Friday, August 30, 2013

PATHS OF GLORY


 It was 1999 when I first heard of George Mallory; yes, in the month of May and the year was 1999, and very aptly I was in Nepal. I was on deputation to Dharan (see my post on ‘Dharan Revisited’) in the Eastern Region of Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal (yes, it was a kingdom in those days) at the B P Koirala Institute of Health Sciences to establish Department of Psychiaty with remit to establish full range of services and training opportunities in mental health.  I had fallen in love with the country, and was impressed by the range and varities of mountains and treks spread all over the country. Of all the 10 peaks above 8000 m in the world, 8 are in Nepal. But then there are all grades of treks spread over the length and breadth of the country for a beginner or an avid trekker.
The news splashed over the newspapers was that the body of British mountaineer, George Mallory, was found by the British Climbing Expedition that had been set up to find the remains of George Mallory and his climbing partner, Sandy Irvine. George Mallory and Sandy Irvine were members of the expedition to conquer Mount Everest and had perished on 8/9 June 1924. The body was found at the height of 8157 m (26760 ft) on 1st of May, 1999 and was remarkably well preserved even after 75 years due to extremely low temperatures. The expedition conducted service for Mallory and covered his remains with a cairn on the mountain. The body of Sandy Irvine has not yet been found. The camera has also not been found so far, which could have conclusively proved that the duo did or did not reach the top of Everest on 8 June 1924.

Since then it has been a subject of intense debate and resarch whether George Mallory was indeed a first ever man to have reached the top of the Earth at Mount Everest. The controversy has still not been settled and there are claims and counter-claims on either side. One circumstantial evidence that the believers now cite is that Mallory was carrying a photograph of his wife, Ruth, in his wallet to be left on the top of the mountain. When his body was found, the wallet was very much there but with no photograph of Ruth in it. Whatever may be the truth, one thing which most of the experts agree on is that George Mallory was certainly capable of summiting the Mount Everest. He was an extraordinary climber with exceptional talent. He was driven to achieve the feat. On being asked once why did he wish to scale the Mt Everest, he famously replied, “Because it is there”.
The master story teller, Jeffery Archer, wrote a biographical novel on George Mallory, ‘Paths of Glory’ in 2009, which I recently chanced to read. Though all the characters of the novel are real, I can not say same for all the incidents. But all the major events are real as they have been described in a number of reports, biographies, and documentaries on Mallory.
In 1924, when George Mallory started for his third visit to the Himalayas, he was already past 37 years of age. His first visit to the mighty Himalayas was in 1921, which was an exploratory visit to find the possible route/routes to the summit. Very little was known at that time how human body would react to the high altitude above 15000 ft. It has to be borned in mind that the highest peak in Britain is Ben Navis at 4470 ft, and in Europe it is Mont Blanc at 15782 ft. These pale in comparison with Mt Everest that stands tall at 8848 m (29029 ft). That was the time when bottled oxygen was only in the experimental stage, the clothing was ordinary, and logistics difficult to organize, since one did not know what to expect high up in the mountains. During the 1922 expedition, Mallory was totally against using bottled oxygen saying any climbing was successful if it was accomplished unaided. During that attempt, Edward Norton and Howard Somerwell managed to reach a height of 8225 m (26980 ft), while another fellow expeditioner, George Finch, an Australian, managed an altitude of 8321 m (27300 ft). Mallory was surprised with the astonishing speed with which Finch had climbed up using bottled oxygen. After two failed attempts by his fellow expeditioners, Mallory made third attempt, which also remained unsuccessful owing to extremely hostile weather. While climbing down, seven Sherpas of Mallory were caught in the avalanche and perished beneath the snow. Mallory himself was heart broken with this tragedy, and was accused of poor judgement.
During 1924 expedition, Mallory knew that that was his last chance to summit the Mt Everest. He was willing now to use bottled oxygen for a successful climb. George Finch, who was an advocate and expert in using such oxygen was dropped from the expedition, and Sandy Irvine, 22 year old boy, who had no experience of mountain climbing, other than scaling 5000 ft high peaks, was chosen as an replacement. However, he was an enthusiastic athletic young man, with expertise in using and repairing oxygen bottles.
What happened on the fateful night of 8 and 9 June, 1924 has remained a matter of intense speculation and research. After many unsuccessful search attempts to locate the bodies of Mallory and Irvince, it was 75 years later on 1 May, 1999 that Conrad Anker, member of the search party led by Eric Simonson, discovered well preserved body of George Mallory at the height of 8157 m (26760 ft). Camera has still remained untraceable.
Number of mountaineering experts and climbers have reacted differently to the speculation that Mallory did reach the summit in 1924, becoming the first ever man to reach the highest point on the surface of Earth, pushing down Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay’s record to second place. Some have said that to speculate in absence of any photographic evidence, it is even wrong to make such assumptions. Others have said a successful complete climb is not only to ascend, but also to successfully descend down.
Two British Heroes, Robert Scott and George Mallory, could not accomplish their mission: Scott to become the first ever man to reach the bottom of Earth, the South Pole, and Mallory to become the first man to step on the highest point on the surface of Earth, the Mount Everest, in 1924. Both perished to realize their dreams. Scott did reach the South Pole on 17 January 1912, only to realize that the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen had already hoisted Norwegian flag on the South Pole 33 days earlier on 14 December 1911. Dejected and heart-broken, Scott perished on his way back alongwith his other four colleagues. Scott's entry in the diary reveals his great disappointment. “The worst has happened… All the daydreams must go…Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority,” the diary entry reads. George Mallory left a great mystery behind him, whether he did or did not reach the highest point on the Earth. Inspite of all the risks, dangers, and uncertainties, he wanted to do it ‘since it is there’.
George Mallory II, grandson of George Mallory, summitted the Mt Everest on 1995 as a member of the American Everest Expedition. He left a laminated photograph of George and Ruth Mallory saying it was to complete an ‘unfinished family business’.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

