Behind the boat the sunset over the sea turned from an intense orange to purple. That night the boat was so still that we could have been excused for thinking we were on land. I was finally beginning to embrace my seafaring name.

Now that I had some sense of having earnt my first name, Meredith, I was ready to explore territory featuring the second part of my name, Stephens. My Great Aunt May, born around 1906, used to explain how her forebears had run a ‘Stephens’ shipping line in London in the late 1800s. Even my surname had a seafaring connection.

The next day we headed out to the open ocean past Bramwell Bay on our left and Breaksea Islands on our right. We anchored at Spain Bay, took the dinghy to shore, and then hiked to the other side of the peninsula. First the vegetation was low, and gradually gave way to bracken. We had to push the branches aside as we trudged through the mud. Then the path entered a forest with a canopy above the trail. Wooden stairs gave way to Stephens Bay. We sat on a rock to rest, and nibbled on some of the dry seaweed washed up on the beach, wondering what it would taste like if rehydrated in a misoshiru soup. I pondered whether I had an ancestral connection to this place as ships on their way from England to the east coast of Australia would have passed by this bay.

Back on board, despite the cold, I thought I would brave the waters again to refresh myself. I donned my swimsuit and tentatively climbed down the ladder into the sea. Alex dived in before me and I could tell from his expression that it was colder than we expected, as we were closer to the ocean. I held onto the ladder and vigorously moved my legs to warm myself up. I could only manage thirty seconds in the water despite resolving to last two minutes.

The next morning Alex entreated me to get up so as not to miss out on the spectacular scenery as we rounded southern Tasmania. The seas were as calm as they could possibly be. The boat was gently cantering in slow motion across the swell. South West Cape loomed in the distance, about an hour away. Luke was at the helm and Alex, Verity and I climbed carefully to the front of the boat holding onto the rails, and sat on the foredeck while we passed the cape, as the sun forced its way into view. Five hours later we rounded South East Cape, one of the five southernmost capes in the world, the others being West Cape Howe (Western Australia), South Cape (New Zealand), Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope.

Heading to the South West Cape, south western Tasmania

After so many decades spent in libraries and classrooms, my life had taken a turn and I suddenly found myself surrounded by ocean. Of course, living on a boat did not mean I would abandon reading and writing. In fact, the long hours at sea afforded even more time for these pursuits. This was especially the case when at anchor waiting for rough seas to subside, out of internet range, when there was little else to do. Nevertheless, I think my mother would have been more than surprised had she known that I would spend weeks at sea in some of Australia’s most remote waters. Neither of us could have imagined how literally I would grow into my name.

Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist from South Australia. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Muse, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ Magazine, Reading in a Foreign Language, and in chapters in anthologies published by Demeter Press, Canada.

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Essay

Himalayan Stories: Evenings with Nuru at Pheriche

By P Ravi Shankar

The Magnificent Himals… Photo courtesy: Ravi Shankar

The windows were getting misty. Outside it was freezing cold and rainy. However, the cast iron heater kept the dining room hot and toasty. We were enrolling trekkers/hikers for a study on high altitude. The Himalayan Rescue Association (an organisation catering to the health needs of trekkers, mountaineers, and the local population) conducts various studies in high altitude locations in Nepal. These studies are usually conducted during the peak trekking and mountaineering seasons in spring and autumn. The participants (trekkers) were enrolled either at Pheriche or at Dingboche, in the Everest region of Nepal. We had just finished dinner and were discussing the how the studies were going. We were happy. The room was warm, our stomachs full and the company interesting. The owner of the lodge, Nuru Sherpa often joined us. Other trekkers were seated at neighbouring tables and could join in. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly. Our study leader had brought dried apple cider sachets from California, that could be reconstituted with warm water. The apple cider was delicious.  

Pheriche had been originally a yak pasture situated at a height of 4300 m in the Everest/Khumbu region of Nepal. There are several place names ending with ‘boche’ in this region. ‘Boche’ means a flat land seen from a hilltop. In this mountainous region a plateau like area is a rarity. As tourism developed in the Khumbu, several lodges were constructed. Pheriche however, is mostly overcast and windy.  Most trekkers prefer to stay in Dingboche, 150 m higher on the other side of the hill. The place is higher but gets more sunshine and is warmer.

The research team had split with two of our colleagues staying at Lobuche uphill at 4900 m. We had flown to the Tenzing-Hillary airport at Lukla and then hiked uphill acclimatizing along the way. There is a 700 m ascent between Pheriche/Dingboche and Lobuche and different studies have been done on this stretch of the trail. The Himalayan Rescue Association runs an aid post at Pheriche to provide medical treatment to trekkers, guides, porters, and locals. The post was established in 1973 and has seen extensive upgrades. It has been equipped with oxygen concentrators and has the ability to manage most cases of altitude sickness. The doctors volunteering at the clinic have been giving talks on staying healthy at high altitude every afternoon. We attended these talks, which even helped to recruit trekkers for our study. Later, we would hike uphill to Dingboche and visit the trekkers staying at different lodges. Even in 2007, Dingboche had more than twenty-five lodges spread out along the trail.

