My Preferred Mode of Travel is Gyara Number ki Gaadi: Stephen Alter

We pick the prolific writer’s brains on writing a period murder mystery in the guise of a field guide, exploring Mussoorie and India's wetlands, and his philosophy of travel.

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Becoming a Mountain and Wild Himalaya author Stephen Alter is back with a new book. Photo courtesy: Stephen Alter


Much like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds, by the time I was done reading the Indian-American author Stephen Alter’s espionage thriller Birdwatching, the familiar unsettling feeling that always follows portentous plots featuring our avian friends came over me.

Based in the Himalayas—where much of Alter’s work is set—it is the story of a sinister turn of events in the backdrop of the Sino-Indian War of 1962, set in motion by a gruesome murder that the protagonist, American ornithologist Guy Fletcher, gets involved with. The narrative shifts from the diplomatic quarters of Delhi first to picturesque Kashmir and then Kalimpong in the east, delivering just the thrill and intrigue that one expects from the premise. We caught up with the Wild Himalaya and Becoming a Mountain author on conceiving and creating the formally complex Birdwatching, his patterns of travel, living in the mountains and other subjects. Excerpts from the conversation:


What was the kind of research and creative decisions that went into Birdwatching, with its world informed by the 39 birds that feature in it?

For a number of years, I had been thinking about writing a novel that used the format of a field guide as a frame for fiction. Birdwatching is, of course, not a field guide but each chapter opens with a short description of a specific bird. As the story unfolds, I’ve also included a few brief references to birds that are relevant to the story. Most important, however, is the core narrative, which is an espionage thriller set during the Cold War. I don’t think the birds themselves will distract my readers from the action and suspense. Rather, they provide a colourful counterpoint to the dangers and dilemmas faced by the characters in this story.


My Preferred Mode Of Travel Is Gyara Number Ki Gaadi: Stephen Alter

Birdwatching book cover. Photo courtesy: Aleph Book Company

What are your favourite places to immerse yourself in the world of birds?  

Birds have always been a source of fascination for human beings, partly because of their ability to fly, but also on account of their bright plumage and beguiling songs. I am not an ornithologist or even a dedicated birder, but since an early age I’ve had an interest in avifauna. There are many places in India where birds can be seen in all their variety and splendour. Some of these places provide the settings for scenes in my book, such as the wetlands of Bharatpur and Kashmir, as well as the mountains of Sikkim and areas near Kalimpong, like the Neora Valley.


Explain your reasoning behind conceiving narratives that whisk the reader across geographies.

There’s no point in writing a story that’s not going to catch hold of your reader’s imagination, whether it’s an action-packed novel like Birdwatching or a non-fiction book like Wild Himalaya. Ultimately, my goal as a writer is to create a conversation with my reader, so that the incidents and characters that I relate and describe, come to life in his or her imagination. Storytelling depends on an audience and when readers respond to my work, I feel that, somehow, I have been able to ignite their own creative consciousness.


What inspired this story? 

Birdwatching is a historical novel that revolves around documented events from the past, whether it is Jackie Kennedy’s visit to India or the first border war with China, both of which occurred in 1962. I have written a fictional story that takes some liberties with the facts, but at the same time I have tried to be consistent with the historical context and events. Because it is an espionage novel, involving the C.I.A. and India’s intelligence agencies, many elements are still shrouded in secrecy from those times. I hope that even the most dramatic fictional elements remain true to that period of history, including covert conflicts in Tibet and the guerrilla resistance against Chinese occupation.


My Preferred Mode Of Travel Is Gyara Number Ki Gaadi: Stephen Alter

Photos by: Alok Negi (landscape); Prannay Pathak (storefront)



What are your thoughts on trends such as the rising interest in ‘settling in the mountains’, and the mushrooming of commercial ventures feeding fast tourism in these ecological zones?

Mountains are made up of a number of fragile environments even if they appear to be solid and immutable. Whatever we do in the Himalaya, whether it is tourism, adventure, pilgrimage or scientific research, these activities should be undertaken with sensitivity to the vulnerable ecology and terrain. Building roads, for example, is an important part of development and improving the lives of people who live in the hills, but the excavation and construction should have as little environmental impact as possible. Many city-dwellers yearn for a home in the mountains, which is understandable, but they must accept the fact that they cannot bring with them all of the comforts and wasteful practices of urban life.


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Your protagonist Guy Fletcher is a true-blue Delhiwallah. In what ways is the city special to you?

I’ve lived in Delhi during two periods of my life and grew to enjoy the city, even though I am more comfortable living in the Himalaya. While writing Birdwatching, I had to imagine what Delhi was like in 1962. It was interesting to visualise many of the neighbourhoods of the city that I knew from many years later and picture those areas less developed and crowded. Ultimately, though, Delhi evokes romantic associations for me because of its history, architecture and cultural heritage. Whenever I visit Delhi, I feel a sense of nostalgia for a time when there were more roundabouts than flyovers and one could move around the city without getting caught in traffic jams or breathing polluted air.


Which are the places that you often travel to?

My wife and I travel regularly to the United States, mostly because our children have settled in Colorado, but we also visit a number of places in India such as Goa and Mysore. I just made a trip to the Satpura mountains in Madhya Pradesh, followed by a visit to Ladakh. Now that the Covid restrictions have eased, this year we look forward to visiting Italy again and going to Turkey, a place we’ve never been before.


Also Read | Hilly Hideaway: Winding Walks and Banana Pancakes in Landour


My Preferred Mode Of Travel Is Gyara Number Ki Gaadi: Stephen Alter

Wetlands such as those in Kashmir, for instance, the Wular Lake (top left), which also features in Birdwatching, are among Alter’s (top right) favourite spots in India. The writer hopes to visit Turkey (bottom right) for the first time soon. Photos by: revoshots/Shutterstock (lake); Hakim Halym/Shutterstock (Turkey); Stephen Alter (self)


You are an avid motorcyclist. Is it your favourite mode of transport?

My preferred mode of travel is walking—what is often referred to as gyara number ki gadi (Vehicle number 11, signifying our two legs). But when it comes to wheeled transport, motorcycles are definitely my favourite, and the older the better. The entire advance I earned for my first novel, Neglected Lives, was spent on a new Royal Enfield Bullet in 1977. Motorcycles give you a sense of freedom and independence. I don’t drive fast but prefer to putter along at an easy, carefree pace.


You’ve been to Pakistan—your book Amritsar to Lahore is an account of that journey. The neighbouring country holds immense intrigue for many Indians. Is there a place like that that you are yet to visit?

Over the years, I’ve visited Pakistan on three occasions and enjoyed each trip. Most recently, I spent time in the northern regions, where the Himalaya, Karakoram and Hindu Kush converge along the Indus. Seeing Nanga Parbat had always been a dream for me and it was truly “awesome” to stand at the foot of that mountain. Despite many of the prejudices and preconceptions that get expressed online, in political speeches or in the press, India and Pakistan share far more than just a border and it is unfortunate that lines on a map should create animosity and suspicion, whereas culturally and geographically our two countries have so much in common.


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  • Prannay Pathak dreams about living out of a suitcase and retiring to the island of Hamneskär to watch films in solitary confinement. He is Assistant Editor (Digital) at National Geographic Traveller India.


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