Fans of the Indiana Jones series, will remember the scene from the first film when cinema’s favourite archaeologist faces a huge scimitar-wielding opponent. For a minute, we think it is time to bid goodbye to the adventurer played by Harrison Ford. Then, slowly recovering from the sight of scimitar swishing about, he pulls out his gun and fires. One bullet fells the imagery of the terrible scimitar. As simple as that; balloon pricked.
Something similar happened last November, during the last session of the 2013 Mussoorie Writers’ Mountain Festival when the documentary film `Kukuczka’ by Jerzy Porebski was screened. In the film (a tribute to the legendary Polish mountaineer Jerzy Kukuczka), veteran mountaineer Kurt Diemberger comments on the current craze for speed ascents on formidable mountains. Gracefully aged by time, Diemberger has a serene, saintly gaze. He gently laughs and compares these swift climbs to the difference between sex and loving a person, understanding a person. Sometimes in the world of adrenalin soaked-climbing, you need a wake-up call as effective as Indiana Jones’s bullet. This seemed just that. The analogy was perfect; the delivery in Diemberger’s affable way, equally so. For me, it was one of the truly memorable moments of the last edition of the festival. You come to events like this, to rediscover the value of thought. Restoring thought in outdoor sport is particularly difficult as the world of marketing and media have squeezed contemplation out leaving us with action junkies in close-up.
On the other hand as author David Roberts wonderfully pointed out (he was quoting Benvenuto Cellini) in an old essay on mountaineers’ biographies, there is value in writing memoirs when you are past forty and not before. As you age you learn to see what happened from a distance, not with your nose to the rock. Yet thanks to competition, marketing and media, our world has been losing that distance, that perspective. As ornaments for adventurer grow, the outdoors fades to being means for a world resonating us. It is like you swallowed K2, vacuumed the Sahara or gulped down the Pacific to become something bigger than they all – which you do in the human world. You tower above others while whatever you conquered exists timeless out there. It is both a crisis in human imagination and a crisis in sponsorship models for without claim by superlative (in world running out of superlatives) and consequent interest shown by media, money shuns adventure. I found Diemberger’s comparison, spot on. It is easier to manufacture reasons for attention by marketing’s logic, than to know the mountains or lose yourself to what you like and where you had been. That’s the thing – are you willing to lose yourself, trade rank among humans for mere place in everything? I found myself laughing hearing Diemberger’s observation. I also found myself saying: thank you!
The Mussoorie Writers’ Mountain Festival is both about writing / arts and about mountains / the outdoors. It is special for me. First, it gets me back to the hills, reunites me with others similarly cast. Second, as a writers’ festival, it returns the intellect to a domain rapidly trading intellect for the glamour and decisiveness of action. I write as outsider. Despite much time spent climbing, I wasn’t good climber. Still, if average climber may speak up – I was never fascinated by just action. Save perhaps in the thoughtless depths of tackling a climbing route, which is too much an instance of focused, intense existence to be generalized as life. Firmly into middle age, I also realized that my being has a spiritual side, which needs attention as much as my body. A larger landscape now interests me. To feel the larger world, you stay open to a variety of stimuli ranging from music to photography, to painting, writing, science, history, geography – for all this exists out there. A festival like the one at Mussoorie, I felt, approached the outdoors so. Notwithstanding shortfalls, it strives for more dimensions than one.
The first time I was here in 2010, I walked to the assigned venue, past walls hosting photographs of mountains by Coni Horler, a participating photographer. Evenings, music took over – that time, it was artistes passing through town and, I suspect, some of the staff of Woodstock school who performed. The school is the festival’s immediate ecosystem.
In 2013 – the festival trifle bigger and shifted wholly to the school’s Parker Hall – I walked to the venue through an exhibition of Thangka paintings by the Nepali artiste Ayush Yonjan. Evenings brought on stage, a band from the hill town of Shillong in North East India. They sang songs from the 1950s and 1960s.
In between we had a host of speakers, among them – Krzysztof Wielicki, William Dalrymple, Romulus Whitaker, Janaki Lenin, John Gans, Mark Vermeal, Simon Beames, Mamang Dai, E. Theophilus, Omair Ahmed, Dawa Steven Sherpa, Allan Sealy, Sejal Worah, Daniele Nardi, D.R. Purohit, Jeph Mathias, Kaaren Mathias, Tara Douglas, Maria Cofey, Peter Smetacek, Neela Venkatraman, Freddie Wilkinson and Deborah Baker. The topics spanned history to wildlife, experiential education, poetry, mountains, mountaineering, photography, river journeys and butterflies.
As before, the festival was anchored by author, Stephen Alter and his team, including those from the school’s Hanifl Centre for Outdoor and Environmental Study. It was supported by the Winterline Foundation, begun by Woodstock alumni.
No doubt, all that engaged. But In 2013, my take away was Diemberger’s comment on film. I guess my personal set of circumstances, my private funk in climbing was waiting for it. Like a bullet to invincible images on stained glass, the comment demolished the intervening interpretation of climbing by distinction and let nature in. I imagined speed climber distracted by the changed ambiance, sitting down to admire the world from a mountain slope. Something has snapped in him. He thinks – how about a tent, a warm cup of tea, some love and affection, the slow life?
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)