We were staying at the Himalayan Hotel in Pheriche. The hotel was run by Nuru Sherpa from Kunde who had studied interior design in Karnataka, India. The rooms were cozy but cold. In the tea houses (lodges), only the dining room is heated during the evening and sometimes during the morning hours. The lodge had squat toilets and Nuru used to mix some kerosene in the toilet water to prevent it from freezing. I saw a recent photo and the lodge has been expanded and now has private rooms with attached western-style toilets. There has been a lot written about toilets at trekking lodges. Some are luxurious, western-style flush toilets while others are just a hole in the ground. Most do not have a sewage system and the environmental consequences may be high. Lobuche had a terrible reputation for its toilets and was widely known as the armpit of Nepal. Things have improved significantly since then.

Most lodges have a greenhouse where you could sit, and lounge comfortably protected from the wind during the day. We used to take full advantage of the greenhouse. As the temperature inside was significantly higher, we could sit in our T-shirts. This was a great luxury in this cold and windy locale. Pheriche is often used as an acclimatisation stop by trekkers before heading higher. The hotel had a good collection of books and we used to spend hours in the greenhouse reading and chatting. People came and went but we stayed on. Staying put in a place in constant flux was a strange experience. Days coalesced into weeks and weeks into a month.

Pheriche had suffered damage during the earthquake of 2015 and rebuilding was mostly by local efforts. Today there are internet and phone services and websites allowing you to book lodges in advance. In the 2000s, you had to book the rooms physically. The lodge owners sometimes used satellite phones to access the internet, but it was expensive. During the peak trekking season in the fall, the lodges could get incredibly crowded. The global pandemic has negatively impacted tourism, and the economic consequences have been bad. Lodge owners often take loans at high-interest rates to renovate and expand their facilities and if the number of tourists drop, they can easily go into debt.  

The landscape was barren with a few shrubs struggling to grow in the high altitudes. There are spectacular mountain views from around Pheriche. These are among the tallest mountains in the world at over 7000 m. Pheriche and Dingboche are over 4000 m. The village of Pheriche is on the banks of the Tsola river. The wind roars across the valley and clouds, rain and snow follow. Tibetan Buddhism is dominant and mani walls inscribed with Lamaist prayers and cairns of towers of rocks are scattered all around. Prayer flags send the Buddhist law riding on the wind. On a sunny and warm day, the land is at peace and a hike through this landscape is enchanting. However, at these altitudes, the weather can change rapidly. As you climb towards Dughla and Lobuche, there are spectacular mountain views. There is a memorial to those who have died on Everest as you climb out of Dughla. There are a variety of memorials to climbers in this region. There is one on the grounds of the Pheriche hospital/aid post.   

Memorials to climbers… Photo Courtesy Ravi Shankar

Sherpas are the inhabitants of the Khumbu and have earned an enviable reputation as mountain guides. Sherpas originally migrated to Nepal from Tibet several centuries ago. Namche Bazar is the unofficial capital of Sherpa country. Potatoes play an important role in Sherpa cuisine. The introduction of the potato from the South American Andes made settled life possible in many mountain regions globally. Potatoes are used in several ways. Rikikur (potato pancake) is a breakfast staple. There is a small restaurant by a waterfall serving potato pancakes called rikikur on the hike to Namche Bazar. You wait and enjoy the scenery as your pancake is freshly prepared. A spicy chili sauce is a usual accompaniment. There is a type of red round chili grown in the Himalayas called dalle khursani or jyanmaara (life-taker) khursani. The chili is extremely spicy and can literally take your life away, hence the name.      

The Khumbu region at an average height of over 3500 m is one of the most spectacular on the planet. Getting there may not be easy, and you need to plan your journey properly. Acclimatization is important. Compared to other treks in Nepal this is more expensive and has a risk of altitude sickness. However, the spectacular views of the highest mountains on earth cannot be matched elsewhere. Things have certainly changed with the advent of cell phones and the internet. Roads have also made steady inroads in the surrounding regions. In the good old days, there were no roads in Nepal outside the Kathmandu valley and the early Everest expeditions used to start their walk from the outskirts of the valley. It used to take well over a month to reach the Khumbu region.

Hopefully, the pandemic will stay controlled. This will allow us to hike this autumn in the Khumbu region and enjoy Sherpa culture, religion, fresh air, cold winds, and the spectacular mountains!   

 

Fun in the snow… Photo courtesy: Ravi Shankar

N.B: We miss our friend Dr Ashutosh Bodhe who accompanied us on several treks. He passed away in 2021. His raw energy and passion for life will be missed!

Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.

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Essay

Hesse’s Siddhartha: Towards a Shadowless Present

Dan Meloche revisits a hundred-year-old classic by Herman Hesse that is based on Buddhist lore

He who binds to himself a joy 
Does the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies 
Lives in eternity's sunrise. 
– Eternity, William Blake(1757-1827)

Blake challenges his readers to move beyond everyday existence and delve “out of time” into the eternal presence of a moment. In Hermann Hesse’s novel published a hundred years ago, Siddhartha (1922), the titular character embarks on a similar quest to break the bonds of temporality and move towards eternity and spiritual awakening. The bonds that tie him to the temporal include relations with family, friends, a lover, a business associate, and holy men. The latter include Brahmins, Samanas, and the Buddha: all of whom provide unsatisfactory direction with knowledge that, ultimately, becomes useless and distorted by time’s passage. For Siddhartha, relying on temporally bound advice, from temporally bound humans serves no advantage when aspiring to the eternal.

