Writing of Himalayan Landscapes

July 14, 2023

 

The Himalayas rank among the most significant political, environmental, and cultural landscapes of India and the world.  To explore how this mountain range has been documented in creative writing, Columbia Global Centers | Mumbai organized an event, The Himalayas As Muse, as part of its ‘Writing Indian Stories’ series.  The event, which took place on October 30, 2023, featured authors Stephen Alter and Ravina Aggarwal, who discussed how the Himalayas have inspired their mystery novels, Birdwatching (Aleph, 2022) and Searching for the Songbird (Zubaan Books, 2022) respectively.

Both authors share a deep connection to the Himalayas.  Dr. Aggarwal, who was raised in Mumbai, spoke about the vital contribution of long-term field research in Ladakh and Uttarakhand that had shaped her relationship to the mountains.  For Mr. Alter, the Himalayas evoke a sense of attachment for a place he considers home and which is also the subject of his extensive writing and research.   According to him, “I often say that I write with my feet because I embark on the journeys presented in my stories myself.  The walk through the Himalayas often serves as the first draft of my story. In the beginning, I am usually uncertain about how a novel ends; it really depends on which path I take.”

The two novels immerse readers in a world of intrigue and crime, giving them a chance to uncover hidden realities of the mountains.  According to Dr. Aggarwal, a sociocultural anthropologist, the mystery genre offers a unique approach to exploring a landscape’s history, society, and folklore.  In this, her debut novel, her sleuth is a young boy whose efforts at solving a neighborhood burglary lead him to grappling with issues of gender, caste, and other social differences.  Meanwhile, Mr. Alter’s novel unfolds against the backdrop of significant geopolitical events of the early 1960s in the Eastern Himalayas, tracing the journey of a young ornithologist entangled in a murder mystery.  

Another common thread between the two books is the focus on birds as a framework.  The Himalayas are home to a staggering number of resident and migrant birds and the presence of birds is reflective of the region’s environmental ecosystem as well as its cultural milieu.  According to Dr. Aggarwal, “to know the mountains, one has to learn to listen to their sounds, including the songs of the many birds that inhabit the land.”