The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen (1978)

peter matthiessen the snow leopard
The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen. New York: Penguin, 2008 (1978). (Gift, purchased in USA).

I did not read this because it is available everywhere in Kathmandu, but because I was given it as a gift before I came. Yet it transpires that it’s the Shantaram of Nepal: “all foreigners read this book”, in the words of an enthusiastic Bombay street-side book peddlar. I have an aversion to reading things presumed to be popular amongst foreigners, considering distance from point of origin a poor arbiter of taste, so it was lucky I went into reading The Snow Leopard blind.

Originally published in 1978, The Snow Leopard is the account of author Matthiessen and field biologist George Schaller’s trip through the Inner Dolpo mountains, on the Tibetan Plateau in western Nepal, in search of the rare, beautiful and elusive Snow Leopard that was said to inhabit the region.

I found it a lovely book, but alienating in many respects. Matthiessen was a student of Zen Buddhism, and while much of the text is dedicated to recounting the physical journey and the landscape, much is also spent exploring the inner changes wrought by following this spiritual path. I found myself skimming over these parts, not entirely comfortable with the easy –and all too common– conflation of physical travel and personal awakening. The Snow Leopard sits at the tail end of hippy trail travel, and because of this feels dated, but at the same time should be read, and appreciated, as very much a product of its time.

Furthermore, at times this book read like a David Attenborough nature documentary. The environment, the elements, the topography is described in rich detail, and many locals are too, but the people are generally treated as part of the landscape, or even the wildlife. At one point the text reads:

“Through Jang-bu, we question everyone about Kang La and Shey Gompa, as the crowd gives off that heartening smell of uncultivated peoples the world over, an earthy but not sour smell of sweat and fire smoke and the oil of human leather. Goats, a few sheep, come and go. Both men and women roll sheep wool on hand spindles, saying that blizzards have closed Kang La for the winter. On the roofs, culled buckwheat stacked for winter fodder has a bronze shine in the dying sun, and against a sunset wall, out of the wind, an old woman with clean hair turns her old prayer wheel, humming, humming.” (p. 138)

I wanted to know more about this isolated region in context with the rest of the country. Honing in on details can result in beautiful, specific writing, but fails to be informative, and I think all travel writing, at least to some extent, should be informative.

My edition of The Snow Leopard, published by Penguin Classics in 2008, has an introduction by Indian author Pico Iyer, a long-time admirer of Matthiessen. The year before Matthiessen traveled to Nepal, his wife died of cancer. To embark on this journey, the author left his eight-year-old son behind in the US. Throughout The Snow Leopard, Matthiessen is still grieving for his wife, and feels a lot of guilt about his son, remembering his son’s anguish at the prospect of being parted from his father for so long, and re-reading a letter from him. Iyer writes that the honesty with which Matthiessen divulges his own shortcomings, his readiness to write about those left behind, is uncommon in travel writing:

“[W]hat moves me, every time I read the book, is that Matthiessen elects to include in his story a letter and a moment that will show him in a highly unflattering light. Most travelers are guilty of a kind of infidelity when they leave their homes and loved ones, their other lives, in order to undertake a long and perilous journey–and almost all of them (I know as someone who writes about travel myself) choose to keep out from their records the less exalted, human trade-off. We like to present ourselves as conquering heroes, or lone wolves taking on the world in all its terror; we will use any literary device we can to keep out of the text the ones waiting for us at home, or the truth of what is always an uneasy compromise.” (p. xxii)

I was reminded of reading about an Indian revolutionary, I don’t remember which, who in his meticulously kept personal journals recorded the birth of his children simply as “A daughter born today.” Not because he didn’t love his children, or that he wasn’t dedicated to them, but because his journal was a space to record his political struggle. I can understand why authors may want to separate their personal lives from their subject-matter, but I agree with Iyer in feeling this is rather disingenuous in the case of travel writing. I have been writing about my move to Nepal, but I hope not to erase signs of what I’ve left behind, a palpable presence in my own mind so I would hope in much of my writing, too.

