THE TINTIN YEARS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Many decades ago, two significant developments happened near simultaneously, in my extended family.

Two uncles, two comic strip heroes and a bunch of school going cousins – that was the context.

My uncle Narayana Pillai got me Flight 714, my first title from the series showcasing the adventures of Tintin. Until then, the only illustrated narratives I was familiar with were the ones from Marvel, DC, Indrajal and Amar Chitra Katha. They had strong following among school students, to the point that classmates with bound volumes of comic books were important people to know. I didn’t have bound volumes. Although my mother helped out by borrowing bound volumes from a local lending library, in general I suspect, my parents and grandparents held the view that comics, while popular, made for simplified narrative requiring less imagination. Reading was encouraged, purchase / borrowing of wholesome books approved. Days when the cousins got together typically featured a morning or afternoon of painting. Imagination was encouraged. A picture may speak a thousand words but the mind gets useful stretch if it can paint a picture from a word or a theme, perhaps even nothing – that seemed the approach. Into this ambiance landed Flight 714 and at the house of my cousins – Rajeev and Manju – thanks to another uncle: Sachidanand, a handful of books featuring Asterix.

It took me a while to warm up to Tintin. But you guessed it right – it took no time to like Captain Haddock. Who can forget “ thundering typhoons’’ and “ blistering barnacles’’? I also remember liking Skut for no stronger reason than that he was a pilot in Flight 714. Those days I shared a craze for aircraft with my cousin Jayu. Both of us had those small, thick Observer books with plenty of fighter planes in it and we spent time piecing together our respective air forces, which then competed for supremacy in the sky. We also made model aircraft from cardboard, Jayu being infinitely better at the job than I. Flight 714 thus landed at the correct time. My mind was ready for adventure. What attracted me to Tintin were also perhaps the size of a Tintin book and the average length of a story. Uniquely, it was bigger in size than the regular comic book. It told a full-fledged, long story spanning continents, sometimes taking two issues to finish; a sort of early introduction to the graphic novel format that would become popular decades later.

What I remember most is however something else.

Maybe it is a larger Malayali trait, maybe it is a family trait – I don’t know which of the two is correct –we had the tendency of analyzing experiences. At near fifty, I understand childhood better now. It is a phase when you have the luxury to do something because you feel like it; no analysis in the mix. Impulse and intuition are not unfashionable. Our passage to adulthood is fueled by just the opposite. We become adults by analyzing to make sense, till we become armchair analysts of all that is alive and stirring. Expectedly, my extended family put Tintin and Asterix under the scanner. The emergent fascination among the children for these two series triggered discussion among the adults. It was a discussion revolving around idea, story and artwork; we had no clue of such political details like Tintin’s origin in a Belgian newspaper identified with far right views. I remember the outcome. Asterix stayed ahead because its illustrations were bolder and had more flourish. Asterix stories with their play on characters’ names were also more deeply imagined and as the more sophisticated, layered comic book it was respected that much more because childhood is after all stepping stone to more sophisticated adulthood. None of that bothered me. I like Asterix. But Tintin is special. Something about it appealed to childhood’s idea of adventure.

My uncle probably noticed the brewing interest. His work took him often to other cities in India. Occasionally, it also took him overseas. Almost always, he returned with another title from the Tintin series. All the titles were displayed on the back of each book. So it was easy to identify what you hadn’t read and hunt for it. Tintin made me do crazy things. One of them was my scale drawing of a rocket. I arrived an evening with my father at the house of Rajeev and Manju. Their father – Govindan (he was a physics professor) – smiled and indulged me with his time and patience as I explained how my rocket would work. It was all well illustrated in the drawing on large graph paper – the fuel tank would feed the engine and my rocket would escape Earth’s gravity and be moon-bound. Why shouldn’t it? I had a rectangle with dials on it, labeled ` control panel,’ another rectangle with pipeline attached, labeled ` fuel tank’ and yet another one marked ` engine.’ That last rectangle ended in a nozzle copied from one of the jet engines in my Observer book. In retrospect it’s a good thing I didn’t join the Indian space program.

