Another country, another time, Diana Bridge

Palaces in the Sky: a year among Tibetans
Ted Reynolds
Godwit Publishing, $29.95,
ISBN 1 86962 000 3

You’re a Brave Man: a Kiwi odyssey in the Himalayas
Elizabeth Harding
Random House, $27.95,
ISBN 1 86941 302 4

Ted Reynolds’ Palaces in the Sky is a fine example of the genre signalled by the subtitle, a year among… The expected strands of travel account, cultural comment and the search for something, including oneself, are all present. They are blended with a dose of infatuation — that of the traveller returning to a remote and inaccessible place encountered on previous journeys. In this case the place is the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh, now part of the north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, and the people are the self-exiled Tibetans whose camps dot the Indian subcontinent.

Cultural distance can be a potent stimulant and this book chronicles its progress through the outsider’s system: the desire to bridge cultural chasms, the breakthroughs, the inevitable failures.

There are numerous precedents and a fistful of motives for this kind of venture. For the documentation of Ladakh and, inter alia, Tibetan custom, Reynolds has a grand nineteenth-century predecessor, Sir Alexander Cunningham, British army explorer and later the first director of the Indian Archaeological Survey. Cunningham makes a moving and climactic appearance towards the end of the book.

Among modern writers there are some points of contact with British author William Dalrymple. After the runaway success of his first book, In Xanadu, Dalrymple returned to spend a year rediscovering a place which had seduced him on earlier visits. City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi was the result. Palaces in the Sky was completed after Reynolds’ engaging and successful first book about his resettlement in the Awatere valley, My Side of the River. References there to an earlier period in his life crop up often enough for you to feel that here was a story that sooner or later would want to be told.

While Palaces in the Sky lacks the dense background texture and the historical dimension of City of Djinns, Reynolds’ writing has something of the same quality:

Moving into the palace is like entering the ruins of an opera house that has one 40-watt bulb burning in the auditorium and lightening the gloom just enough to let the eyes catch the hint of the ragged edges of collapsed floors rising in tiers above us. Aloft in the gods, sunlight leaks through cracks in the walls… The boy monk melts into the darkness and returns with ritual instruments of worship… When he sees I am uninterested, he produces a great hat of the same cut as a cardinal’s… To fire my greed, he flourishes the hat and then, with sudden force, pulls it on to his own head. Dawa Metok and I hear the screech of fabric ripping when the brim comes apart from the crown. Unconcerned, the boy monk struts like a grandee, flaunting the wreckage of the hat.

The intensity of the description and the way in which the opera house simile is carried on into the boy’s performance remind me of Dalrymple. Reynolds writing is less even but in the inclusion of sceptical pluralist perspectives to puncture any easy judgments he is often a few steps on. This extends to himself as a persona in his narrative.

Reynolds prefers to present himself in medias res, often from the outside. He is reticent about allowing into his text his motives for doing what no foreigner before him had, as he puts it, stuck to doing. Shards of explanation break through the narrative surface but it is not until the end of the book that he enlarges a little on his reasons for wanting to work for a year among Tibetan refugees. The explanation turns out to be a simple need to get a passion out of his system. Reynolds’ solution is to indulge it. He ends up teaching maths. This does little to terminate the affair.

Neither does material difficulty. Despite living in a room six paces by three, unable to wash for months on end, plagued by bedbugs, eating food which includes rotten potatoes and drinking an other ranks’ army rum that goes down like “liquid fishhooks”, all Reynolds can think that he really lacks is a flush lavatory.

A friend from home admonishes him: “What on earth possessed you to hide like this away from all the action?” The chapter ricochets off the friend’s account of a New Zealand birthday party to describe dinner at an abandoned palace owned by the queen of Ladakh, its walls illuminated for the occasion to reveal the old murals Reynolds’ European art restorer hosts are painstakingly restoring. After the dinner come two incidents, hard up against each other. One is about the discovery of an infanticide; the other centers on reincarnation, The sentence that rounds off the chapter reads: “ ‘While my potatoes boil for dinner, I reread the letter — ‘You are missing so much.’”

Like City of Djinns, Palaces in the Sky is organised around episodes, stepping stones along the length of the allotted year, each one structured to move time on and to allow the thematic exploration of aspects of a culture remote from our own: religion, sexual attitudes, education, discipline, health, dollops of history and a very light sprinkling of politics. At the same time, narrative threads linked to his cast of characters provide linear momentum. And sometimes there is a gut-wrenching suspense.

Reynolds juxtaposes scenes to arrive at a collage of perspectives. One chapter exposes what you might call the nexus between sex and brawling. It starts with a would-be relationship of his own, centres on two local weddings and lifts the curtain briefly on a late night spat between Reynolds’ new neighbours, a couple of young Australian doctors. In good post-colonial mode the author hands the last word to a Tibetan: “At weddings there are always fightings. It means nothing.”

Reynolds includes himself in this play of perspectives. He likes to see himself through other eyes. Here is the wife of the man who delivers his rations catching sight of him: “An expression of horror and fascination comes over her face. She grasps her lips and tries to pinch them so tightly together that laughter cannot break loose. But it is hopeless and the laughter escapes. It sounds like barking and when she hears it she turns and runs.”

A recurrent strategy is to imagine himself in a Boys’ Own Annual world and then pit the heroic fantasy against a keep-your-head-down reality. He sets us up to think about heroism, exposing its flaws but revealing also the limitations of a non-interventionist approach. The device is effective in explaining his decision not to interfere in the savage punishments meted out to “his” children by the school’s discipline master.