Early in the novel, a dream suggests Siddhartha’s aspiration. Whereas Blake symbolises the eternal with a sunrise, Hesse uses the vast, ever-flowing permanency of a river: “Dreams and restless thoughts came flowing to him from the river.” Called by the river to the eternal, Siddhartha begins to detach from all relationships that bind him to history and time. To experience the eternal present, Siddhartha must unbind from both his father and son, suggestive, respectively, of past and future.  With these, and other detachments, Siddhartha untethers from the temporal attachments to produce the “readiness of soul” necessary to experience the eternal present.

In the opening chapter, Siddhartha’s spiritual restlessness evokes its most profound exhortation in his defiance of his father, a holy Brahmin. By leaving home, Siddhartha separates himself from his past and rejects a life pledged to holy books and learning. More than youthful rebellion, Siddhartha’s defiance represents a repudiation of book learning and the Brahmins as “they did not know the one important thing.”  As they anchor knowledge in the past, books and learning have no use to Siddhartha, who seeks to transcend the time continuum.  Unbound from the twin anchors of his past, his father and the Brahmins, Siddhartha joins a group of ascetics, the Samanas, with his friend Govinda.

Continuing his journey to the eternal, Siddhartha pores himself into the experiential exercises associated with asceticism: thinking, waiting, and fasting. With seeming ease, Siddhartha perfects his practice. Yet, he rejects practices that serve only as a “temporary palliative” that could be learned “more quickly and easily in every inn in a prostitute’s quarter, amongst the carriers and dice players.”

Produced and subsequently distorted in the temporal realm, the Samanas knowledge is insufficient to produce the awakening Siddhartha craves. Further, were he to heed the wisdom of holy men and ascetics, he would only further bind himself to the temporal realm from which he seeks escape.

Leaving the Samanas, Siddhartha fortifies his belief in the uselessness of knowledge. Not even Govinda’s enthusiasm to see a charismatic spiritual leader can dissuade Siddhartha from his well-formed belief. When the Buddha’s popularity grows, Govinda’s interest to hear the Illustrious One is met with Siddhartha’s resignation. Uninterested in learning from holy men, Siddhartha confronts the Buddha by stating that “nobody finds salvation through teachings.”  That is, the Buddha’s awakening is an incommunicable event experienced outside of time which cannot be taught or duplicated. Therefore, trying to explain “in time” that which occurred “out of time” is futile. In addition to rejecting the Buddha’s teachings, Siddhartha further unbinds himself from his past by leaving his friend, Govinda, as he bids him well: “May you travel this path to the end.”

Limited by temporal bonds, Govinda’s path to wisdom and knowledge has a reachable end. However, for Siddhartha, such confinements represent obstacles to moving outside of time. Parting from Govinda, Siddhartha further detaches from his personal history and associations to time. Only by releasing himself from the temporal can he prepare himself for communion with the eternal. Continuing alone, Siddhartha avails himself of a spiritual moment and is transfixed by the permanency of nature. This meditative glimpse of the eternal anticipates his goal: communion with the unity of all things.

However, the path to enlightenment is rarely straight as sexual desire stalls Siddhartha’s journey towards timelessness.  Powerless to the charms of the beautiful courtesan Kamala, Siddhartha loses all yearnings for spiritual ascendancy and returns to temporality and the material world. To pay for his tutelage in the sexual arts, Siddhartha masters commercial trade to generate income. Disdainful of the mastery and accrual of money, Siddhartha attaches no value to his gains as he squanders his wealth gambling. Burdened by temporality, Siddhartha wears a discontent wrought by unhealthy attachments: “the soul sickness of the rich crept over him.”

Mastery of the sexual arts leads to a comparable weariness as the limitation of his passion with Kamala is mutually understood: “People like us cannot love.” In their loveless union, Siddhartha and Kamala desperately try “to extract the last sweet drop of fleeting pleasure.” As pleasure evaporates, so does Siddhartha’s desire to remain committed to the temporally bound pursuit of love. Feeling spiritually deprived by the pursuits of sex, money, and possessions, Siddhartha clearly sees the absurdity of time-bound relationships. Just as his loveless romance withers, his possessions of a mango tree and a garden are also deflating. To Siddhartha, how can nature, the image of eternity, be possessed?

Spurred by a dream of a dead bird, Siddhartha leaves everything to sit by a river and evaluate his life’s worth and considers a permanent unbinding from the suffering associated with temporal existence: “He looked down and was completely filled with a desire to let himself go and be submerged in the water.” Unfulfilled by all temporal desires, Siddhartha gambles with higher stakes: the desire for death. Having tried, and even mastered, engagement in the temporal domain, Siddhartha found it to be “a troubled spring of deep water”. In his moment of crisis, Siddhartha finds no solace in holy words, but is restored by the wordless, echoed distillation of the eternal, the universe’s vibration, the Om. The troubled waters of temporality then become the life-giving force of an eternally flowing river. Siddhartha recognises the river as his portal to the eternal: a place he “would not leave it again so quickly”.

