I am a thoroughly urban person, Nature generally scares the shit out of me. My plants wither and die despite my best attempts, Camping is a scary proposition(no internet? all that silence? crickets ? BUGS!!) and so on. But if you grow up in the dessert like environs of Gujarat like i did you might develop an equal reverence for water in all forms. Lakes, rivers, the monsoon. Nobody knows the smell of rain here - welcome water hitting dry dry mud. It took me a long time to understand why people and children donot go out and dance in the rain here in the USA! It might also explain why Niagara falls is so riveting to us Indians.
I was involved in water quality measuring and mapping in the USA in the past, so i picked up this book out of sheer curiosity about India's most majestic river - the Ganga.
This book is the account of Stephen Alter - atheist; and his journey of the Char Dham - a journey from Hardwar to Badrinath, Kedarnath, Yamunotri and Gangotri on foot. Alter is a cousin of Tom Alter ( always the firang in Hindi movies) and author of Fantasies of a Bollywood love thief(nice review here).
The Char Dham Yatra is a fairly popular pilgrimage in India, my parents have done it. For them the attraction was in the religious and moksha angle of it. Why then does a professed atheist want to attempt this spiritual journey? For me these first pages where he explains his motivations for this journey are the most moving - I quote ," In many ways it would be so much easier to possess the kind of faith that the kavar(pilgrims) carry with them as they transport their gangajal.....Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have an absolute sense of purpose that propelled me forward, without hesitation, without fear, without concern for past or future. On the other hand doubt can often be as powerful a motive as belief
He goes on to explain his fascination with the Char dham yatra , "(although I am an atheist) there is something in me that responds to the spiritual elements in nature. I can easily understand how the force of a river or the shape of a rock might be interpreted as something larger than itself....I see myself as a pilgrim who does not follow the prescribed tenets of any particular faith, but seeks to find the subtle and mysterious connections between human experience, mythological narratives and natural history".
This,to me, is the whole book in a nutshell in the authors own words.
The rest of the book follows a journal format where he explains the majestic terrain as he covers it on foot, mythologies, snapshots of common peoples lives and livelihoods and most importantly Nature and natural history. In that sense this book is so tied to the terrain, cities and places he travels through - it seems more like a companion book to such a travel - should you attempt it yourself. So there is a curious emptiness when I read it, my eyes lift from the book and want to drink in the beautiful snowcapped mountains and instead land on the computer in front of me.
What does emerge though is a picture of terrain under tremendous upheavel, Uttarakhand where much of the pilgrimage happens is under tremendous population pressures. Tourism is a major source of revenue. This rapid urbanization and population pressure is threatening a magnificent landscape that would inspire spiritual search in the most blase of us. The char dham area is the only remaining portion of the Ganga watershed above Rishikesh that has water fit for human consumption. The rest of the Ganga , no matter how elevated spiritually is a mortal threat to humans and unfit for human consumption.
The writing in the journal parts gets pretty loose and rambling at times and insights seem scattered few and far in between. What recommends this book finally is the quality and depth of insight when we do get it.