05 Nov MWMF Through the Eyes of Noah, Grade 10
The Draw of the Mountains
The first panel on the Writers Festival was on the subject of mountain writing. It had a truly diverse group of people with two writers, a journalist, and an ecologist sitting on it. It was moderated by journalist, author, and director of Global Health Strategies, Amrita Tripathi. On the panel were former Banff Mountain Festival vice president and author Bernadette McDonald, acclaimed author Patrick French, secretary of the Himalayan Club and journalist Nandini Purandare, and Dr Kamaljit S. Bawa, professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts.
The discussion started off with each panelist talking about what inspired them to write about the mountains. Bernadette talked about how the characteristics of mountain climbers, as well as their background, inspired her, as she finds them to be strong, quirky people to attempt such impressive feats. Patrick French went down an entirely different path; he spoke about the spiritual connection he felt in the mountains and how the mountain people themselves were very interesting with strong traditions, unlike most other places in the world. Nandini Purandare took a more practical approach in her writing; her reason for writing about mountains being the need to give information for other people who want to climb, to help them as much as possible. Finally, Dr Bawa talked about the richness of life in the mountains with thousands of organisms calling it home. He cited the need to tell the story of each organism as the reason for his writing.
Dr Bawa also talked about climate change and how it is already affecting the fragile ecosystem that is the Himalayas. He called upon scientists, artists, and writers to raise awareness for what is happening in the Himalayas, as it is everyone’s obligation to make the consequences known if climate change continues to happen at the current trajectory and to help stop them.
The next topic brought up by Amrita was whether the writers thought that their stories were inspiring more people to go into the mountains and therefore leading to more consumerism. Bernadette agreed. However, she also pointed out that writers must be truthful so as not to inspire any risks to be taken. She also points out that the more people that are inspired, the more resources will be consumed, with lifts and helicopters being used to both save and rescue people from the hostile place that is the mountains.
Mr. French agreed, and talked about Bhutan and the role model they are to other Himalayan countries. Bhutan has kept its age old traditions, as well as a focus being on ‘Gross National Happiness instead of GDP’. He then told the audience how he would love to write about the history of the Himalayas and its people, ending in the current day with the challenges faced in the Himalayas. The others agreed, with Nandini adding that climbing should be done for the love of the mountains, not for profit.
The panel eventually opened up to the general audience for any questions they had. After a brief discussion on such topics as the use of resources, human rights, and equality between rural and urban areas, the discussion was brought to a close.
Younghusband: Gentleman, Spy, Madman
Patrick French is not French, neither is he from India. However, he has deep ties with India that span many years. French is an acclaimed British award-winning writer who has studied English and American Literature in the University of Edinburgh. He is no stranger to India, having written most of his novels on this subject as well as being a founding member of the India-UK round table.
His books have received critical acclaim, with his biography of V.S. Naipaul, The World Is What It Is, winning the National Book Critics Circle Award as well as being shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize. Many of his novels are set around India and Tibet. Other notable books of his are Younghusband: the Last Great Imperial Adventurer, which won both the Somerset Maugham Award and the Royal Society of Literature’s W. H. Heinemann Prize; Tibet: a Personal History of a Lost Land; and India: a Portrait.
Along with writing, Patrick French has many other talents as well. French is an avid and powerful debater who has a very special way of presenting his arguments, as anyone who has observed him would testify. A few years ago, he participated in a debate hosted by iqsquared on whether democracy is India’s Achilles heel, or in simpler words, is the current system flawed. He caught the eye with the clearness, conciseness, and depth of his points in relation to the topic. However, the thing that really gives power to his words is the interest and emotion that he showed as he discussed the subject. His presence is apparent from the moment you meet him. This was shown this year at the Mussoorie Writers Mountain Festival as his mere presence lifted up the tired crowd and injected some energy into them with his affableness and energy.
