As young, impressionable children, we were allowed to watch TV only on Sundays at my grandma’s house in the Himalayan foothills, even during our long winter vacations. The set was a grainy, black-and-white Jolly, kept behind a shutter, and the channel was Doordarshan. Of all the government ads I watched in those pre-cable days, one infomercial on nature remains starkly etched in my memory, with its sweeping shots of forests, glacial lakes, and the Himalayas. I must have taken its message to “fall in love with nature—it will be an everlasting love affair” pretty seriously; 30-odd years after watching it, my love affair with the Himalayas continues unabated.
As a child growing up in Nainital in the middle Himalayas, I was oblivious to the charms of the youngest mountain chain on earth. The mountains were simply a pleasant view from my bathroom window as I brushed my teeth, transforming grumpy mornings into more magical ones. I was barely aware that the Himalayas are the acme of mountaineering with ten of the planet’s highest mountains; the source of some of the subcontinent’s mightiest rivers; that they have had a profound impact on India’s climate and shaped some its most unique cultures, not to mention that they are the physical and spiritual home of millions.
The seed of curiosity however was planted early: the Himalayas were the highlight of weekend jaunts with my parents; walking to scenic viewpoints to peer closely at the peaks through coin-operated telescopes. Nevertheless, by the end of my schooling I felt trapped in a fishbowl of mountains and was dying to get out. But after five years of city life, my heart began aching to go back. I was increasingly drawn to the mountains on my travels, and this triggered a quest to get to know them more intimately than through the telescope’s magnification, beyond just a sloppy pining.
I made my first solo foray into the mountains in 2008, hiking to the Everest Base Camp to see the star of the Himalayas up close. I learned how to navigate the formal orientation of routes and peaks, invest in the right outdoor gear, and sleep in teahouses, while trading climbing knowledge for Bollywood moves with Sherpas.
More than the Everest, however, what stands out in my memory is a small day hike on a layover day, a detour to the Ama Dablam base camp. The lake of Ama Dablam, or “mother’s necklace,” sits at the base of its namesake, a 22,350-foot Himalayan peak that is often referred to as the Matterhorn of the Himalayas for its steep faces and high ridges. The lake itself is said to be inhabited by fairies.
Its water was the bluest I had ever seen, and its splendour had the power to drown me, my fellow hikers and our guide in a spellbinding silence. There was something so beautifully wistful about it; I could attribute it to nothing but the energy of the Himalayas. The following year, I was in the Canadian Rockies, which are dotted by equally stunning lakes. The colour of Lake Peyto—a large spill of royal blue ink—was undeniably gorgeous, but unlike Ama Dablam, I doubt it is visited by fairies.
As more personal explorations and writing assignments led me back to the Himalayas, I developed a growing affinity for Ladakh. And as Leh steadily became more touristy, I started moving further and further away from the capital to more remote regions on almost annual visits. From looking for snow leopards in Hemis in the dead of winter, to battling -30°C in a tent on the frozen Zanskar river; from being foolishly stranded with a sleeping bag but no rations in Sham Valley, to driving all the way up to the Changthang plateau from Uttarakhand in a rickety jeep packed with my dog and a carefree bunch of folks, I have developed an up-close and personal relationship with Ladakh.
I’ve also left a piece of my heart in the Northeast, a gentler part of the Himalayas, thanks to its rolling hills. I’ve eaten ladles of pure fire in the form of chilly-soaked ema datshi in a bid to impress my Bhutanese host in Paro, and signed up to volunteer with a social enterprise in Spiti, where my favourite activity was taking the sheep out to graze so I could lie in the light of the sun and stare at the glorious white peaks all day.
Somewhere between all this traipsing, another five years flew by before I finally decided to move back to the Kumaon Himalayas of my childhood. I don’t know if it was an epiphany, like seeing a frozen icefall in Zanskar that stood like a timeless piece of Tiffany glass, or a moonlit walk in Spiti while the rest of Dhankar village slept—or if it was the collective misery of cramped indoor plants in my tiny Bombay apartment. Either way, I was back in Binsar, Uttarakhand, in 2012.
Back home, I took my romance with the Himalayas to another level through mountaineering. In three courses over three years, I learnt new ways of exploring this 2,415-kilometre mountain arc using ropes and pitons. One course took me to Kashmir, where my beautiful but mundane mental images of the valley’s shikara rides and phiran-clad women were overthrown by instructors in hijabs and harnesses.
The pinnacle of these vertical journeys was the dizzying altitude of 20,000 feet on the summit of Golep Kangri in Ladakh, from where I saw a silver contour slicing the horizon. Grasping my down jacket and ice axe tightly, I saw the distant Karakoram range, visible from this great height. Given the bruised India-Pakistan border, I don’t know if I will get to taste Pakistan’s Himalayas, but it was a privilege to even get that glimpse. The sight birthed a longing much like one for the moon that few can reach; its beauty enough to fill my mortal heart. Earlier this year, in an attempt to get to know my immediate backyard a bit better and deepen the bond, I set out into the wilderness of the lesser-known Kumaon region. At the cusp of east Uttarakhand, Nepal, and China sits the Darma Valley, home to the Rung community that falls in Kumaon but shares cultural ties with Tibet. I wandered in the valley for a week, looking for a hidden glacial lake with two fellow Himalaya-loving mountaineers.
One night, I tucked into my sleeping bag after a long evening huddled around our small campfire, basking in our shared love for the Himalayas. I was woken early by a strong, gusting mountain wind, and a memory of childhood winters. Living in a touristy hill town, we always had a stream of guests flowing in and out. There were only so many extra mattresses we could have in the house, so my parents decided to get extra sleeping bags: guests would get the beds, and the bags would be rolled out for us kids on the carpets. I remembered building a tent over mine with my mother’s shawl to demarcate my sanctuary, imagining a camp in the great wilderness of my drawing room. The bitterly cold winters, frequent power cuts, and my chilblained fingers added to that belief. Come evening, and we would be given bowls of the staple powdered tomato turned into a soup (I was pretty sure my parents had a secret warehouse full of it). I’d sip it like a survivor who had beaten arctic conditions and lived to tell the tale. I’m grateful for feeling at home in a sleeping bag, and for turning the magical wonderland of my childhood imagination into the reality of my adult life.
I fail to fathom why the dictionary describes wilderness as “wasteland” or “desert,” denoting some sort of emptiness, because for me there is nothing more fulfilling than the wild. It is civilisation that boggles my mind with its hollow complexities; in the wilderness, I’m home. Having lost and found my love for the Himalayas, I hold on to it firmly now. If there is one thing I do not take for granted anymore, it is the beauty of this immense range. With changing climate, I always look at mountains as if for the first time, and the last. If there is one thing I have seriously tried to understand all these years, it is the Himalayas. If there is somewhere I have tried to bring about grassroots-level change, it is in its communities. There is no love greater than one that tries to understand the beloved to the fullest. And true to the slogan of the Doordarshan ad, it remains an eternal affair.