In those days of economy yet to open up like now, each Tintin bought traveled to multiple homes. At every home a kid or two eagerly lapped up the contents. Sometimes titles got exchanged at school; I will lend you my title if you lend me yours, which I haven’t read – that sort of deal. And unlike, regular comic books, which few bothered if they got misplaced or torn through lending, deals over Tintin and Asterix were deals of honor. Misplace or mishandle, you risked being branded unreliable for life. That adds a touch of mystery to how my Tintin collection – all titles acquired save four; that’s 20 out of 24 – fared, once I reached college and employment beyond. Back home in Thiruvananthapuram, not one title survives. I hope some kid; somewhere is still reading what I collected and drawing rockets and submarines. Slowly as Tintin titles became more easily available in India, we started buying the books ourselves (a visit to Kochi was always incomplete without dropping in at PAICO). One by one, we collected the titles mentioned on the back cover of every Tintin book. Then the search commenced to at least access and read titles not mentioned there; titles mentioned in Tintin lore or in conversation among his devoted fans. Meanwhile, my uncle’s children, Lakshmi and Hari, also grew interested in Tintin and started their own collection.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

I never outgrew Tintin. I can still pick up a title and enjoy browsing through it. In my adult life, the arrival of Steven Spielberg’s film on Tintin was a much awaited event. My favorite character was Captain Haddock and I was utterly curious to see how he would be on celluloid. I was disappointed and it isn’t Andy Serkis’s fault. My curiosity was in seeing which actor would pull off that role well and being an avid watcher of Hollywood films, I had even attempted some casting in the mind. As it turned out, the movie was made using motion-capture technology. That put it neither here nor there. It reminded me of the title: Tintin and the Lake of Sharks. Of all the Tintin titles I had, this one – assembled using stills from a 1972 animated film – had attracted me the least. When it comes to converting comic books to movies, I am not a fan of hybrid. After all, Tintin is not a Jungle Book, wherein modern animation technology makes animal characters life-like rendering the film a classic. Tintin sits firmly in the world of people and it surprised me that the producers deemed hybrid imagery, acceptable. I felt that was a letdown, considering Tintin has been portrayed before on stage and several other comic book heroes have been adapted brilliantly for the big screen.

In early August 2017, Lakshmi mentioned that a prominent item at Hari’s home in California is a poster of Tintin. Among his favorite shops is one where he picks up “ his Tintin stuff.’’ It made me wonder: what made her father Narayana Pillai, pick up Tintin books in an era of closed economy in India? Laskhmi’s own take on it was that her father bought it for the children in the family but he wasn’t above reading it on a flight himself! But then, unlike today when the media floods you with trends instantly, those days a comic book hero from Belgium was as distant as Belgium itself. You were compelled to read about Superman, Batman, Phantom and Mandrake because they were around. But Tintin? He didn’t have any PR machinery promoting him in the Indian media. It left the question: how did Narayana Pillai born and brought up in the Kerala of the 1940s and 50s, come to know about Tintin? He had never shared those details. A day into recollecting my thoughts around Tintin, I called up my uncle at his home in Aluva. Now in his mid-seventies, he laughed upon hearing that the phone call from nephew nearing fifty years of age was connected to his Tintin purchases from long ago. There was no loss of time in recollecting details. The bulk of the Tintin books were sourced from a book shop at the Mumbai airport of old, which my uncle visited during his business trips. “ I used to look for illustrated children’s books. That’s how I came across Tintin. I flipped through its pages and felt the characters in the book were interesting. The hero was a young journalist. When I bought my first Tintin, I had no idea how it will be. But from that one book, we moved onto many more, possibly the whole lot…Hari’s collection is still here,’’ he said. Further, in as much as he bought the books for children, he loved reading Tintin himself.

