On this, the fifty-seventh anniversary of Indian independence, I wish to write about the Indian of my acquaintance who best combines past with present. He is in his early fifties, his name is Shekhar Pathak, and he lives somewhere in the Himalaya—somewhere, but we do not know exactly where. For he is a gumakkad, a traveller and seeker who lives for and loves our beautiful hills—its peoples, its cultures, its rivers, its threatened landscapes. Sometimes Shekhar Pathak is in the upper reaches of the Alakananda valley, tracing the ancient routes of the Bhotiya herders who once traded across the Himalaya with Tibet. At other times he is down in villages by the river-bed, recording the stories of women who participated in the Chipko Andolan. Occasionally he comes down to the burning plain, to speak to audiences in Delhi and Patna about the beauty and tragedy of the Himalaya. And once a year he parks for a few weeks in the hill town of Naini Tal, while he edits and prints a remarkable literary jourrnal on the Himalaya, published in Hindi, and called, simply, Pahar.
I am myself an arm–chair intellectual of the worst kind, for whom a journey out to Chennai is a massive expedition. I stay at home, but through the wanderings of Shekhar Pathak I have come to learn a good deal about the Himalaya. For in the twenty years that I have known him, he has peppered me with letters from locations as far–flung as Ladakh and Arunachal, Sikkim and Himachal, allowing me to see these places through his eyes.
I used once to get postcards from Shekhar Pathak; these have now been replaced by electronic mails. His address is well named for an itinerant on the road: firstname.lastname@example.org. Very typical is this email I received on the 20th of July 2002. This told me that he had just ‘come back from a wonderful journey of Qomolongma (Everest). We trekked in Rongshar and Kaama valleys, which are east of Qomolongma, for ten days. We saw the flowers, rivers, lakes, the Drokpa people, yaks, many gompas, and the real wilderness of this part of the Himalaya. … It was raining and for many days and we were not able to understand the impact of the great mountains—Makalu, Qomolonjo, Lhotse and Qomolongma—as we were not able to really see them. After continuous trekking for nine days one morning we were able to have the whole range of the great mountains in front of us. It was a lifetime experience. All these [mountains] were talking with the sky but their feet were close to us’.
The letter continued: ‘Then we went to Rongbu glacier side. This is the north face of Qomolongma and the British expeditions tried to reach the top from this side in 1921, 22 and 24. In the final expedition Mallory and Irvive lost their lives. We drove up to the base camp and trekked a further five/six kms. We got really wonderful views. All this is captured by me in my diary and photos’.
This must have been a hard and exciting trek, but harder and more exciting still was a march completed by Shekhar Pathak this past summer. This lasted six weeks, and extended over as many as 1100 kilometres. The trek covered the extent of the state of Uttaranchal; starting in the village of Askot, on the Nepal border in the east, it ended in the hamlet of Arakot, which touches Himachal Pradesh to the west. The march went up high hills and down low valleys, and crossed the great Himalayan rivers. The marchers slept in caves and in disused shepherds’ huts, waking up to touch the snow on the mountains.
This was, in fact, the fourth time that Shekhar Pathak had traversed his native state. The first time was in 1974, when, of course, Uttaranchal itself did not exist. Four college students took part in the first ‘Askot-Arakat Abhiyan’; Kunwar Prasun, Pratap Shikhar, Shamsher Singh Bist, and Shekhar Pathak. All were participants in what was then a very intense struggle for a separate hill state. In the years since, the four marchers have, in their own ways, stayed true to their youthful idealism. Prasun is a widely respected journalist; Shikhar, a widely respected social worker; Bist, a veteran activist of progressive social movements in the hills.
As for Pathak himself, he took a Ph D in history, writing a pioneering thesis on the system of forced labour in Uttarakhand. For the past two decades he has taught at the Kumaun University in Naini Tal, where he is now Professor of History. Among the few perks that come with being an Indian academic are long holidays spread out over the year. Where his fellow teachers put their feet up, Pathak takes his back-pack and hits the road—or should we say, the narrow mountain trail. Every year, he must do at least a dozen field-trips small or large; and once every decade, in 1974, 1984, 1994 and 2004, he has undertaken the massive Askot-Arakot padayatra.
For Shekhar Pathak, passion and profession come together in his journal Pahar. ‘Journal’ is probably not the right word, for what we have here is a handsome-sized book in excess of 300 pages, finely designed and with many photographs. Twelve volumes have been printed since the first one appeared in 1983. There have been special issues on the Himalaya in the 18th and 19th centuries, on the freedom struggle in Uttarakhand, and on travel writing. Other issues have been more eclectic, ranging widely over the literature, geography, and ecology of the Himalaya. In addition to these book-sized volumes, Pahar has produced some twenty topical pamphlets, among which is a masterly analysis of large dams by the Chipko leader Chandi Prasad Bhatt.
The printed volumes of Pahar contain a vast and periodically enriched archive of the Himalaya. As, in its own way, does the mind of Shekhar Pathak himself. A student of mine once spent a week with Pathak, whereupon he named him ‘Encyclopaedia of the Himalaya’. His knowledge of his region is staggering. He has, it sometimes seems, visited almost every valley, and perhaps every hamlet, in Garhwal and Kumaun—and spoken to most of its peoples, too.
Shekhar Pathak is a true ‘organic intellectual’, a man steeped in the history, ecology, legends, and myths of his native Uttarakhand. He has a profound regard for the great men and women the region has given birth to, from the poet Sumitranandan Pant to the campaigning journalist Bishambar Dutt Chandola, from the mountaineer Bachendri Pal to the Gandhian Radha Bhatt. He is himself an authentic hero of the Himalaya, and, beyond that, of modern India, a man who in his person and work helps safeguard, honour and deepen our hard-won but sometimes carelessly regarded political Independence.
I have, as I said, dozens of letters from Shekhar Pathak, these written from places I shall myself never see. Once, however, it fell to me to visit a mountain–side he had not been to. I had been invited to a conference in Ecuador, to be held in a small town high in the Andean mountains. Shekhar Pathak sent me a postcard before I left, wishing me bon voyage with a message that was characteristically brief, witty and wise. The message read: ‘Andes parvat ko Himalaya ka pranam’. And so, to the Andes, I carried the profound respects of a worthy son of its great mountain sister, the Himalaya.