Review of Parimal Bhattacharya’s Bells of Shangri-La by Barnamala Roy

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I had recently returned from the misty hill station of Takdah, 28 kilometers from Darjeeling when I came across this book. ‘Takdah’ is a Lepcha word which means ‘fog’ or ‘mist’ and true to its name, sunlight there is scarce even in the summer months of May and June. The wetness of the weather and the mingled strains of the Sunday mass and the Buddhist chants break the silence and peace prevailing there all day. But the question haunts you: how long can one enjoy this peace in the damp and joyless weather?

The same question also comes up in Parimal Bhattacharya’s accounts of his own travels in Bells of Shangri-La: Scholars, Spies and Invaders in Tibet published by Speaking Tiger. He weaves autobiography with historical accounts of other travelers and explorers. In his autobiographical accounts, he talks of the weather in Darjeeling that brings a spell of depression to someone born and brought up in the plains. Bhattacharya mentions a string of suicides by invalid British soldiers in a sanatorium in Senchal (Darjeeling) in the mid-19th century. It is the monotony of uneventful day to day living while posted as a professor in Darjeeling (“My days in Darjeeling followed each other like flocks of sheep over the cliff of amnesia”) that pushes the author into depression too. He buries himself in his scholarly pursuits and tries to fill the gaps in historical data. In the process, he is visited by feelings of eeriness or the uncanny, thanks to natural phenomenon like the Broken Spectre, which makes the book more like a detective novel.

The author’s curiosity is driven as much by the aim of solving geographical mysteries as also by the excitement of exploring the personal lives of travelers and explorers who have been lost to the annals of time. He discovers a rare document, priced at eighteen thousand rupees- ‘Report of Pundit Kinthup’s Exploration of Yarlung Tsangpo’  in an old book shop in Mall Road, Shimla and immediately remembers an earlier discovery of a copy of the same report at a kabari shop in Darjeeling. A connection is established between the two hill stations of the Himalayas, miles apart on the map.

Bhattacharya is interested in Kinthup because he was sent to Tibet to explore the course of the Tsangpo Brahmaputra River by the Survey of India.  Kinthup was a tailor by occupation; he could neither read nor write but knew the basics of topographic survey and was gifted with an amazing memory. What surpassed all this was however his dedication to complete his mission even under the most trying conditions. By putting the tailor’s records against the records of Joseph Dalton Hooker (19th century British botanist and explorer), George Bogle (Scottish adventurer and diplomat) and Sarat Chandra Das (school master and later-day noted Tibetologist), the author erases the line dividing scholarly interest and natural curiosity. He dismisses the elitism of scholarly pursuits and gives back the power of intellectual labour to the common man and woman. The title of the book is also suggestive of the same: ‘…..Scholars, Spies and Invaders in Tibet’.

The book unfolds before us the past lives of Kinthup, Hooker, Bogle, Alexandra, Sarat Chandra Das and Eric Bailey all travelling through difficult terrains to solve geographical mysteries. The author follows in their tradition. Bailey follows in Kinthup’s footsteps, Sarat Chandra Das in the footsteps of George Bogle and the author incorporates the records of all these travels in his own journeys. It is about looking at landscapes anew, with fresh eyes, while always being aware of other ways of seeing in different circumstances, as different people. Bhattacharya looks at these landscapes with the eyes of a poet; his descriptions are vivid and aesthetic- pink and scarlet flowers float in soupy grey fog, mountains lose their crowns in the clouds, trees hold up the sky like columns. Particularly striking is the description of how dusk falls during the winter months at the small frozen village in the Yangma Valley:

 “Before the fleeting daylight would fade, women with wooden tubs would crawl out of the cottages and call the animals in. For a while, the slopes would come alive with shrill human voices and deep bovine grunts answering them. And then, as the temperature would plummet further, milk would freeze in the yaks’ udders, the mountain springs would freeze like candle drippings, the rumble of avalanches would echo in the deathly silence. On clear nights countless stars, pulsating and large, would transform the sky into the coat of a snow leopard in flight.”

Bhattacharya’s book is a passage through time – he notes how the ways of exploration have changed through the ages. The spies, scholars and invaders travelled to Tibet on the sly in Kinthup and Sarat Chandra Das’s time; the author now explores the terrains through organized tours or study tours on Public Private Partnership (PPP). He also comments on the advent of home stays in the hill towns of the Himalayas and how they have changed the economy. The author astutely observes how local life and culture is exhibited and sold to guests and customers – he finds this custom disconcerting. This disconcertion echoes in the utter bewilderment Kinthup experiences on his first encounter with modernization (colonization). The town of Darjeeling had transformed beyond recognition during Kinthup’s absence – his years of adventures and misadventures had cost him his family and he was on the verge of losing his sanity at the sight of the unfamiliar steel tracks in his hometown. Kinthup was ignorant about railway tracks and mistook it for a snake, making himself the butt of ridicule.

The author observes the pathos of Kinthup and Sarat Chandra Das’s life. They passed their twilight years in obscurity and in Kinthup’s case, poverty, cradling extraordinary experiences of their adventures in their minds while living the drudgery of everyday existence. Their colossal effort and dedication were erased from public memory and no longer recognized by the government.

‘Bells of Shangri-la’ also talks about the breaking of stereotypes: Alexandra David Neel, the French mystique is a woman traveler who survives blizzards and braves disguises during her expeditions and lives up to the age of hundred and one. Liekwise, Sarat Chandra Das breaks the stereotype of effeminate Bengali man through his mountainous adventures.

The author has lent a keen and generous ear to past records and brought forgotten lives to light, all the while weaving a poetic experience for his readers. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in history, culture, mystery and adventure.

See the source imageBarnamala Roy has a M.A. in English from Presidency University, Kolkata. She reads an assortment of things, thinks about the films she no longer has time to watch, philosophizes, watches birds and feels more at home in the animal and plant kingdom. A freelance writer, editor and translator, she is currently developing video-content for an Educational App-Notebook, living life and lying low. She takes time off each month and travels to remote areas in West Bengal for fieldwork and sanity.

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