Vinod gifted me this wonderful book many moons ago and I have been waiting patiently for the right time to read it. I carried it along with me to Goa last month and started reading it. Within a few moments I knew I was holding something of extraordinary value in my hands as the author effortlessly transported me deep into the Himalayas, into his own personal jouney and that space in the spirituality he experienced through Zen Buddhism and other philosophies in his life.
Peter Mathiessen's book got published in 1978. He probably went on that trek in the early seventies when he was ‘forty five years old’. Described as a naturalist, explorer, novelist and some more, Peter Mathiessen was a man with a heart that was set on adventure and life all through. Being born in 1927, he went to Yale in 1950, to Sorbonne in mid 50s (and edited a magazine there), returned to be a commercial fisherman and was captain of a charter fishing boat. He explored much in his life and has been to several parts of the world - Africa, Alaska, South America - and others that I fail to recollect. But impressive on its own.
‘The Snow Leopard’ is his account of the three months he spent in the Himalayas seeking a sighting of the elusive snow leopard. His friend and biologist George Schaller invites Mathiessen on a trek he is taking to the Crystal Mountain near the Annapurna range of mountains for his research on the bharal or the blue sheep of the Himalayas. GS is trying to figure out of they are sheep or goats. Now he invites Mathiessen with a carrot of a sighting of the snow leopard which is known to inhabit that area. Mathiessein, in turmoil, after having lost his partner D to cancer, decides to go on a rather risky expedition leaving his sons behind in the US. As he enters Tibet through India he speaks of his own jouney through life, of drugs and alcohol,of Hinduism and Buddhism, of flowers and animals, of poverty and wealth, of life and of death. It is fascinating to see his journey through his eyes.
Accompanied by their sherpas and cooks – Jang-bu, Tukten, Phu Dsering, Gyaltsen, Tamang porters and others, the author and GS set off on September 28 towards Dolpo through treacherous routes, narrow mountain ledges, extremely chilly nights spent in little tents, eating basic rations. The route they took goes from Pokhara on the Kali Gandaki towards Kusma, Magyandi road, Dhorpatan, Churen Himal (24000 ft), Tarakot, Jang La, Damashi, Bheri, Rohagaon, Ring-Mo, Phuksundo, Shey and Saldang. They sight the bharal but Mathieessen acquaints us with the abundant flora and fauna that he observes in the Himalayas, his own deepest and innermost feelings, the rigors of the strenuous journey. His relationship with the Sherpa Tutken whom everyone perceives to be a trouble maker and unreliable (but who is a soul brother to Mathiessen), the people they encounter along the way, the pain of separation when their faithful sherpas and cooks part at the end of the journey, the bittersweet end of the journey all add to the experience as we read the book. But does Mathiessen see his snow leopard? Or does he, as he says, not see it because sometimes it is better not to see certain things? You must read it to find it.
The Snow Leopard is a rich, slow read and I took longer than usual because I somehow connected with each word he wrote. One truly admires the sense of adventure of men like GS and Mathiessen who give up the comfort of their homes and push life to its limits, exploring all that it has to offer. And then, me and my lfie seems so small and mediocre in comparison. The risks I have not taken, the hesitancy at taking the first step, at stepping out of line, at walking out into a world that the good lord made for us but which I somehow feel barred from. I have only lived vicariously through the accounts of PM and such and hope that someday they will inpire me to fly a little, to expand my boundaries, to merge into a universe that even I belong. Surely everyone who reads the book feels that same moistness that PM feels when he sees a majestic sight, a vision that draws him into its lap and one can only feel extreme comfort deep within. This again is so unlike many other books and I know it will stay with me for this lifetime.
I read this book every year, starting on the 28th September and follow each day as if I was reading his diary. Every time I read it, I find something new to marvel at. Visiting Marwell zoo, near Winchester, to see snow leopards is a great treat after you've read this book and realised how rare these creatures are.
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