It is early morning when there is a knock on Stephen Alter’s door, at his home in Mussoorie. His wife opens it to find three men who force their way inside, slash and tie her up. When Alter, woken up by her screams, rushes in, he is pinned down and stabbed six times in the leg. Four pages of an excruciating struggle for life follow: ‘After the stabbing stopped, the man who was holding me down must have taken the knife from the other attacker, for he began pressing it against my throat. Somehow, I squeezed my hands under his wrist, fingers clenched around his grip and the hilt of the knife. I could feel the serrations on the lower part of the blade cutting into my palm. Unable to see my attacker, it felt as if I were grappling with my own shadow. There was something intimate and obscene in the way he held me in his arms. For a few seconds, the man began to smother me again but then gave up’. They go away, leaving him bathed in blood. He survives, but his notions of life are shattered. The body heals, but he is still a wounded man, emotionally and psychologically. And so, what is a spiritual travelogue begins with a recounting of a vicious attack. Becoming a Mountain: Himalayan Journeys in Search of the Sacred and the Sublime is an exploration of the healing that follows.
Alter, the author of 15 works of fiction and non-fiction, uses fine details to create a vivid melding of nature and its elements. Like when he writes on an animal: ‘patches on his nose and flanks are ruddy brown, as if reflecting mineral pigments in the sun’; on a bird: ‘there in the mottled mosaic of decaying leaves was a woodcock, its distinctive beak like the long stem of a hickory leaf and its seed-like eye fixed on me’; on a plant: ‘At first, when I kneel down on the mossy soil stitched with white strands of lichens, I think this plant is a species of aconite, poisonous monkshood, which grows at these altitudes’; on earth and sky: ‘The Milky Way spreads like a celestial glacier above the eastern horizon, its reflection faintly visible on the still, dark surface of the lake’. But when he turns that eloquent microscope to recount the night that robbers entered his home, it is a startling prologue to the journeys that follow.
This book presents itself as a series of journeys to mountains— Nanda Devi, Kailash, Bandarpunch—from which he draws strength and closure. These are not mountains he climbs to their summits. It is only Bandarpunch that is attempted and he fails twice at it—the first time called back by his father’s death, the second time by the obstacles that nature creates. Alter’s journeys are pilgrimages in which being in the presence of the mountain is enough. He is not a believer but writes of mountains as if they are gods whom he is reaching out to. Even when defeated in Bandarpunch and coming to terms with his own cowardice and disappointment, he writes, ‘I feel as if I am closing a chapter of my life before it has begun. But there is still the journey home, which remains half the experience.’ And then, as soon as he is home, the Himalayas erupt in the flash floods of 2013 and its colossal devastation. Had he progressed to Bandarpunch, he would have been trapped. In spurning him, did the mountain spare him? This is not a question that Alter asks himself or answers.
In writing a book of closure, it is easy to be swept away by one’s own nobility. Alter does not overdo it. If the book is a homage to the magnificence of creation, there is also a weary tone to his writing—but it is not through relentless reference to his own trauma. Rather, it comes from his observations of the present. Like the conditions of a group tour to Kailash and the lake Mansarovar, where he exhibits mild irritation at the unquestioning faith of his fellow travellers while unable to find any succour himself. He even tactically forces his claim on the front seat of the jeep for a more comfortable journey. Becoming a Mountain is not a start-to-finish, one sitting book. It is a meditation on existence and meaning, walking unhurriedly on a necessary journey, exploring little side roads, creating direction as it goes along. Affirming that if suffering is a condition of man, he can still find momentary reprieves through glimpses of nature’s majesty, that the unswaying of the mountains is something he can hold on to, to keep from falling down.