On his way to the permanent harbour by the river, Siddhartha finds the ferryman, Vasudeva. The humble, taciturn ferryman becomes Siddhartha’s spiritual guide. Although Siddhartha claimed after meeting the Buddha, “no other teachings will attract me,” he finds in Vasudeva a teacher who directs rather than preaches. Vasudeva’s singular precept: “Love this river, stay by it, learn from it.” Sharing ferrying duties, Siddhartha permanently settles at the river’s edge to receive Vasudeva’s help with unbinding from one final temporal link.

After the Kamala’s death, Vasudeva returns to the ferrymen’s hut with Siddhartha’s son, who reacts with tantrums and runs away. Unnaturally loquacious, Vasudeva recounts Siddhartha’s life and experience and points out that to find home, one must leave home. Unpursued, the boy leaves Siddhartha with a “burning wound”. To extinguish this fiery pain, Siddhartha needs direction from Vasudeva, who becomes less man and more deity: “that this motionless man was the river itself, that he was God himself, that he was the eternal itself.” Carrying on with his ferrying duties, Siddhartha witnesses the love between others and feels jealous. This vanity compels him “one day, when the wound burned violently”, to follow his desire to find and make up with his son. Before binding himself again to temporality, Vasudeva instructs Siddhartha to seek counsel with the river. Standing before the river, ready to be relieved of his suffering, Siddhartha receives the river’s unequivocal response: “It laughed! It laughed clearly.” From the river’s eternal perspective, individual desire and suffering have little consequence to the limitless expanse of experience that comprises the unity of all things.

Further instructed to look into the river, Siddhartha not only sees images of his father, his lover, and his friend, but hears the multitude of sorrows, yearning, and suffering of humankind that coalesce into the “song of a thousand voices.” This song, representing “all things” beyond the temporal blends into the eternal perfection that is Om. With the extinguishing of Siddhartha’s “burning wound,” his final bind to the temporal is broken. Emptying all his pain and history into the river, Siddhartha is fully unbound from temporal existence thereby liberating his soul to the eternal.

In the novel’s final chapter, Siddhartha reunites with his friend, the still questing Govinda, who has sought out the mysterious wise man by the river. Siddhartha convinces his old friend that time is not real. Inspired by Siddhartha’s peacefulness, Govinda solicits inspirational advice. Unwilling to limit explanation with mere words, Siddhartha offers to share with Govinda a glimpse into the eternal. As Govinda bows to kiss Siddhartha’s forehead, he witnesses the parade of humankind (babies, murderers, and lovers) in the thousand-fold permutations of love, hate, birth, and death.

Authenticated by the experience of sharing the eternal present with Govinda, Siddhartha represents a fully awakened being. Whereas Govinda had been confounded by seeking a specific end goal, Siddhartha focused on the readiness of soul that comes with unbinding from temporal relationships, riches, and knowledge. Released from the time-bound continuum, Siddhartha releases his suffering into the channel of eternity that the river represents. Only by experiencing the suffering associated with temporal existence can Siddhartha then unbind to move outside the shadows of both the past and future into the eternal shadowless present.

Dan Meloche is a full-time professor at Algonquin College in Ottawa. When he isn’t teaching English, social psychology, and economics, he reads widely and writes reviews and personal account essays

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Essay

Sea Days, Sea Flowers

Mike Smith uncovers the wonders of the world of H.E Bates

H.E. Bates (1905-1974), photo taken by his wife, Majorie Bates. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Waiting for the computer to load I turned to the bookshelf and noticed my set of The Saturday Book. Thirty-five of the eclectic annual volumes were published between 1941 and 1975, with a ‘Best of’ following in the early 80s.

I needed a reading project and decided to start at the beginning of volume one. I accumulated the set over many years having been given two as birthday or perhaps Christmas presents in 1959 and 1960, but I’d never read them all from cover to cover. Long after discovering one of my favourite short stories (H.E.BatesThe Little Farm), I found I’d had for years it in Volume One of The Saturday Book. What I hadn’t found was a second piece by Bates in the same volume, or rather, a first piece by him, for it opens the book and the whole series.

Sea Days, Sea Flowers’ begins with recollections of summer trips to the Sussex and Kentish coast ‘as far as the white dunes of Sandwich bay’, and to ‘the flat wide shores beyond the Dymchurch sea-wall’ or to ‘Hastings and Rye’. I assumed at first that I was reading the opening to another short story, though it did cross my mind as odd that he should get two in the same volume. There are many short stories that start with such descriptions of rural England. Du Maurier’s ‘The Old Man’, Coppard’s ‘Weep Not My Wanton’, and Gallico’s ‘The Snow Goose’, all play heavily on the landscape in which their tales are played out.

But here Bates’ description seemed to go on for so long and was in such detail. It was a journey such as that Kipling took in his opening to ‘They’: a drive through England, to England rather than a mere setting for a tale. As that journey entered its second page the penny began to drop that I was reading what we would now call, I suppose, a piece of creative non-fiction.

The detail is astonishing: about the landscape, the topography, the architecture of the towns and villages, the working lives of the fish-hawkers and the fishermen, and the tourists who drive down for the summer to buy their fish; of the “smoke-stacks of ships steaming up the Channel as they come in close at Dungeness”; of the “coast that is full of Napoleonic memories”; of “the toy passenger train that peeps and shrieks across the flat marsh”. And, throughout it all, those flowers: “the tall mauve-pink marshmallows, like delicate wild hollyhocks…the clusters of reed and willow-herb and purple loosestrife…”

It’s a luscious, artist’s eyeful of this southern corner of England, and it goes on for pages. How can you make such a tour, packed as it is with such detailed description, and no narrative, and the only real character a fish-seller with whom Bates’ reminiscing narrator banters, how can you make it work, and over some thirteen pages of text? For it does work.

