Lounging around Kathmandu the spare day on my way back scouting for gifts for myself, I walked into a tiny bookstore. The teenager at the counter paid no attention, continuing to gossip Bollywood with her girlfriend while enameling her nail a cobalt blue. (The detailed interaction can be found in my travel blog, Earthbound!) Delighted to discover me Indian and a charming conversation on Hindi film stars and Spoken English later, she offered a handsome discount with little persuasion.
Books are priced less in Nepal compared to India, I observed gleefully, even if the favourable currency exchange rate were not to help (which it does!)
As on these journeys, climbing literature and wilderness adventures play heavily on travellers’ moods and reading choices. One is at that juncture, having beaten some kind of endurance test, savoured ‘triumph’ – for non-mountain inhabitants to take on the vagaries of the terrain is never a mean task – overdosed on adrenalin, head still firmly among the clouds and snow-crowned peaks. Some may already be promising themselves another rush. For a beat, they have forgotten their essential domestic status, severely unhinged from their familial trappings. Running pell mell in the direction of a hot shower, clean laundry, the comfort of accustomed victuals, the airport, the home country, the arms of loved ones but psychologically, at least for a good few, a vague stirring is tearing them up the next slope, towards the newer apex.
Buoyed similarly, I stocked up on maps, a Reinhold Messner and some Jon Krakauer-s. Gawd, I’m terribly unread, and there were famous treatises I’ve never heard of before or locked eyes on.
At home, between sleeping eighteen hours a day and coming to terms with the Calcutta heat, I managed to finish Into the Wild over the weekend.
No, I’m in no hurry to go into seclusion, though I think I understand the restlessness which drove Chris McCandless to go off with himself in search of his peace. He went and got himself killed which seems to have upturned the can of controversies. Some months ago I remember seeing photographs of a Caucasian youth, Jonathan Spollen, splattered all over several travel forums I subscribe to, alongside appeals from his parents, passed along by friends and kindhearted strangers.
“Have you seen him?” the mug shot inscribed. The gaunt, bearded, pleasant face was last spotted going upward from Hrishikesh fifteen months ago, if I recall correctly, and never heard of again.
Perhaps the disappearance was willful. Perhaps it was accidental, one of those nasty surprises we end up unmindfully springing on ourselves. Fifteen months seems a tad long duration for any SOS relay to aid his survival, not unless, hopefully for his family, he is ensconced in an overlooked pahari village, or monastery, cocooned in amnesia or self-contented nirvana.
His mother, Lynda, was frantic for answers. Just as I used to be, some decades ago, when a truant pup failed to appear for his or her next meal. An abnormally prolonged absence would send anxious reconnaissance parties into the neighbourhood, walking longer miles in wider circles, shaking every undergrowth, breaking step beside water weeds, scanning pond scums with miserable frowns, from time to time letting out shrill plaintive cries – a well-loved name fading out of our lungs into the sky, failing to echo in the nothingness.
Sometimes, rarely, they were found by such means.
Sometimes, rarely, they returned of their own accord, and for no credit to our efforts.
More likely, they never did.
Memories lingered. Images of naughty eyes. Soft, gentle, brooding, pensive ones. Perked ears. Sniffing muzzles. Whipping tails. Chewed rents. Threadbare furnishing. Anecdotes.
Thus, I understand where the appeals come from.
Protectiveness is a wretched curse.
A herd looks after its own, someone wrote me recently.
How far, I wanted to whisper? To what finite end? To what finite end is it possible to look after another?
It isn’t easy, giving up ownership of affection. The sloshing acid in nervous guts will eat itself hollow. Once upon a time the question of whether a pup dying in front of my eyes wasn’t better than one disappearing untraceably from the world as I know it was a persistent puzzle.
I’ve long given up wanting the answer. I’ve mellowed into submission. In accepting this inevitability, I have found my peace. There was no peace in flagging my head over answers that never came.
Each life answers the call of its destiny, destiny answers itself through one’s actions.
For every McCandless, there are many others who have their trysts and slip back noiselessly into the mainstream. He managed to die. I loved Kraukauer’s last sentence, describing McCandless’s appearance in his last living photograph, a self-portrait –
"He was smiling…there is no mistaking the look in his eyes: (he) was at peace, serene as a monk gone to God."
Admitted, he had not planned for his venture to go this way. Towards the end, he had even hoped to garner assistance to scramble out from the prospect of meeting his maker. He had tumbled into more than he could tackle. A famous journalist had penned his mystic, a famous actor-turned-director made his biopic. Would his life have engrossed the world to this degree if he had survived to tell his own tale?
Why are we, as a race, so afraid of Death?