Book Review: Beyond the Himalayas Journeying through the Silk Route
Reviewed by Haimanti Dutta Ray
Title: Beyond the Himalayas Journeying through the Silk Route
Text: Goutam Ghose, Michael Haggaig
Photographs: Goutam Ghose
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Date of publication: 2019
Beyond the Himalayas Journeying through the Silk Route is joint collaboration by award-winning Indian filmmaker Gautam Ghose and British writer and producer, Michael Haggiag. Ghose in his introduction has named this venture ‘a film-book’ because it is based on his five-part documentary, a cinematic marvel, also named Beyond The Himalayas.
Made in 1996, his documentary had been screened extensively on Doordarshan (India), Discovery and BBC in the late 1990s. The book, Beyond the Himalayas, commemorates the silver jubilee of the journey he undertook to make the documentary in 1994. Ghose writes in his introduction:“The so-called ‘present’ is a fraction of fractions between the past and the future and hence the present moments are stored in our memory as recent or remote past. …. This book narrates one such vivid memory , a once-in-a-lifetime kind of adventure.”
In his introduction to the book, Ghose reveals how he came across old negatives and slides which featured their journey through the meandering valleys and endless deserts of the fabled Silk Road more than two decades ago in a ‘caravan’ of jeeps. Breath-taking reproductions of these negatives and slides intersperse the narrative which is based on the script of the documentary.
Ghose and his crew were invited to explore the route by Major H.P.S. Ahluwalia, a national award winning soldier-mountaineer who had conquered Mount Everest as early as 1965. Major Ahluwalia, despite being wheelchair ridden, had organised an expedition in 1994 along the ancient silk trade route connecting India, with China, Central Asia and Tibet. Ghose was inspired by The Travels of Marco Polo to venture into exploring the Silk Road. Their expedition team included Central Asian scholars, scientists, doctors, professional rally drivers and mechanics.
The book is divided into four distinct parts, namely ‘The Other Side of The Mountain’, ‘In Search of The Buddha’, ‘A Tale of the Silk Route’ and ‘On the Roof of the World’. The free-flowing narrative along with the pictures transports the reader to exotic locations.
For instance the Lake Issyk-Kul, the warm lake in the Tien Shan mountains at a height of 5,600 feet above sea level which does not freeze even in winter due to its high salt content is brought to life with vivid telling and photographs. The narrative illustrates how arduous the journey had been for the entire team. For each and every member of the team, this was a journey of exploration not only of the route but also towards self-discovery. Author Kunal Basu writes in his foreword: “The mind’s eye shows more than what his lens captures; a once borderless world of nomads, travelling monks, empire builders and mystics.”
It would seem, they were on an Arthurian quest to unearth history, geography and archaeology all coalesced into the common spirit of adventure. We are told that the expedition had been undertaken in order to rediscover for posterity, lost cultures and civilizations. Kunal Basu writes in his foreword: “Goutam Ghose’s photo-chronicle hassought to build rich narrative veins around the many-splendored cities treating them as landmarks across times and civilizations.”
Through the narrative, the authors delve into the past, take us along with them though the tides of history, they create an ambience with their telling which transports the reader into the heart of the journey. For instance, the reader is moved to feel both the sweep of the desert and the passage of time when they state :“It is the desert wind that really fires my imagination, the same dry wind that suddenly swallowed up an entire epoch.”
There are pictures where the author is seen among the local people who, according to him, were helpful and kind. The author speaks to the people who consider Mount Everest as sacred as the ‘Mother of the World’. They call the highest peak, ‘Chomolungma’ (Mother Goddess of the World).
Much importance is laid on lost manuscripts, scrolls and old books. For instance, facsimiles from books like India and Tibet, published in 1910 by Colonel Francis Younghusband who led the British invasion into Tibet in 1903-04, have been introduced to bring less frequented passages of history to the fore. ‘The Storming of Gyantse Jong’(from the British invasion of Tibet) is entirely from Younghusband’s book.
Glossy paper and the brilliant reproduction of images, most of which have been restored for the purpose of publication of this book, makes it a treasure trove. The fact that the research work gelled aptly with the narration also makes this ‘film-book’, an engrossing read. There have been no attempts at philosophising rather the ends have been left open to interpretations.
The sense of wonder that the team experienced is brought out well by the narrative and the photographs. The narrative expresses their mesmerisation: “The Himalayas are like a sanctuary. The birds here are like the monks and the flowers are like the tinkling prayer bells and cymbals of the chanting hall.”
In another instance, the team suddenly came across an abandoned movie set right in the middle of the desert. “A Ming dynasty fortress stands against the backdrop of the Mingsha sand dunes. It is perfectly preserved, right down to the banners on its ramparts. But this is not due to the dry climate. In fact, it is an abandoned movie set.” What a fascinating coincidence that the man who made it to fame in films came upon an abandoned film set!
Beyond the Himalayas the book shows that Gautum Ghose is also a seasoned traveller in the path strewn with words. The journey along the Silk Road has been one of his gripping adventures in both, documentary and book.
HAIMANTI DUTTA RAY has written short stories and feature columns in The Statesman (Kolkata edition). Her first published book, In Loving Memory (2015) is a memoir where she pays tribute to her father, renowned painter Shyamal Dutta Ray. Her second publication and her fictional debut, The Circle of Life and other Tales (2018) is a collection of thirteen short stories. An avid reader, she considers that happiness can be found more in shared moments. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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