Scotland has always been a foreign country to me, but I know most of it far better than I know any of the so-called Home Counties, and the country that Bates describes in this piece is totally alien to me. Yet it made me want to visit, to see it, to see how much of that 1941 landscape still lives and shines under his summer sky. Of course, Bates is a superlative writer, but there’s more to it than that. And he knows a lot: about the flowers, about those childhood holidays, about the lives of working people. The piece is jam-packed with detail and keen observation. But there’s more to it than that as well.

The clue is in the date, and in the three words that open the piece, which, at eighty years’ distance you might have missed: ‘IN PEACE TIME’, and yes, they are in capitals too. For this lush description, redolent with nostalgia, elegiac for a lost world, was published in 1941, when World War Two, for England, was already two years old, and the beaches were sealed off to casual visitors, barbed wired and mined for defence, prepared for an invasion that never came. A couple of pages in, Bates gives us a reminding nudge, repeating the phrase, this time in lower case: “it was always so easy, in peace time, to find a light excuse [to make the coast journeys]”.

By 1941 Bates was already at the top of his game. Stories like ‘The Mill, The Kimono, and The Boxer’, had been written, stories that by his own account were more fully developed than those prompted by what he called ‘the facile devil inside’. And he was a master of the descriptive. The sense of heat that pervades the deserted farmyard and surrounding farmland in the story ‘A Great Day for Bonzo’is palpable, and that same intensity is present in many others of his rural tales, not least the often dubbed ‘bucolic’ Kent of The Darling Buds of May (1958). He was already putting those talents to the National Service, most famously in the stories of Flying Officer X. And this piece too, no doubt, had its propaganda purpose, for Britain, like other nations, was fighting for the survival not only of its lives and infra-structures nor merely for its political systems, but for the narratives of its physical homelands. This was one of the notional as well as real England that the majority of the British were fighting for, and here Bates is summoning a sense of loss that could already be felt as war took that landscape, albeit temporarily, away from the people.

You can sense a similar message in wartime films like Tawny Pipit (1944) and Went the Day Well (1942), and some of the Powell Pressburger films, notably, A Canterbury Tale (1944).

Towards the end of his piece Bates makes this context more explicit. “It is a year since I was down on the coast.” And he lets the war intrude more specifically: “A mine was tossing a little out to seaward…”, where the fish-hawkers “would talk to you of the dead Nazi airmen that were washed up every day…”. Not for nothing did the Kent coast, in the days of the Battle of Britain, become known as ‘Hell’s Corner’.

Bates does not end on the war though, but returns us to nostalgia, to the seashore, “the scream of gulls”, and the “toy train, penny plaices, sea-flowers, peace-time world”. He ends on a reflective note, and one, I think, that carries a whiff of English comic irony: “But it’s no use getting sentimental now.” There was, after all, still a war to fight.

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Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com 

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Essay

A Tasmanian Adventure: Bushwhacking in East Pillinger

Photographs and narrative by Meredith Stephens

Few would have heard of the mining township of East Pillinger on the west coast of Tasmania, not only because it was abandoned in 1900, but also because there is no road access. That’s why my traveling companions Alex, Luke, Verity, and I decided to sail there.

We took our dinghy to the shore of this abandoned mining town. Near the wharf there was a hut containing six bunks with decaying mattresses, a fireplace with a blackened kettle sitting on it, and current magazines sealed inside a plastic box for visitors to peruse.

Next we decided to hike along the site of the former railway. There was a trail through a rainforest. Moss and lichen grew on the trees which yawned into the sky. The trail progressively deteriorated and we had to start bushwhacking. A previous hiker had affixed orange and pink ribbons to the trees and stretched ropes at chest height across the creeks. We had to walk across the logs crossing the creeks while holding onto the ropes. We kept our eyes fixed on the ground to avoid deep holes on the path.

“I can’t do this, Alex,” I complained.

“You’ll be fine. You’ve got good balance,” he countered.

Finally, we reached the site of another wharf, and ruins of the former town of East Pillinger. The ruin of the former brick-making kiln was covered in lichen, and all that remained of a former train carriage was a few wooden planks clinging together.

I was proud of having bushwhacked this far, but did not fancy bushwhacking back. Alex and Luke offered to hike back and bring the dinghy to us on the wharf. First, they hiked back to the nearest point on the shore to the boat. Then they swam to the boat. Alex lowered the kayak from the boat into the water and made his way to the dinghy. Then he tied the dinghy to the kayak, and motored back to Verity and me at the other wharf. Verity and I walked to the end of the wharf as soon as we could hear Alex’s motor. Once he arrived we clambered down the ladder into the dinghy and then motored back to the boat.