The Snow Leopardis considered a classic of travel literature today, and I think not just because of its age. Matthiessen’s influence is evident in the last book I reviewed here, Joe Simpson’s The Water People— another example of adventure meeting spiritual and personal discovery. I can’t say I’m a big fan of the sub-genre, but there are enough big questions and beautiful writing in The Snow Leopard to warrant its recommendation.

The Water People, Joe Simpson (1992)

The Water People
The Water People, by Joe Simpson. London: Abacus, 1993 (1992). (Second-hand acquired copy).

Joe Simpson’s The Water People is the story of childhood friends, Chris and Jimmy, who set off into the Indian Himalaya partly for the adventure of climbing mountains, partly because of Jimmy’s search for the “water people.” These are creatures of folklore, more real than imagination but still intangible. They are the spirits, you could say, that dwell in all water bodies, from rain to rivers to glaciers and snow, and can move between them all, wherever they meet. Chris, the narrator, is skeptical of their existence.

A large chunk of the novel passes, however, before Chris and Jimmy even arrive in India, and much more before they reach the mountains. This enables the author to set up the characters’ personalities and their relationship with each other in complex ways: Chris is slightly uptight and generally skeptical and fearful of the unknown. Jimmy is more open-minded, but also pretty irresponsible and annoying. Chris’s ‘secret’ relationship with Jimmy’s younger sister is symbolic of how well, and how little, the two young men know each other.

There are many beautiful and poignant parts of The Water People, but overall it felt as though the author was trying to do too much. There were too many different locations entered, too many personal anxieties explored, too many complicated relationships entered into, for a relatively short book. The love and tension between Jimmy and Chris underpins the climactic tragedy, and it was necessary for these to be articulated in a slow and sustained manner. But in the end it felt disjointed.

Furthermore, Simpson’s skills lie in describing the natural environment rather than the built, human-inhabited one. Chris’s impressions of Delhi are described in the cliched terms that make me cringe. He writes well in many ways, but the imagery is so stale. Describing Old Delhi:

“At the back of the mosque I found a bazaar laid out in the pattern of a Mogul garden and pathways lined in sandstone, and fountains by terraces and every imaginable type of stall staffed by dark-bearded Pathans–soothsayers and snake charmers, hawkers and beggars. I bought sweet milked tea in a thick chipped glass and sat resting on sun-browned grass watching the Hakims sell their wares. The midday sun hung in a cloudless sky directly above the domes of the mosque. It was refreshingly cool in the open esplanade of the park, free from the stifling claustrophobia of Chandni Chowk. I had learnt that in the past caged cheetah, greyhounds, hooded hunting leopards and Persian cats had been sold in those darkened lanes. They were gone now, replaced with the plastic squalor of consumer goods but the fervent desperation of the sellers was no doubt the same.” (p. 75)

Everything and nothing changes in India, looking back to the past…

At the heart of Jimmy’s search for the Water People is what could be considered a cliched desire of a young British man searching for an alternative way of understanding his place and his world through the ‘east’. But this desire largely comes across as sincere in The Water People, :

“There are countless myths and legends associated with the mountainous regions of this planet. Fantastic tales, mysteries, archetypal stories imbued with fear and awe. I have heard many of these legends and have begun to recognise a common theme running through them all. The stories, like poorly fitting clothes, hide what lies beneath. The people from whom I have heard these stories have good reason to believe them. Fear and ignorance might account for most of the fantasy that embroiders the tales but these people are blessed with open uncluttered minds that are prepared to acknowledge the truth in them. We can believe in Christianity. Some of us can blindly accept transubstantiation–that wine becomes the blood of Christ and a sliver of bread becomes his flesh when consecrated in Eucharist. Yet we will laugh at the myths and legends of other cultures. We laugh with the amused, conceited arrogance of fools unable to recognise that our own truths are equally unfounded.” (p. 123)

This is all true, but it is not fresh. Simpson succeeds in detaching himself somewhat from these sentiments, however, by making Jimmy an inherently naive character. Chris’ world-weariness also reflects a similar naivete, and it is in this that The Water People holds is charm.

