Breaking the Ice in the Himalayas

From Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, by Artemis Cooper (New York Review Books, 2013), Kindle loc. 6152ff.

The Himalayan party consisted of Robin and Renée Fedden, her friend Rosie Peto, Myles Hildyard, Carl Natar and Peter Lloyd, and Paddy. They flew north from Delhi, assembled a team of six Ladakhi porters and began their climb in mid-October. They were following the Beas river upstream, which marks the easternmost point of Alexander’s conquests in 326 BC. Their goal was Malana: one of the most isolated villages in the world, which lay to the north-east of the Kulu valley, dominated by the great peaks of Chanderkhani and Deo Tibba.

The people of this village worship an ancient god called Jamlu, and believe that even the sight of a foreigner, let alone his touch, risks pollution and defilement. The travellers spent their first night outside the village, waiting for permission to enter, and this permission was granted only on condition that they touch nothing, not even the walls. They also had to remove their watches, boots and belts, for leather is an abomination to Jamlu. As they entered the village ‘Men averted their gaze, children ran off as though ogres were coming down the street and the women at the spring . . . stood transfixed, and after a long disbelieving glance, turned away in a rictus of bewilderment and pain. Nearly all the village was out of bounds . . . and even along the permitted ways a flutter of anxious hands herded us innocuously into the middle.’

The holiest spot in the village was an open space, where a slab of stone lay embedded in the grass. One of the villagers, a kind man called Sangat, had made himself their guide and mentor. Under his direction the party made offerings, joined their hands in prayer and prostrated themselves before the stone. ‘Our pious homage to Jamlu had made a good impression, it seemed; and here, bit by bit, linguistic curiosity began to break the ice.’ Exchanging words was one of Paddy’s favourite games, and as usual his enthusiasm flung bridges over the chasms of fear, shyness and suspicion that separated the strangers and the local people. Soon sherpas, foreigners and villagers were swapping words in Tibetan, the Hindi dialect of Kulu, English, and Kanishta, the language spoken by the Malanis. ‘By now we were among friends.’

Malana was every bit as strange and mysterious as the travellers had hoped, but the whole expedition was overshadowed by the fact that Robin was becoming increasingly ill. He was diagnosed with cancer on his return to England, and within three months he was dead. The article that Paddy wrote about his last journey appeared two years later as ‘Paradox in the Himalayas’, in the London Magazine. It was dedicated to Robin’s memory, though neither Robin, nor Renée, nor any other member of the group was mentioned by name in the piece.

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Filed under Britain, India, language, migration, religion, travel

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