Held together by a laid-back and accessible narrative voice, the book wears its sophistication lightly. There are times, generally occasioned by the first world and its attitudes, when Reynolds steps into didacticism and loses his narrative poise: “Visitors with fashionable notions about preserving other people’s ancient hardships wince at the sight of Ladakhis adopting new comforts.” Usually, though, the telling comes a satisfactory second to the showing.

The author’s commitment to the children he teaches is apparent. Accounts of his attempts to reach them across cultural gulfs are funny and moving. These include some role-testing of himself. With one of them, a motherless Ladakhi girl living on the site of a rubbish dump, he runs through the parts of teacher, observer, man and, when she falls in love with the school heartthrob in a saga that can only end one way, rescuer. This “gauche, plain, clumsy, dusty” girl threatens to corner the narrative as often as she comes up. The thread of her story, in which the author is witting and unwitting participant, winds through the chapters and gives him his ending.

The second half of the book includes an account of a journey undertaken during Reynolds’ summer vacation into the gorges and mountain passes between Lamayuru, Sumdah and Alchi — terrain that has the stark beauty and something of the spiritual pull of a Nicholas Roerich canvas. This section, which provides some textural contrast in the form of a more extended narrative, describes Reynolds’ personal version of “when men and mountains meet”. Breaking new ground is part of the mix of motifs that powers such ventures into little known and inhospitable territory. Reynolds is low key, self-deprecating and always has himself in humorous perspective, which makes his triumphs all the more moving when they dawn on him and us.

Halfway in, the summer trek is hijacked and becomes the story of Reynold’s journey to fetch medical help for a dying Ladakhi. His own itinerary, more than a year in the planning, has come unstuck. But it doesn’t matter. This trek encompasses enough hardship, adventure, comic relief and even a summit of its own, to confirm the saying that it’s the journey and not the end that matters. The immediate end is defeat. Help peters out, dashed against the rocks of realism and the indifference of a doctor who knows what he’s up against in the locals. But real life — the possibility that Reynolds’ attempt at barefoot doctoring may have worked — conspires with narrative technique to leave the ending of the episode open.

In the aftermath the author goes through what I took to be his own purification ritual — a bath in the Indus — and straight afterwards experiences an epiphany. It is triggered by a watersnail. A few pages before, a wry twist of perspective has had him acknowledge his physical summit, a 5000-metre point on the Sumdah-Alchi highway, attained with all the emotional paraphernalia of an Everest ascent, as “an easy stroll for a Ladakhi 5-year-old”. But this time bare, forked, antipodean man punctures the absolute — Cunningham’s compendium on Ladakh — with a scrap of contradictory evidence on the existence of molluscs in the region. In writing that is delicate and understated Reynolds turns the camera on himself and, in the description of the catharsis that follows, allows himself, this once, to be the hero.

Palaces in the Sky is a good title, with its echo of “castles in the air” hinting at a lost or illusory world. You come to understand that the world reclaimed in this telling is reclaimed in order to be more effectively lost. The distancing of the writing process colludes with the natural distances of space and time. A place that had become almost intolerably hard to let go, that was secured by the dangling threads of unresolved endings is sent on its way in the book’s last words: “It all seemed a long way away: another country, another time”.

2

You’re a Brave Man: a Kiwi odyssey in the Himalayas is Elizabeth Harding’s account of two years spent working as the single doctor of a hospital set up by Sir Edmund Hillary in the Nepal Himalayas. The experience is reconstructed from diaries kept during that period and letters home. The emphasis is on presenting a fluent, chronologically ordered account. The cultural raw material is interesting and well explained; in some of the personal reactions the bones of the letters home approach show through.

The photos that canopy each chapter chronicle a diverse cast of Himalayan characters. In their variety and number they operate as a kind of a visual adjunct to Harding’s approach. This is inclusive, its detail and enthusiasm likely to appeal most to those interested in the area or in the gameness of New Zealanders working in demanding situations abroad.

It is not often that someone gets a book to review and finds herself in it. I met Harding and her partner, Diane Bush, in Kathmandu before they set off for Khunde, at a reception we gave to introduce my husband as Ambassador to Nepal. (The reception makes a brief appearance.) The book left me feeling much as I felt then — full of admiration for the two women bringing their skills to bear in a tough and different setting. The willingness to prepare (they started by studying Nepali), to learn about what you find and to adapt your own practices to take account of local customs and beliefs, be it animism or the more arcane aspects of reincarnation, I think of as a generally New Zealand approach; also the determination not to compromise when it matters.

Here it matters that Harding and Bush should win some working acceptance for their partnership, starting with the committee that put them through a tough selection process and continuing with the Sherpas and Nepalis whom they lived among. They seem to have made it on both fronts. A measure of the acceptance they gained among local people may be gauged from the title words which were spoken to Harding by a Nepali army officer. They recognise her considerable courage in taking sole charge of the hospital and its parish for two years. In a world where female subordination is evident in most areas of life (Harding has some chilling examples) they represent an accolade. The title also foregrounds the gender blurring the words entail and give it other resonances.

You’re a Brave Man does not take, nor does it try to take, that step on into literary structuring, self examination and play that Reynolds’ writing does. It documents with humour and a reliable grasp of the cultural and physical backgrounds a year spent working among the Sherpas and Nepalis of the Khumbu.

Diana Bridge has recently returned from four and a-half years in India. She lived in China in the 1980s.

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