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

A PEEK INTO A CHAMPION’S ECOSYSTEM

Make no mistake – this is not a gentle book on how to swim or improve your skills in the sport. This book is about competing and winning against some of the world’s best. Michael Phelps likes to compete. It took him all the way to titles at World Championships and the Olympics. Beneath The Surface – his autobiography – is an action packed-ride.

Phelps starts human. At journey’s start there is that worry common to many of us – fear of water. It soon fades secondary to purpose found in life for hyperactive youngster. There is nothing like buckets of energy meeting well defined purpose. Notwithstanding humor and casual writing style, I found the book intense. It sticks to subject and packs in details. It isn’t just timings in finals that find mention; the timings in practice, at trials, heats – all get cited because at this level of competition every sub-second shaved, counts. A portrait of the world’s greatest Olympian and athlete comes alive in that space. I read this book to know more about Phelps, an icon in my times. He had his idols – the Australian great Ian Thorpe finds ample mention. Mark Spitz, a legend by 1972, thirteen years before Phelps was born, makes an appearance. Given its central protagonist heads for the Olympics, you also get a glimpse of the Games and life at Olympic Games villages as seen through the eyes of a young, rookie Olympian, progressively moving on to – as seen by a star.

What struck me after reading the book was how much running dominates our idea of athlete. With no disrespect meant to the greats of track, fact is – Phelps has a breadth and depth to his swimming that makes glories elsewhere seem like a side act.  He competes in distances ranging from 100m to 400m and that includes the individual medley, which requires you to be good at all four strokes used in swimming. He also participates in the relay; a discipline that brings out the thrill in being part of a team. He is a winner across these disciplines. Phelps tackles packed schedule with multiple swims – ranging from heats to finals – sometimes happening on the same day. If you dwell a bit on the level of competition at these races, the timings returned and the laurels at stake – you realize how energy sapping these performances are on participants. Not surprisingly, you are also introduced to swimmers swimming down after an intense session in the pool. It helps lower the lactic acid build-up in their body. And lest one forget, you cannot swim to such elite timings or face packed schedules at races, if your training sessions don’t push you to the limit. All this goes into the making of a top notch competitive swimmer. However for some reason, in our mind, swimming does not command the profile track athletics does. When we are asked about the greatest athletes ever, our mind quickly seeks names from the list of track athletes. Phelps talks of the popularity swimming enjoyed in the Australia of Thorpe’s time. He wishes the same was possible in the US and rejoices every time signs of it emerge.

The autobiography embraces the reality of sponsorship and media. It describes how sponsorship, media and publicity are handled such that an athlete’s focus on his / her work is not disturbed by distractions. It casts light on the suggestions Phelps received on how to handle the media. Above all the book gives you a ringside view of what a coach means to athlete and how their bonding and collaboration work in modern sport. Phelp’s achievements are as much his as they are of Bob Bowman, his coach. Together, they work on perfecting Phelps’s techniques, hone his competitive instincts, smash world records and make the swimmer, the most successful Olympian yet. As important as Bowman in Phelps’s journey to greatness is his family. His mother and two sisters (both sisters are swimmers) are there for him. It clearly shows that while success has often been depicted as a person’s battle against odds including lack of family, the reverse can also be true – supportive family works. After 23 gold medals won at the Olympics, you don’t need more proof; do you?

This is an interesting book. It is tad heavy on details around timing but it tells you what champions are made of, what their ecosystem is like. The book’s weakness is also pretty much the same. You get to know a lot about competitive swimming; not much about what human engagement with water through an act called swimming, means.

(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.)            

FOOTNOTES: FOR THOSE WHO LIKE THEIR RUNNING WITH A DASH OF AWARENESS

Minutes before I started writing this book review, I was watching The Walk, the 2015 biographical film from director, Robert Zemeckis, on the life of French high wire-artist, Philippe Petit.

