The lost horizon
A deeply personal, touching account of a pilgrimage to Mount Kailas and Mansarovar. RUMINA SETHI
This book is reminiscent of Atwood’s Surfacing. Both authors attempt to reclaim nature from the “unsettling and turbulent world below the mountains”.
Limping to the Centre of the World: A Journey to Mount Kailas, Timeri N. Murarai, Penguin, 2008, p. 287, Rs. 350.
Towards the end of Limping to the Centre of the World, the author writes the crux of the book: “I want to be in harmony with the plain, the mountains, Kailas, the wind.” Murari’s “centre of the world” is Kailas; the book is a memoir of his pilgrimage.
The author-hero of this voyage, a 64-year-old man with a damaged knee, embarks on a trekking expedition to Tibet with a large group of pilgrims. Cynically removed from his bhajan-chanting fellowship, he has one spiritual quest though: to pray for the well-being of his godson Bhima. Taking parikramas around Mount Kailas and Lake Mansarovar mark the fulfilment of his mission.
The journey begins in Delhi from where the group bus to Dharchula, a border town and thence to Mangti and Gunji. From Dharchula, the yatra begins on foot to Lipu Lekh Pass which is almost 600 metres higher than Mont Blanc in the Alps. The stoic but dangerous river Kali accompanies this motley group of yatris, ponies and ghorawallahs and is among nature’s first symbols that put human potency to the test. “The survival of the fittest” is imbibed instinctively as the author humorously recounts how the healthier among them are able to move faster and occupy better rooms and beds. The journey culminating in Mount Kailas has other sermons in wait for the agnostic traveller. The sublime mountain effortlessly diminishes the human will that dares to conquer it.
Many of the writer’s closely held beliefs can be discovered in the book. When he consumes his confectionary, he puts the litter in his pocket. There are portions of the book where he shows his acute sensitivity towards the degradation of nature by humankind. His eco-consciousness is carried afloat in a physicist’s mind when he warns against the rapid melting of the Himalayan glaciers or the shrinking of the tiger population in our forests. Although this marvellous book soars away from everyday reality, the author’s political views about colonialism in India and Tibet as well as his premonition about the Maoists overthrowing the monarchy in Nepal come through in a well nuanced way.
In so many ways, this book is reminiscent of Atwood’s Surfacing. Both authors attempt to reclaim nature from the “unsettling and turbulent world below the mountains”. As Murari writes: “I want to stop, to open my arms, to enfold the hills, the mountains, the rivers as long-lost brothers, sisters, parents . . . that I’ve lost touch with”. He may ostensibly be making the journey for Bhima or even to put his body to the ultimate test, but he finds himself slipping into a kind of asceticism, willing the reader to join him.
Murari’s slow metamorphosis is evinced towards the end when he chants “Om Shivaya namah” invoking Lord Shiva’s blessings. He has moved a long way away from believing that the gods are hard of hearing: “I do feel . . .that I am near something spiritual that is touching me very deeply. I am also touching the belief of all those who have come here before me over the millennia, giving it its sacredness, for without them this would be merely another mountain.” And so, Murari gets more than he bargains for. He has little notion of the hardships of the climb and hasn’t sufficient warm clothing either. But despite all the obstacles, his mind is unwavering and determined as he makes it to Takalakot, the first Tibetan occupied town on the other side of the border. When finally he comes face to face with Kailas after crossing the excruciating Dolma La pass, he weeps as he breaks his own physical and mental barriers.
An increasingly personal, deeply touching, well-written book, it suffers from having a rather unimaginative title. It could do with some editing as “down” is spelt “gown” on page 203. Unfortunately, its subtle humour also declines as the experiences become more spiritual (and less sensational) towards the last third of the book. Notwithstanding, I would say that after a long time I felt sorry to have come to the end of a book.
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