THINK EVEREST IF YOU MUST BUT DON’T FORGET THE SEA

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

In early September 2017, I read a news item from Kerala that spoke of a state based-adventure outfit wishing to put women from South India on top of Everest.

It made me sad. Not because Everest is unworthy of aspiration but because it captures our attention at the expense of other equally worthy if not worthier objectives.

To begin with, in May 2014, Malavath Purna, a 13 year old-girl from Telangana had successfully scaled Everest. She was at that time the youngest girl to ascend the peak. That’s sufficiently record-making for South India if you ask me. Maybe then, the adventure outfit’s reference was to people from Kerala. While anyone is free to raise the required funds and attempt Everest, it is a fact that in mountaineering, Everest is equated with guided mountaineering as long as one is attempting it by its frequently climbed routes. The most important factor in guided ascents of prized peaks is whether you – as client – can afford the cost of permit, gear rental charges and the fees of the guiding company. In Everest’s case that is a big amount. Everest tests your stamina. It also tests your purse.

A guided climb of Everest by the normal route does not automatically make you distinguished in the company of mountaineers. Discerning climbers will seek details and they know well that challenging peaks are available elsewhere too in the Himalaya. On the other hand, alpine style ascents on Everest or climbing it by less frequented routes are ideally tackled by experienced climbers for they are quite difficult.

If you can raise enough money to climb Everest; then directing those resources to any other part of the Himalaya will yield plenty of peaks of lesser height that cost less to climb. Should Kerala structure a mountaineering program that puts the focus on less known Himalayan peaks, it would do climbing a service. Some of these peaks are genuinely challenging. Ascents on them have been the stuff of award winning mountaineering. For those who define adventure differently from courting a tonne of risk (I belong to that category), these lesser mountains and their landscapes also harbor much wild beauty and solitude. Currently they don’t fascinate Indians as much as Everest because we and our media are still in the early phase of mountaineering. We haven’t got under the skin of climbing. We remain awestruck by Everest. That’s why the world’s highest peak, climbed by many and their guides every year, continues to attract. A good example of its popularity and symbolic value is betrayed in the experience of a well-known mountaineering club from western India. Having climbed Everest successfully, this club tried raising funds to climb other peaks. It didn’t work. It was easier to find sponsors for yet another Everest expedition with adjacent peaks included. Among mountains, Everest fetches sponsors and when it comes to money to attempt other peaks, Everest done or Everest too in the frame, is the stamp that fetches sponsors.

It doesn’t end there.

When individual aspirants fall short of funds for Everest, they borrow. Some even take bank loans. For these folks, a trip to Everest and summit missed means investment lost and life in debt. Such stories have been reported in the media. Further, government departments awarded promotion at work against Everest ascents recorded. Potential recognition of this sort, which has nothing to do with climbing, inspires its share of unrealistic expectations, not to mention fraud. I climbed Everest but didn’t get due recognition – is a complaint sometimes heard. Meanwhile, a husband and wife team from India was shamed not long ago for faking their summit photo.

Given several states have already seen their residents ascend Everest, I wonder if yet another Everest expedition or creating a training base for those aspiring to climb such a costly peak, deserves priority. Sure it can be a business opportunity, for those seeking guided ascents up Everest are clearly people willing to spend money for it. However if one is imagining sport with support from state exchequer in mind, then I submit what Kerala must do is something else.

As a coastal state, it must embrace water. It must encourage disciplines like swimming, distance swimming, sea kayaking and sailing. Water rarely gets the attention it deserves in our imagination of adventure although it forms 70 per cent of the planet and is deep enough to sink mountains. In his autobiography, American swimming legend Michael Phelps states his admiration for Australia. Down under swimming was one of the most popular sports, a position unheard of for swimming elsewhere. Phelps wanted this to happen in the US too. Access to water and sea is Kerala’s real gift. There is nothing wrong in wishing to meet the Himalaya. In fact, there is nothing wrong in anything you choose for adventure – it is your instinct, your choice. Just that in Kerala’s case, it would be a tragedy to hanker after the Himalaya far away, and merit in the process, guided swims and sailings in the Arabian Sea lapping at one’s feet.

Kerala has produced good swimmers who topped nationally. A couple of them also participated in the Olympics. Kochi has a marina. It is hometown of Commander Abhilash Tomy KC, the first Indian to do a solo nonstop circumnavigation of our planet in a sail boat. Did this translate into policy supportive of water sports in the state? I doubt it and by supportive policy, I don’t mean events (that’s tourism). I mean training and empathy for those wishing to court water. I have also not heard of any endeavor from Kerala that is the equivalent of an ` adventure’ on water. Further, for the record: swimming cannot be substitute for regular climbing as means to be good at mountaineering. But it provides physical fitness and cardiovascular health; both essential for any endurance based activity, including mountaineering. There is a lot that focusing on water can yield – it can help you excel on land, if land still be your chosen medium for adventure.

If you are in Kerala and can call upon government, companies and people to contribute resources, what would you attempt for adventure – Everest or a long distance swim or voyage?

Think about it.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

THE HOLMES IN US

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The only character I have come across in my readings who avoids boredom like the plague is – Sherlock Holmes.