There is without doubt much physics and math in tightrope walking. But at some point, it is an art. Even if art can be analyzed and demystified by science, given the way it is sensed and picked up as skill, art is different from how science handles itself. It is so almost to the point of saying – if science chooses to explain art, it is incumbent on art to stay ahead.

Art may have become minority in our age of technology (at times I feel, art was always meant to be minority). But art still begs being understood differently. Out in the middle, on the wire straddling the void between the erstwhile Twin Towers of New York, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Petit conducts himself like an artist and on completing the daring tightrope walk – including moments spent sitting and lying down on the wire – describes his feeling as one of the greatest peace. Notwithstanding cinema as digital medium, does the high wire-artist’s observation seem the product of technology and artificial intelligence or does it seem very human; a state of acute consciousness and mind stilled?

Mountaineering and climbing have always defied categorization as sport. Climbing has made it to the Olympics; sport climbing will debut at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Yet sport climbing is only a small part of the larger world of climbing, which is as much the stuff of achievement as it is of poetry, art, spirituality and philosophy. The latter aspect – what I would call, the aesthetic and spiritual side of these pursuits – is frequently referred to in the accounts of intense climbers but very rarely do you find these qualities becoming the subject of a book. That’s what made Robert Macfarlane’s 2003 book, Mountains of the Mind special. It dared to explore what mountains have meant to us in our history and why we came to like being there, why we like pitching ourselves against vertical terrain. Such angle of enquiry in writing, unafraid to call on references from art and literature as opposed to technology, was an exception in sport progressively lost to industrial athleticism. It is for similar reasons, that I now recommend Vybarr Cregan-Reid’s 2016 book: Footnotes: How Running Makes Us Human. It is among the most interesting books on running I have read since Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run.

Author, Vybarr Cregan-Reid is a runner. He is also Reader in English and Environmental Humanities at the School of English, University of Kent. His knowledge of literature has played a role in sculpting the narrative of Footnotes. This is a book on running that mentions or quotes – unusually for the subject it is tackling – literary figures like William Shakespeare, Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, E.M. Forster, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Hardy and Henry David Thoreau. There is recourse to scientific studies and research reports to support observations on running. But they are not as memorable as the unconventional perspectives on running, the author offers.  That’s what makes this book special. For, research papers as proof – of that, there is no shortage in age of science and technology. What you miss everywhere is, interesting perspective.

Among the great legacies of the twentieth century, would be the rise of the industrial state, existence within which has shaped our thinking in ways more than we assume. We run with purpose, we run to achieve, we set goals, we measure how long we take to cover distances, we compete – it is as if running is work. Around the middle of Footnotes, a chapter opens, titled: In Praise of Idleness: How to Run Away From Work. Below the chapter’s title is a quote from the German psychologist, Eric Fromm: There is no other period in history in which free men have given their energy so completely for the one purpose: work. As you dwell on it, Fromm’s observation would appear to have impacted how we look at running too. We like to run as a team, we like to keep our bio-mechanics trained and oiled for the task, we obsess with brands and gear to gift ourselves the best shot at opportunity, we eliminate failure and because we approach running as work, we adhere to schedules and ration the days we take leave from it. The other dimensions of existence that running can show us are very much there. Question is – do we wish to see it and if we did, will we pursue it for what it is without hoisting our compulsions on it?

For the most part, Footnotes revolves around exploring things we have felt while running but overlooked; very often, in favor of attributes our age of work wishes us to conform to. For instance, all runners talk of ` runner’s high.’ But what exactly is it that we feel? Why do we feel it? Particularly, why do we seek it and like it when the overwhelming narrative of world around us is that it exists for our happiness? By attempting to answer such questions, Footnotes takes the discourse around running away from predictable lines inspired by industry, technology and market, to one that embraces aesthetics. It addresses such issues as why we like running outdoors (as opposed to indoors on a treadmill), the effect of the colour green on our senses, running to explore etc. Among the most amazing set of pages in this book for me, were those spent tracing the origins of the treadmill to the prison system of Victorian England, where the predecessor of the modern treadmill was used on prisoners condemned to hard labour. One of those sentenced to hard labour during this period and spending time on the treadmill was writer and poet, Oscar Wilde. How many of us running on a modern treadmill are aware of its origin in such a bleak, restricted environment? Notwithstanding the convenience they offer, how many of us see treadmills and gyms as indicative of our own confinement by industrial society? Had we enough open space to run on, would we court the treadmill?