Although I complained at the time as I tried to bushwhack along the overgrown trail in my city coat only propelled by Alex’s encouragement, I look back fondly at this opportunity to visit this deserted and barely accessible landscape. It was sobering to realise how quickly nature could reclaim a once thriving town in just over one hundred and twenty years. Mosses crept over disappearing paths, brick structures crumbled, and we were left imagining the lives of those who lived and worked here until the beginning of the twentieth century.

* Bushwhacking is a term used in Australia and North America to describe living or travelling in the wild or uncultivated country.

Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist from South Australia. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Muse, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ Magazine, Reading in a Foreign Language, and in chapters in anthologies published by Demeter Press, Canada.

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Essay

Beg Your Pardon…

By Ratnottama Sengupta

Just the other day a news item reported that more than Rs 1 lakh was recovered from a beggar who died in Bengal. And some years ago the national media had widely circulated the story about a beggar who died in Mumbai leaving more than Rs 1 crore.

In the silent movie Pushpak (1987), Kamal Haasan, an unemployed graduate living in a ramshackle lodge, tries to show off in front of a roadside beggar and is humbled to discover the beggar has accumulated more money than him. In Dosti (Friendship,1964), blind Ramu and crippled Mohan sing and play the harmonica — one, to collect the fees for his friend’s school education; the other for his friend’s medical treatment in hospital when his nurse sister is ashamed to recognise a beggar as her kin.


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Tear jerkers? Well, Charles Dickens did not romanticise child labour, domestic violence, and – most significantly — recruitment of innocent children in pickpocketing and begging. In Oliver Twist (1837-39), he depicted the cruel treatment of orphans and exposed their exploitation in London of the 19th century.

Such was the impact of the classic that my generation did not entertain beggars, especially if they were children seeking money. This, of course, had degenerated into employing ‘Chhotu’s’ or small children to sell sundry items — pens, tissue boxes, dusters — at busy traffic lights of the Indian Capital, such as ITO and Moolchand Crossings. And such was the disdain towards begging that my son Devottam, then only ten, once burst into tears because I refused to buy their stuff. “At least they are working and not begging, Mom!” he had pleaded in favour of the child.

Nabendu Ghosh, who had scripted Chanda Aur Bijli (1967), the Hindi version of Oliver Twist, did not romanticise such lives either. In story after story he portrayed the underbelly of urban life: the beggar Judhistir in ‘Down the Stairs’; pickpockets in ‘Khumuchis’; a man who smuggles opium in the belly of his dead child in ‘Jibika’ (Living); a man who strangled his child when he could not provide for him in  ‘Kanna’ (Howl); pimps and prostituted women in ‘Dregs’, ‘It Happened One Night’, ‘Anchor’; a rioter who reforms in ‘Gandhiji’; a whole bunch of thugees in ‘Shei Sab Kritantera’ (Those Gods of Death).

He encapsulated the story of their descent in society without glorifying their actions or condemning their lives.
Small wonder that 15 years ago, when Nabendu Ghosh had turned 90, celluloid legend Mrinal Sen had said, “As a writer and a creative individual, Nabendu Ghosh has never believed evil is man’s natural state. Along with his characters, he has been confronting, fighting and surviving on tension and hope.”
This observation made me look anew at the protagonists of Baba’s stories and novels. And I realised that continually the writer was “exploring the greyer areas of ethical dilemmas,” as it was recently underscored. Few of his ‘heroes’ were ‘Rama’ and fewer still were ‘Ravana’ . If anything, there’s a constant overlap of the good and the evil in every single human, I now believe with him.

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I am aware that West Bengal, the state I now live in, has had the highest number of beggars in the last census. As a journalist, I am also aware that people who exhibit their debilitating diseases — blindness, amputated limbs, leprosy or even gender discrimination — especially near tourist attractions, can be ‘revolting’ for some. I was once told point blank by a European friend living in America, “I know they do it because they have few other options but, while on a holiday, I don’t want to be burdened by their woes.”
The Tourism wing of the Indian government had, therefore, made an attempt to clear out beggars from tourist attractions such as Taj Mahal. Indeed, a new law was also considered to make it a crime for beggars — and touts — to touch tourists in Agra. This is perfectly understandable, especially in a post-COVID world.
But sympathy of the entire world has always been with the men and women who sit with the names of their country of origin to silently beg as they are refugees from war-torn zones. Ukraine today; Afghanistan yesterday; Syria the day before; Turkey Bosnia Romania Cambodia Vietnam…
And where have I not seen them? In New York and in London, I’ve seen them just as I have in Paris and Berlin, Moscow and Prague, in Myanmar and Bangkok, Beijing and Tokyo too!

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You might say, in the East, it is a religious practice. And the practice of giving alms cuts through barriers of religion. This act of giving to destitutes, compulsarily or from generosity of spirit, was meant to enable the receiver to become self-content. But more importantly, it was enjoined that the giver should feel humbled that he has got a chance to be of service to humanity. And through this giving, he was also earning merit — it would get him respect, reputation, and in the long run, secure him a place in another world.

Centuries ago Buddha’s bhikshus were ordained to live off only what they earned by way of charity — food or any other object of necessity donated by a grihast, an ordinary householder. This is why, even during the pandemic, Thailand saw its Buddhist monks go on the daily rounds to collect alms. Monks, having sacrificed their all and severed connection with their families, are not to engage in farming nor save anything — they are to live off only the barest. 