It took me years to understand why I liked him so much. I credit the delay to our rationalization of the boring as essential ingredient for successful life. Boring is our Voldemort; we don’t speak of it lest we lose livelihood. In such a world – one that increasingly ignores what it means to have a brain – Holmes makes it alright to be you. His continued existence, even as fictitious character, assuages the sense of uselessness you accumulate for failing due to your own capabilities. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Holmes. But many others have contributed to his splendid evolution since, into an emblem of being alive.

Between film and television, I believe it is the latter that got Holmes right. The late Jeremy Brett is the best Holmes I have seen. By that I don’t mean staying true to what the creator of the character wrote; I mean more bringing the character alive. However Brett’s Holmes is in a context from the past. There have been later reinterpretations of Holmes; attempts to position him and his stories in more contemporary ambiance. My initial fling with the two TV series – Sherlock and Elementary – made no impression. I couldn’t accept Holmes as super warrior adapted for digital age or Watson as a woman. I mentioned this the last time I wrote about Holmes on this blog.

With more episodes watched, things changed.

I am intrigued by the nature of connect these series have had on me.

The connection is inspired less by Holmes and more by his immediate and extended ecosystem. That, I believe, is where the portrayal was tweaked for renewed appeal. The two series, while retaining Holmes’s known traits added new possibilities, particularly in the interplay between him and those around him. Embedded in the interplay are moments we quickly empathize with.

In social response familiar to those staying single, the detective-doctor duo of Sherlock is sometimes mistaken for being gay as they are inseparable friends. When it comes to Holmes’s life and work, Watson, his wife Mary, Lestrade, Mrs Hudson, Molly Hooper and Mycroft – all form a protective ecosystem, alternatively frustrated by the consulting detective’s sharp insight delivered bluntly and admiring it. Moriarty vacillates between being an evil character outside of Holmes to being the stuff of his own mind; a natural and inevitable counterbalance to the faculties he possesses. In Elementary, Watson is a lady doctor who accepts a position as sober companion keeping an eye on Holmes, cast as a recovering drug addict. Elementary has Holmes based in New York and assisting the NYPD. In both TV series, the police as a whole are not welcoming of Holmes. But Lestrade and Captain Gregson, as individuals, are very supportive.

There are two major factors common to both these TV series.

In an episode from Elementary, as Holmes sits nursing a fever and the NYPD texts of a dead body found in an abandoned building, Watson reminds a Holmes eager to leave for crime scene that the police don’t pay him for his services. “ Watson, you should know by now that boredom is far more dangerous to my health than any fever,’’ he replies. As scathing and unforgiving are his observations of boring world, equally strong are his slides to vulnerability. Unlike the old Holmes with cocaine and Irene Adler for vulnerability, here the vulnerabilities are many and the occasions when they are on display are also many. There is a pronounced degree of seeming misfit. You have characters being publicly sarcastic of Holmes. Recall Sergeant Sally Donovan and her word for Holmes – Freak? The name calling doesn’t hurt Holmes. It hurts us Holmes fans.  In Sherlock, he cracks up (remember the episodes around Watson’s wedding?). In Elementary, he often stands there like a person wronged. As Watson’s tenure as sober companion drifts to a close, Holmes admits in a moment of weakness that his life rendered dry and impassive by the science of deduction is not how he wanted it to be. He says that he would miss the collaboration with Joan Watson if she went away. What stifles a more direct plea for help and understanding is ego. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller – both fantastic as Holmes reinterpreted – have captured this struggle well. I found myself lapping up episodes from both the series.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The above mentioned vulnerability, which probably strikes a chord with many, has been critical to Holmes’s continued evolution and presence in our lives. I suspect the reason it strikes a chord is because so many of us, while hardly as intelligent as Holmes or given to deduction, are nevertheless in terribly boring situations and unable to do anything about it. Our capabilities are wasted. We are intellectually alone. Society attaches little value to insights beyond the mundane. Money favors that which matters for its growth and mundane fits the bill eminently. Money also likes stability. If you aren’t naturally wired for enduring this combination or lack compelling reason to tow its line, you risk becoming outcast. For some of us at least – the ones declining to endure such boredom or asking questions about it – our vulnerability stands exposed. We wish for Watsons and Molly Hoopers to emerge by our side. We crave supportive ecosystem, even if it be four or five people, which is all Holmes has. From attracting us by his riveting brilliance as consulting detective, Holmes has transformed through the past few decades to attracting us for how he pays for his brilliance – there is his loneliness, there is his isolation. Given perspective is a product of subject and beholder, Holmes’s transformation is equally a commentary about the beholder. It is a state of the world report.

Brett’s Holmes was a wonderfully engaging portrait. We peered through time into the goings on at 221B Baker Street; it was a period of syringes reused and carriages drawn by horses. In contrast, the Holmes of Sherlock and Elementary remind us of contemporary predicament. He becomes a figment of our straightjacketed brain navigating environment dismissive of its insight and creativity. The ecosystem offered by Watson and Holmes’s few other friends keep him as what he is while Moriarty, cut from the same fabric, represents what can dangerously be.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)