The book’s potential weakness is the very reason for its appeal. Too much of literature and thought may put off those who would rather get tips on how to improve their running and better their prospects. Plus – as with Mountains of the Mind – this book too, occasionally alienates the reader by basing itself too much in the geographical details of England, Europe and North America. But if you are capable of analogy and metaphor, this is an insightful book, anywhere. The credit for introducing me to this book goes to the manager of Thiruvananthapuram’s Modern Book Center. He saw me pick up a book on running and suggested I sample Footnotes too.

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

ALPINE WARRIORS – ANOTHER GOOD BOOK BY BERNADETTE MCDONALD

What drives people to climb; what makes them climb the way they do? – The question has fascinated writers.

Back in 2011, Bernadette McDonald’s ` Freedom Climbers’ was an unusual book for the way in which it juxtaposed the top notch ascents Polish mountaineers essayed in the Himalaya, against the backdrop of political and economic changes that happened in their country.

The author’s latest offering in the same genre is `Alpine Warriors,’ a study of Slovenian mountaineers, who though arriving late on the scene (like the Poles), left an indelible impression on Himalayan climbing with some terribly difficult routes accomplished. In paradigm and narration, the book is similar to Freedom Climbers. The angle explored in the earlier book was the effect of life in Poland post World War II, on that country’s brand of mountaineering. Being a good climber and getting selected for expeditions overseas was a way to escape the Iron Curtain. Climbing in the Himalaya, they took incredible risks and credited to their names a repertoire of tough routes and winter ascents. The reputation this initial batch of Polish climbers – they included names like Jerzy Kukuczka, Wojciech Kurtyka and Krzysztof Wielicki – garnered in Himalayan climbing is unparalleled. On the other hand, as Poland shifted from being a regulated economy within the Iron Curtain to an open country with a free market, the subsequent brand of alpinism it manufactured appeared to lack some of the drive that had characterized its earlier lot of climbers.

Slovenia’s predicament played out tad differently. For much of the twentieth century, Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia. Living in the mountainous part of erstwhile Yugoslavia, Slovenians have long considered it almost a national duty to ascend Triglav, the highest peak in the region and the highest peak in the Julian Alps. In April 1941, Yugoslavia was overrun by the Axis powers. Post World War II, the Yugoslav monarchy was abolished and a Communist government headed by Josip Broz Tito took over. Although socialist, Yugoslavia under Tito stayed largely independent. It was adjacent to but separate from the Iron Curtain Soviet Russia cast across East Europe. With love for mountains strong at home and socialist economy to cope with, Slovenian mountaineering’s situation during its years as part of Yugoslavia likely resembled Poland’s under the Iron Curtain. There was scarcity of resources and they were arriving late on the world’s mountaineering stage. In their early expeditions to the Himalaya, Yugoslav teams sought challenging routes to define themselves. They climbed faces and untamed ridges, achieving these goals with strong team work. During this time appeared the poetic writings of Nejc Zaplotnik, among Slovenia’s best climbers and a member of some of these expeditions. His book `Pot’ (translated and quoted in Alpine Warriors), inspired fellow countrymen to take up mountaineering.