What’s more, they were not to collect more than what they would consume in a day, and they were not to keep anything for the next day. Because? Attachment was a hindrance to nirvana, detachment paved the path to salvation. Life without belongings is life without attachment – and total willingness to give was the sharpest weapon to saw through attachment.

Monks and mendicants are not contained by any religious order. Jains, Jews, Christians, Mohammedans — all have rules for giving written into the practice of the faith. Zakat, the compulsary act of giving in Islam, is said to purify the soul. Lent is a period of giving for Catholics. In churches money was placed at the altar to signify it belonged to God — and was to be used for the welfare of all. Thus many educational and medical institutions came to be established through such offerings.

I have grown up seeing bhikshus, sanyasis, pirs — all mendicants — outside temples in Kolkata’s Kalighat and Dakhshineswar, in Banaras and Puri, outside cosmopolitan Mumbai’s Haji Ali and Mount Mary too just as I have always encountered them at railway stations and heard them singing in the local trains of India’s financial capital: “Tum ek paisa dogey, Woh dus lakh degaa / You give me a penny, and God in heaven will grant you a fortune…”

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That brings me to a couple of other practices, like street performances, and passing the hat around. What should I make of street performers who have been around — and still are — in ancient civilisations? Even today, and in major cities of the world, I see people perform rope tricks, acrobatics, music, dance — in public places, for gratuities. In many tribal belts dating back to antiquity, the rewards came in the form of food or other gifts. In so many corners of my country a bandar (monkey) or a bhalu (bear), is taken around to dance to the music of dafli (tambourine). And at the end of the performance the madari (juggler) collects whatever is offered or donated by the bystanders. Should I also include the snake charmer in this lot?

This form of ‘public performance’ rejuvenated itself in subsequent years into Street Theatre and even at the turn of the last century it continued to thrive in outdoor public places if only as agitprop. Dressed in eye catching costumes and with no props they would show up outside shopping centres, car parks, in Delhi’s Mandi House area or near the busy ITO Crossing, drawing attention with their physical action, perhaps mime, and vocal delivery with no voice amplification. Be it in university campuses or street corners performers — commissioned, or fired by ideology — would show up unannounced, and gather coins and notes dropped in the hat by audiences.

Yes, they too were drawing upon the attention, care, sympathy of their viewers to eke out a living. And yes, they too passed the hat although the expression — as perhaps the act itself — came into existence when a group of friends tried to collect money for a gift. So where do we draw the line to separate them from beggars?

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As far as my limited knowledge goes, only four countries have legislated to impose an explicit ban on begging: Greece, Hungary, Italy and Romania. On the other hand, in Germany and Italy, such bans are unconstitutional.

Interestingly, I recently learnt that beggars in China have moved with the times and become tech savvy. “They park themselves near tourist attractions and subways with QR codes in their begging bowls to accept donations via Alibaba Group’s Alipay or Tencent’s WeChat Wallet,” the report said.

And why not? Internationally it has become a modern world practice to seek money via the Internet. Request help for medical care or for animal shelter, on birthdays gift for a cause,  to pay for disaster management, or for school trips. Aren’t these all within the purview of Bhiksha – the Sanskrit word to denote begging for a grant of a boon, that is, something desired?

That’s why Ravana of Ramayan, dressed as a beggar, stood outside Rama’s kutir in Panchavati and hailed to Sita: “Bhiksham dehi!*”

*In Ramayana, Ravana came to Rama’s kutir or hut during his fourteen years of exile and said: ‘Bhiksham Dehi – please offer me alms.’  

Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.

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Essay

The Call of the Himalayas

Narrative and photography by P Ravi Shankar


Pokhara with Annapurna towering in the backdrop

Pokhara, Nepal is one of the few places in the world where towering snow-clad mountains are easily seen from a subtropical setting. The town is at a height of around 900 meters and within a span of around 40 kilometres, the land rises to the summit of Annapurna at over 8000 meters. The view of colourful poinsettias and bougainvillea against the blue sky and the white peaks creates a picture postcard setting. The soft limestone rocks are easily eroded by powerful glacial-fed rivers creating deep gorges. The hills surrounding Pokhara have many charming villages and one can also follow the river valleys to the Annapurna Sanctuary (a pasture situated between the Annapurna peaks) and to the land of Mustang.

I was at Kalopani in Mustang. The morning was bright and sunny, but the air was still chilly. The dining room was heated, and many tourists were having their breakfast before continuing their treks. The Nilgiri Himals (snow-covered mountains in Nepali) were clear in the bright morning sunshine. We were waiting for our pooris to arrive.

My friend and I were hiking up toward the Thakali (the major ethnic group in this area) settlements of Tukuche and Marpha. The dining room was big, and the glass windows had spectacular views of the pine forests. We were at the Pine Forest Lodge in the twin settlements of Lete and Kalopani. The settlement continues for over thirty minutes on both sides of the trail. The lodge is big by trekking lodge standards and has sixteen rooms. Run by the Dhawlagiri Technical school, this facility is often used to train tourism students. The manager informed us that the number of tourists they can accept every day is limited due to an agreement with similar businesses in the area. Now, it also offers free wi-fi services. When we visited in the early 2000s, cellular and internet services were still in the future.

Our pooris finally arrived. They were fluffy and brownish red. A potato and peas gravy accompanied the pooris. The dish was thick and spicy. The small hill potatoes were tasty.