Excellent review by Devika Bakshi

I haven’t read the book that Devika Bakshi discusses, (The Hope Factory by Lavanya Sankaran) but I think this is an excellent review. Bakshi puts her finger on some feelings that I’ve been having about certain types of Indian literature in English for a long time, and have struggled to articulate.

Kolor Kathmandu murals

The Non-Hiker's Guide to Nepal

The Kolor Kathmandu project can best be summed up in its own words:

“Kathmandu has been bombarded by the visual manifestations of political rivalries and the ubiquity of consumer culture. Big billboards preaching doctrines of consumerism engulf entire buildings, and loud political slogans leap out from the city’s walls espousing hollow rhetorics. The footprints of urbanization spread throughout the city, distancing Kathmandu from the realities of the rest of Nepal. We thus felt the need for an out-of-the-box intervention that opens both the eyes and minds of the public to how our streets and neighborhoods can be reclaimed.”

Kolor Kathmandu has reclaimed the aesthetic of the streetscape by commissioning Nepali and international artists to emblazon bare walls and sides of buildings with colourful murals. Even by South Asian standards Kathmandu is a shabby-looking city on the whole (the rubble generating road widening doesn’t help), but I started noticing murals growing…

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Buddha’s Orphans, Samrat Upadhyay (2010)

Buddha’s Orphans, by Samrat Upadhyay. New Delhi: Rupa, 2010. (Second-hand acquired copy).

Nepali author Samrat Upadhyay’s Buddha’s Orphans is a twee love story set in Kathmandu, tracing the life of Raja, an orphan brought up by a childless couple, and Nilu, a girl from a privilege background but with a drug-addicted mother. It is not an entirely bad novel, because the story compelled me to keep reading, and I finished the 460 pages pretty quickly. But it felt like it could’ve done with a fierce editing (now that I am an editor I notice these things!)

The premise is that Raja the orphan is disconnected from his roots because his mother killed herself when he was only a baby, leaving him haunted by shadows of her presence. Raja and Nilu meet first as children, and in their teenage years Nilu tracks Raja down (through what I thought was an implausible connection to him) and so begins a passionate love affair that lasts their whole lives. But Raja is troubled, and cannot feel content until he ‘remembers’ the story of his mother, something that only happens when his own daughter is grown up and facing parallel struggles to his long-dead mother.

Aspects of Buddha’s Orphans could’ve worked, as it is not without it charm. But it was at least a hundred pages too long. Far too much time was spent on narrating very mundane details, such as finding a house and looking for work, which was just uninteresting. And much of Upadhyay’s language and imagery was odd (“he took the tea like a docile cat.” [p. 169]), overblown (“Something was happening that was about to change things for her.” [p. 113]) and just plain cringeworthy (“That night they lost their virginity.” [160])

The San Francisco Chronicle seems to have a very different perspective of Buddha’s Orpahns from me. A quote on the back states that Upadhyay has been hailed as “a Buddhist Chekhov”, and one on the cover that “Upadhyay’s Kathmandu is as specific and heartfelt as Joyce’s Dublin”. While I think it’s rather hyperbolic to compare Upadhyay to Joyce (and certainly to Chekhov!), I did appreciate the introduction to the city that the novel provided me with. Kathmandu has been a surprisingly difficult city for me to get to grips with spatially, as there doesn’t seem to be a decent city map available anywhere, and it’s not really a place to get to know by walking around it, as I normally would, because it’s just too dusty, potholed, traffic-ridden, and of course wet at this time of year. So this novel helped me to piece sections together in my imagination, and for that it is memorable.

Samrat Upadhyay is one of Nepal’s best-known contemporary English-language authors, and it was perhaps a mistake to begin with this generally mediocre novel, as I have heard that some of his others, such as Arresting God in Kathmandu, are better.

And whoever selected the deplorable cover photograph should reconsider their career in design.