As region denoting the cultural overlap of Europe and Asia, memories ran deep in the Balkans. Old victories still counted, old defeats still rankled. Revenge lurked below the surface.  Following Tito’s demise, Yugoslavia descended into internal conflict. In some parts, it was a madness lasting a decade. Slovenia acquired stability early but in places like Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia – the killings continued. Getting away to the Himalaya became an escape from ideas of nationhood played out to the extreme. Bernadette McDonald’s latest book commences with the early Yugoslav expeditions to the Himalaya noted for their team effort. It then takes you through the intervening years of Yugoslavia’s break-up, war in the Balkans and eventually the rise of names like Tomo Cesen, Tomaz Humar and Marko Prezelj who stunned the world with their climbs; the first two – Cesen and Humar – famous for their solo ascents. In the process it tells the stories of several top Slovenian mountaineers from the country’s years as part of Yugoslavia; its pioneering expedition leaders, the tenacity these climbers brought to expeditions, shows us the working of big expeditions, alpine style climbs and solo climbs and provides an idea of how Slovenia’s new generation of climbers perceive mountaineering.

As in Freedom Climbers, Alpine Warriors explores its chosen theme and leaves you with pointers to continue inquiring. A good book is like a mountain you wish to climb. There may be answer or summit but what endures is the journey.

If you liked Freedom Climbers, Alpine Warriors won’t disappoint you.

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

A MIRROR OF A BOOK

It is a dozen years since Maria Coffey’s book Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow was published.

In 2013, she was there at the writer’s festival at Mussoorie’s Woodstock school. Her talk, remarkably different from others’ for the topic it covered, was ample reason to buy her book and read it. By the time I reached the counter selling books, the few available copies had already got picked up. It was a couple of years before I finally found a copy at a bookstore. Eventually, I read it. This is a book on a set of subjects, climbers would rather not talk about – death on the mountain, long absences from home and how friends and family cope with mountaineers’ obsession for distant ranges and high altitude. The reluctance to talk is understandable. It is proverbial triangle with slightly different actors. A man or woman invests in a comfortable pad with partner; even raises a family, yet there is no getting away from that other partner in the frame – the mountain.

The bulk of climbing literature is written by climbers for other climbers or the general public. Point is – it is always the mountaineer’s perspective that shines forth. The adulation we have for climbing flows back from climbers being privy to a coveted perspective (visual and experiential), to obtain which the vertical and its accompanying challenges have to be handled. That challenge is frightening, the successful outcome, impressive and the perspective sold, so compelling that the adulation is spared questioning. But frankly speaking, much as George Mallory quipped, “ because it’s there’’ to why he wanted to climb Everest, there is no good reason for anyone to put his / her life in danger and climb a peak. The world is right if it finds it madness. Mercifully, ` adventure’ comes to the rescue, making it a fashionable madness.

Just as a big expedition leverages the work of many to plant a climber or two on the summit of a peak, covering those two in glory and the rest in anonymity, anyone venturing to wilderness is there thanks to a network of human beings he / she encountered or befriended in life, some of who have sacrificed their happiness so that he / she may gain the experience sought. And as with expedition members consigned to anonymity, friends and family are often taken for granted. Veteran mountaineers and expedition leaders can sit and count the number of people they know, who died in the mountains. Over time, the dead and the maimed, become statistic. Some of the dead – the famous dead – get written about. But that is to highlight their lives, their climbs, what they were like in the mountains, why they loved being there; in other words, it’s all about them. How many of us know what it is like to endure a long separation with partner gone to the mountains or cope with tragedy if he / she didn’t come back alive? Or bring up children when husbands or wives are away for long or plain, dead? The other side of mountaineers’ lives – the people they leave behind at home, their version is rarely heard.

Maria Coffey’s book is important because she gives the quiet, unheard ones, voice. Doing so, a little known side of climbing comes to the fore. It’s a side you won’t normally hear from mountaineers’ mouths. The subject being such, a lesser writer would have made this book a collage of emotional responses. Maria Coffey strikes a balance; a lot of what she says is grounded in personal experience, conversations and extended interviews with others, not to mention much reading. The book gives considerable insight into how tragedies in climbing played out, particularly how they impacted and were dealt with.