The lodge constructed of stone can be cold during the nights, but comforters are provided to guests. I always had pleasant stays at this lodge. I never had the opportunity to meet trainee students as usually they started their sessions only after nine in the morning. By that hour, we were already out on the trail.

The Village of Kagbeni with the Kali Gandaki River
The Tibetan shrine with the five foot statue of Buddha in the background

The Red House Lodge in Kagbeni is a bewildering warren of rooms and passages. Kagbeni is on the way to the holy shrine of Muktinath and hikers without the expensive permit to Upper Mustang can watch the trail meandering through the Kali Gandaki River and the barren brown hills. The Red House Lodge is an iconic establishment and several stories and blogs have been written about it. The lodge is a traditional, red-coloured Tibetan house and was started by Pema Doma in 1997 when the region was opened to tourists. She developed a beautiful friendship with an Australian lady, Sydney Schuler. The small house that served as the lodge did not have a name and she then decided to install a signboard inscribed with ‘Red House Lodge’. There are Tibetan religious texts and a Tibetan shrine with a five feet statue of the Buddha at the centre. Firewood and provisions dry in the harsh sun on the flat roof and there is a large pole with prayer flags flapping in the wind.

From the roof, you can gaze at the dreamy landscapes of upper Mustang and watch the constantly changing play of light on the barren hills. By mid-morning strong winds roar from the Tibetan plateau. Tibetans use both the wind and water to carry their prayers far and wide. The lodge was used to store rations by the Khampa resistance fighters, who struggled against cultural hegemony in the mid-twentieth century. Kham in eastern Tibet was one of the three traditional provinces and the Khampas (the inhabitants) have a reputation as tough fighters. They eventually migrated to Nepal along with other refugees and waged armed resistance to free Tibet till they were eventually disarmed by the Nepalese army in the 1970s. Kesang in the Mustang region was one of the main centres of the Khampa resistance.   The food at the lodge in Kesang is excellent and it is a good place to rest either on your way up to or down from Muktinath. The sense of history is strong in this lodge as a comfortable familiarity with the past blends into the present.

Ghandruk is a large Gurung village near Pokhara and the headquarters of the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP). Gurungs are an ethnic group dominant in the hills around Pokhara. Along with other ethnicities they constitute the famous Gurkhas known for their courage and valour. Gurungs are believed to have originated in Tibet and practice a mixture of animistic, Hindu, and Buddhist religious practices. They live on the southern slopes of the Himalayas in central Nepal and call themselves Tamu. Many serve in the Nepalese, Indian, British and other armies and police forces and have seen action in several conflicts.

Due to the civil war, many Gurungs migrated from their villages to settle in Pokhara. Ghandruk (also called Ghandrung) is the second largest Gurung village in Nepal after Siklis. The village sprawls over a hillside with terraced fields. From the road head at Nayapul (new bridge), Ghandruk is a four-to-five-hour trek initially along the riverbank and then through well-maintained stone staircases. The Himalaya Lodge (a Kerr and Downey resort) is located right at the top of the village. This lodge lets out rooms to independent trekkers if not occupied by those who have reserved their rooms through Kerr and Downey.

The lodge has spectacular views of the Annapurna Himals. The dining room is decorated in the Gurung style. The food at the lodge served in traditional copper utensils is excellent. The freshly plucked green leafy vegetables and the radish pickle are tasty. The rooms are well-appointed with attached bathrooms. You sleep between freshly laundered white sheets. The lodge provides guests with slippers and down jackets for their use during their stay. There are tables and comfortable chairs placed in the stone-paved courtyard for al fresco dining and you can watch the clouds gather and eventually cloak the Himals. Butterflies and birds flit among the flowers. The lodge also has different handicrafts for sale. I was first introduced to the singing bowl or the Himalayan bowl here.  The traditional bowls were originally made of a variety of metals including mercury, lead, silver, iron, gold, and copper. I found it fascinating that by moving a wooden stick around the bowl a rich harmonious note could be produced.

Ghorepani at around 2800 m is famous for the views of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri Himals. The viewing of sunrise at Poon Hill is a highlight of the trek. I usually stay at the Snow View lodge located close to Poon Hill. The lodge is made of wood and has an excellent solar hot shower. They have a single room with a window providing excellent views. The cast-iron stove in the dining room is warm and the food is excellent. Ghorepani is a long day’s climb on steep stone staircases from Nayapul and Birethanti. Climbing to Poon hill from the lodges using flashlights in the predawn darkness is a unique experience. Ghorepani was a watering hole for horses till it was discovered by tourists. The settlement has several lodges both down in the main village and higher up at Deurali (the pass). The rhododendrons during spring bloom in various shades of red and pink. The cornbread baked at Snow View lodge is excellent and is my breakfast of choice.   

      

The last few years have been hard on the trekking lodges. First, there was the devastating earthquake of 2015 which damaged the infrastructure, and then the global shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. The lodge owners are resilient and resourceful. The lodges offer comfortable alternatives to staying in cold tents and also contribute to the local economy. Now, as the world is beginning to open its doors again to tourism and travel, I look forward to returning to the magic of the Himalayas and revisiting these wonderful lodges.

Sunset on Annapurna

Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.

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