THE BIG YEAR

THE BIG YEAR

That is the name of the movie that I saw during my Air India flight to Kozhikode (formerly Calicut) from Delhi. It is truly a hopping flight: two stops over at Mumbai and Coimbatore (the Tamils still have not changed its name, or if they have, I am not aware) and in the process takes 6 hours to reach from Delhi to Kozhikode; in the same time you may reach at least a few destinations in Europe, and all in the destinations in Gulf area as well as all over Asia. Normally I avoid seeing movies on plane; one, that the screen is too small and too close for my comfort, secondly, most of the times, these are highly abridged, and third, not less important, the hearing phone plugs do not fit my ears. I am seriously thinking of buying good quality external earphones, which you don’t have to insert inside your ears. However, I keep the screen alive to see what is happening, or sometimes I steal a glance over other passengers’ screens to know what are their choices. For example, when we were flying to Zurich very recently, the young boy sitting diagonally opposite, was watching some kind of a horror movie, the story of which seemed to have been lifted straight from ancient Indian and Arabian stories. The demon in some far flung area has an extra head on his shoulder, can penetrate wall of any thickness, and is at ease whether running, flying or swimming deep under the ocean. And he is indestructible by any weapon. Only fire could annihilate him in the end set up by the young hero. And what was hero’s reward? No prize in guessing; of course, the young beautiful princess.
Well, on my flight to Kozhikode, I resumed reading ‘Paths to Glory’ by Jeffery Archer, the book I started on my flight to Zurich. If you do not know about this book, I will tell you some other day.
When breakfast came, I switched on my inflight entertainment programme, just to watch visuals, without the bother of listening to dialogues. I stopped at one channel when I saw Steve Martin shooting birds, what else, but with a camera. I had thought I would just enjoy his comical acting while having my breakfast, but then, the birds caught my attention, and I decided to watch the movie with all audio and visuals. The movie was about 3 people, who are birdies: the passionate bird watchers. Steve is a successful business tycoon who started from his garage, but now controls an empire, and is fiercely competitive; Harris is a young man who at 36 is divorced, and does not have a steady job; Baustik is another young and successful guy who is happily married to a beautiful and devoted wife, and the couple is keen to have a child, for which wife is under treatment at an Infertility clinic. They are unknown to one another, and had decide to take a year off, the ‘big year’ from their respective work. During this year, they and many other bird watchers would travel all over the US to spot, sight, and photograph as many birds as possible, and to achieve satisfaction of being a winner.  Each wants to be a winner, because winning would bring them some glory and recognition. Doing ‘Big Year’ is not just following a hobby for them any more. What was just a passion becomes another nerve wrecking competition.
Steve and Baustik have no problem with funds, but when Harris goes to his parents for a loan of $ 5000/-, his retired father retorts about him not doing any worthwhile job, and wanting to erode their old age savings to pursue his useless hobby of bird watching, and giving a fancy name ‘The Big Year’ to his vacation. His mother comes to rescue at the last minute, and drives recklessly to the JFK for him to catch his flight to a bird sanctuary about to receive migratory birds. These three meet in the sanctuary, but would not tell one another that they all have taken this as their ‘Big Year’, though all suspect each other, and a fierce, but un-spelt competition sets among them. The story is about how they try to stay ahead of the other, how they handle their own demons and relationships, and how they learn some important lessons of life.
In between the year, Steve’s office begs him to come to office from his vacation to clinch a deal with a tough client; he resists initially but returns to NY just for 4 hrs. But then, misses his chartered flight to Alaska, and there is none for another week. So he lags behind in his number game, and feeling very frustrated, decides to give up on completing his Big Year. Then his wife reminds him that bird watching was his hobby, why he is taking it as another business deal or rivalry. He should complete his ‘big year’ enjoying watching and photographing birds, not just counting them. Harris comes close second, but he ends up getting a girl friend, and more importantly he learns the importance of relationship in life, when he abandons a field trip to return to look upon his ailing father in the hospital. His father understands his son’s passion, and gifts him funds to complete his year. Baustik comes up as the winner, but in the process loses his wife; she finally decides to leave him because he misses all the important dates at the clinic, and she realizes that she is only at a second place in his life, and how much he himself abhors the idea of coming to second place in the ‘Big Year’. After losing his wife, the value of relationship dawns on him when sitting alone in a park he sees a young couple walking with a child.