This year he presented his book, which he described as a ‘youngsters book’, Younghusband: the Last Great Imperial Adventurer, at the festival. The novel is a Biography of Sir Francis Younghusband, the great British explorer, adventurer, spy, and eccentric, and his journeys around Asia where he acts as a spy of sorts. From the beginning of the presentation, French captured his audience’s attention with his wit, knowledge, and unique style of storytelling. He had everyone in the auditorium in stitches with his clever wordplay and well-timed jokes. His story of people clapping at the British as a way to ward away the evil spirits they were thought to be brought a huge round of applause from the crowd.
A large part of the talk was related to the subject of his book, the British explorer Younghusband. Younghusband was a great explorer who worked for the British government for many years. He almost seems to be an olden day James Bond, albeit more eccentric. In what seems to have come straight from a spy novel, Patrick recounts how Younghusband climbed down a glacier using bed sheets and pillowcases, as he searched for paths the Russians could take to invade India. Sir Francis was an adventurer to the bone, he travelled to the remotest parts of the subcontinent, helped settle disputes between Britain and local princes, and even organised the first four Everest expeditions! However, he was not without his eccentricities, in fact, he had a lot of them. When he packed for his journey through the wild, harsh landscape that led to Tibet, he packed a full wardrobe of fancy coats, shirts, and hats for when he would meet the Dalai Lama (he didn’t). In his letters to a lover, Patrick talked about the ‘God Child’ or ‘Messiah’ that he was convinced they would conceive together. It is doubtable how accurate his claims were. However, it is undoubtable that Sir Francis Younghusband is a real character who deserves books to be written about him because of his exploits, as they provide a rich, warming stew of a story that you don’t hear every day. Patrick French does a great job of it and his book is definitely something to read if you are into adventurers and spies.
The Decay of Mountain Culture?
The third and final panel in the Writers Festival was a smaller one, with a small audience, as the participants and viewers packed into the Hanifl Centre Auditorium. It was moderated by Manjari Mehta’74. The other members on the panel were anthropologists William Sax and D R Purohit and photographer and author Serena Chopra. They discussed the question: What is mountain culture? This topic brought liveliness to the discussion as it was something that the audience connected with, and some ideas brought a certain amount of argument as they were not something everyone agreed with. However, the last panel was definitely not something to be missed.
After the introductions, the discussion started off with William Sax stating that the question posed was an impossible one as there is not one single culture that encompasses the entirety of the people of the Himalayas, he pointed out how dialects vary from valley to valley, customs from region to region and ethnicities from country to country. He talked about what he found to be the most interesting thing about mountain people, the ways that they adapted to the changing world around them.
Serena Chopra built on William’s point by talking about the many differences between Bhutan and India, not just in ethnicity and traditions. She talked about the role of females in the two cultures, how in Bhutan women have a degree of respect that Indian women do not get. However, she talked about the mental and physical strength of Indian women who work in the fields while the men ‘just drink’. She also talked about modernization in the Himalayan regions and how it is taking away the culture and traditions; she said that is bad and we should look to Bhutan as a role model as it has modernized efficiently without losing its traditions.
D R Purohit talked about the two parallel cultures of mountain people, Pan-Indian Classical and Agro-Pastoral and the steady decay of the two due to modernization and its role in moving people from villages to towns and cities. He talked about how the generation of storytellers are dying out and how these traditions will soon be extinct. He believes the economic shift is the reason for this problem. People cannot earn enough in the villages, thus they have to move.
The moderator said that this was to be an open type of discussion, and called on the audience to participate more. This livened up the discussion as some very controversial topics were brought up such as bride price, males of the mountains being useless, and dowry.
There was a slightly heated discussion over whether the men in mountain villages were useless, with some people saying they just played cards and got drunk, while others saying that the economic shift brought new jobs that the males started doing, such as government jobs and becoming shopkeepers. Eventually the discussion settled down and the panel was brought to a close.
Photos via MWMF