Finding the sacred in the architecture of nature

shreerupa

Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | December 30, 2014


Stephen Alter
Stephen Alter

Stephen Alter’s latest non-fiction, ‘Becoming a Mountain—In Search of the Sacred and the Sublime’, was recently released in the capital. The American author was born and raised in the foothills of the Himalayas in Mussoorie. He talks to Shreerupa Mitra about his latest book, the need for good translation in Indian regional writing and his brush with Bollywood. 

Your latest work is ‘Becoming a Mountain—Himalayan Journeys In Search of the Sacred and the Sublime’. Please tell us something about the interesting title and what was the sacred and the sublime that you found at the end of your Himalayan sojourn?
For someone who was born in the Himalayas and spent most of his life in the Himalayas it is very important for me to understand those mountains because in a sense then I understand myself. The title actually comes from American nature writer Aldo Leopold who coined the phrase ‘thinking like a mountain’ in one of his books. The idea is that in order to conserve nature and the mountains we have to also think like a mountain. I guess my book has gone one step further or one step back ‘to become a mountain’.

I approached the Himalayas as a pilgrim, but as a pilgrim who has no faith in God—I am an atheist—but pilgrim in a sense that I try and go beyond all the packaging of religion and to something that is really elemental and lies at the heart of most faiths. So the sacred for me is not where most other people find it. For me, often, it is along the way or if I go further on, where there is no man-made structure or shrine, yet there is the architecture of nature which is what I find to be more sacred.
The sublime is a little more complicated. The natural world on one level is incredibly beautiful but at another level is terrifying. And what I refer to in the book is this emotional vertigo where everything is turned upside down. So this paradox of beauty and terror is what we all experience. For me that in a sense is a spark that lights up the sacred.

We do not have many Chinese, African, British living in India. This is very dissimilar to say, your second home, the US which is a true conglomeration of races though it has its own set of problems accommodating them. You have written about the Anglo-Indian community. Do you think being an Anglo-Indian relegates one to a ‘permanent space of non-belonging’?
I have written about the Anglo-Indian community but I am not an Anglo-Indian myself. My ancestry goes back to the US. At the same time I am caught between identities. My passport identifies me as an American but my PAN card as an Indian. Whatever it may be we all carry those tickets. For government authorities those are certainly contradictions.

At one level, it is very easy to be different in India—there are so many differences within India. But like every country of the world there are enormous prejudices.

There are many harmful ways that people act upon their prejudices. Though I have to say that I am fortunate—for one reason or another I am not subjected to prejudices on a daily basis. Like people from Africa have an extremely difficult time and so also [people] from [the] northeast [of India].

As a writer, how do you negotiate the terrain of being an insider/outsider?
I am constantly negotiating certainly in the territory [that] I inhabit. India is my home, the Himalayas are my home and at the same time I have one foot somewhere else. But for me it’s not so much a matter of negotiating as accepting it.

For me it is a pleasure to be able to move back and forth between one perspective and another. I hope I can do that honestly. It is very easy to put on a synthetic or superficial perspective just because you might look different from everyone else. I like to celebrate that there are many different voices and my voice is one of them that looks at things with different perspectives.

You lost your precious HMT watch in the woods of Massachusetts. You have said the loss of the watch made you aware of other things in the woods that you had not seen before. Did the loss of a sense of home after the brutal violence that your wife and you faced in Mussoorie make you look at your physical landscape, including the Himalayas, with a new lens, especially since you undertook the journey to overcome the trauma?
Yes, whenever you lose something, particularly something of personal value, the process of searching for it becomes an act of recovery.  Whether you find the thing you originally lost, or something else that takes its place, doesn’t really matter. The important thing is to go in search of whatever you might find. The loss I felt after our attack left me with a need to discover what the Himalayas, my birthplace, meant to me. I will never recover the innocence and sense of invulnerability I once had, but in its place I have discovered a closer connection to these mountains.

Indian regional literature, some of which is brilliant work, has not been translated well and thus we have virtually no international market for it. What are your views on the matter because you are conversant with regional literature too?
[There is] a simple solution— pay the translators money. A good translation is extremely difficult—it requires a level of skill in a language as well as an ability to recreate the environment in a different language and sometimes understand the sensibilities behind those stories.
We have to be able to create institutions that support translation, and universities are an excellent place for that to happen.

I discovered an interesting thing while doing an anthology of short stories for Penguin India. It was the mid-80s to late-80s, and I was at the University of Hawaii. What had happened was that the PL 480 money—that the government gave [as] food loans to India—was used to fund scholars studying Indian literature. So suddenly you had a lot of graduates both in the US and from India studying Indian literature and being funded to translate a story. You could see exactly when the money stopped. So we have superb translations from 1968 to 1982 when the money ran out [Laughs]. After that we have had dreadful translation. So, to my mind, it is a very simple solution to a difficult problem.

What are you working on now?
Up until now—I have been writing for 35-40 years—I have always known what my next project is going to be. This is the only time that I am not totally sure. I have written an espionage thriller called the Rataban Betrayal with Penguin about a year ago. I have written a sequel and I need to revise and polish that up. My immediate work is that. But my mind is already moving ahead and thinking what will be the next [project] and I honestly don’t know.

Did you enjoy working in ‘Haidar’?
It was a good experience. I was on location for two days. It was very nice to be with Vishal [Bharadwaj] again. I wrote a book [about my first interaction], ‘Going for Take—The Making of Omkara and Other Encounters in Bollywood’. ‘Haidar’ was a very difficult movie in the sense that the subject is explosive. But I think Vishal has done a masterful job of dealing with such a complex subject. My part in ‘Haidar’ is about 30 seconds as a journalist [Laughs].

The interview appeared in December 16-30, 2014, issue

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