Sudhir

Kozhikode, 20/07/2013




Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Pocket pinching in Switzerland



I never imagined it would happen to me in Switzerland. It is called a country of milk, cheese, chocolates, watches, and banks, and extremely tourist-friendly nation (all true) – all good things a tourist wishes in life. It is a dream destination for anyone going overseas. Honestly, we too enjoyed our vacation in Switzerland and may like to go there once more, but then had some different experience also.

I am usually careful regarding my wallet, passport and other documents whenever I am on my trip overseas. Not that I am a frequent flyer, but in last 3 decades of my travel to different places, I have visited notorious places known for their skilled pickpockets. For example, New York or Washington, where pickpockets have to prove their skills to their own community, before they are admitted into their ‘prestigious club’. Larry Collins and Dominique Pierre described it in the novel ‘The Fifth Horseman.’ The novice has to pick the inner pocket of a jacket, which is lined with jingle bells. The pickpockets of Barcelona, Rome, and Prague are described in all travel guides; at the main train stations and bus stops, the advisory to the travellers are prominently displayed to be careful about your  belongings and pockets. I survived all these places. But it would happen to me in Switzerland, I could never imagine.
Last week we were at the Zurich main train station to travel from Zurich to Interlaken. As usual, the train station was crowded, and the platform where the train to Interlaken was to leave, was especially so. Switzerland has been unusually bright and sunny for the month of July with no rains so far during our stay. There were a large number of tourists, particularly Indian tourists. Chitra and I were carrying our backpacks, and one bag each. After Chitra had boarded, when I started boarding the train, one white man extended a helping hand to lift my bag. Even in those few seconds, I realized that though he helped me to lift it, he resisted my attempt to put the bag on to the rack in train compartment. This man went away to the next compartment, and we took our seats near the windows to enjoy the famous panoramic view of the route, which this train was to take. After some time, when I cursorily checked my belongings and pockets, I realized my wallet from the side pocket of my cargo trousers was missing. Not willing to admit that I had become a victim of pickpocketing in Zurich, I checked my other pockets, and then backpack also to be doubly sure, but all in vain. My wallet was gone with my credit and debit cards, driving license and nothing more. Luckily, in the morning, I had transferred all my cash to the watch pocket of my trousers before leaving our service apartment in Zurich. Next one hour, I was busy talking to my Bank in Delhi to block these cards. Fortunately, only previous day, I had bought the locally available sim card for international calls. It came very handy, and the calls to India were not expensive either. I could block the cards in time. I escaped cheaply. But that was the end of my wish to enjoy the scenic and panoramic journey to Interlaken, which was truly breathtaking with its landscape, littered with lakes and beautiful houses scattered all over. I realized that I had to be careful in Switzerland too.
However, this was not the end of my bad luck or my incompetence for 

Our next leg of travel was from Interlaken to Lucerne. As usual, the platform was littered with tourists. When we were to board the train, again a white man, almost with gentlemanly look and in his forties, allowed Chitra to board the train first. That meant he effectively came in between us. Again the same ploy was enacted of diverting my attention by trying to give me a helping hand to lift a heavy bag, and almost directing me to where to put my bag. Til then I did not realize what was happening. Then this man got down to join his colleague on the platform. After I had secured my bag, the second man on the platform extended his hand towards me with some money. He was holding some euro notes, gesturing that he found it on the floor of my compartment. I was cautious, refusing to accept, and thinking that it could be another ploy. But he insisted, and then I checked my back pocket, and found the 50 euros (5 notes of 10 each) missing. These were the same crumpled notes I had in my pocket. From the safety of my compartment, and with all our bags secured, I accepted the money, and that man went away.
I painfully became aware that my pocket was pinched twice within a few days. But why did that man return the money? I am still to fathom. Though, the usual currency in Switzerland is Swiss Frank, but euros are also accepted everywhere, and the duo had made some quick buck, though not a large one. I am still struggling to find the answer. Chitra says he returned the money thinking that that was all the money you had with you, and the loss would put you in deep trouble without it, so he took a pity on you. But I am still confused.
It is said, if your pocket is pinched once, it is an accident, if it happens twice, it is your misfortune, but third time indicates a pattern. Now it is up to me.

Sudhir K Khandelwal
Lucern, 08 July 2013 
(Written at Lucern, 08 July 2013)