Lest you conclude this is all about censuring mountaineers or deeming that obsession with climbing – irresponsible, let me hasten to add: there are instances in which children brought up amid long absence by one parent or growing up with one parent dead, have found themselves in the mountains and realized, you can’t fault the obsession. There are instances in which widows have remarried (at times to a friend of the deceased) and felt their new found happiness to be a gift from the one who passed away. There are instances in which the surviving partner has realized that there is an appetite for risk in his / her own personal make-up which is what made them love a mountaineer in the first place or makes them seek others cast similarly when one goes away. Who then, is to blame? It would seem, for all the stability we crave and celebrate, there is an edginess we secretly admire. The mountains are not only beautiful; they hold a mirror to our lives. So does this unusual book.

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

ALONE ON THE WALL

Alex Honnold is notorious for quietly doing what he wishes to and then, underplaying what he accomplished. In sharp contrast to the media savviness that characterizes much of sport today, the world woke up to some of his riveting climbs with a lag. Like – done, then word gets around and people are startled. Honnold is the world’s leading practitioner of the art of free solo in climbing; a branch of climbing in which, the climber uses no rope for protection. It’s just person, rock shoes, a chalk bag and big rock walls – if you take Yosemite, Alex’s favorite playground – walls that rise up to almost 3000 feet. While there have been others who free soloed, what set him apart are a few things. Free soloing appears to be the bulk of what he does and within that discipline he has to his credit records straddling both speed and endurance. That’s an unusual mix.

I picked up the book Alone on the Wall less because of Honnold and more because of co-author David Roberts. The latter is one of the finest writers on the outdoors. The book didn’t disappoint. Its idiom suits narrative about an intense, young talent in our midst. The story focuses on Honnold with research in the near vicinity of story. Done so, except for its portions explaining specific climbs in great detail, the book moves fast. You get a ringside view of the life of a free soloist and what it is like to climb rope-less on a big wall. Friends and observers think Honnold has the ability to switch off fear. Not true, he says; he lives with fear, just that he handles it and panic, better than the rest of us. From the book, you learn much about Yosemite and names associated with climbing in Yosemite. You get an idea of how the climbing routes there developed, how the speed and endurance records set on those walls evolved and how Honnold’s accomplishments compare. Away from Yosemite and the US you get a taste of climbing in Chad and Patagonia. You are also introduced to the Honnold Foundation. In its own words: the Honnold Foundation seeks simple, sustainable ways to improve lives worldwide. Simplicity is the key; low impact, better living is the goal. These days, private foundations are usually the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) end of big companies or the philanthropic pursuit of jet setting billionaires. Against that, you imagine Honnold and his life in a van, harassed by security personnel at parking lots he tries to camp at and being shoed away. If climbing is what matters, then the nomad’s life makes sense. One of the interesting twists in the book is its delving into the link between Honnold, media and sponsors. All these are part of forces shaping contemporary climber’s professional ecosystem. Perceptions matter because mileage through media is what attracts sponsors in the modern paradigm of sustainable sport. It creates distortions and tussles. There are also sponsors who back off should the extreme trajectory of an extreme sport be too extreme for brand’s own good.

Honnold didn’t become a free soloist because that’s what he wanted to do. A reserved person, he couldn’t easily find company when he wished to climb. So he started to climb alone. Slowly, as the pages turn, profile of individual takes shape in reader’s mind. Intrigued, you search the Internet for a video or two on Honnold and you see lone man sans rope on challenging rock face, his face – smiling when it meets the camera – hardly betraying the immense risk all around. Just one regret – free soloing being one of the most stunning accomplishments in climbing, I missed seeing in the book a chapter or two on the art form, its history and evolution. Whatever was provided so was in measured dose such that it does not overshadow immediate narrative.

This is a good book, worth reading.

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