Perspectives from the Himalaya

The Seed of Swara

“Men can do nothing without the make-believe of a beginning. Even science, the strict measurer, is obliged to start with a make-believe unit, and must fix on a point in the stars’ unceasing journey when his sidereal clock shall pretend that time is at Nought. His less accurate grandmother Poetry has always been understood to start in the middle; but on reflection it appears that her proceeding is not very different from his; since Science, too, reckons backward as well as forward, divides his unit into billions, and with his clock-finger at Nought really sets off in medias res. No retrospect will take us to the true beginning; and whether our prologue be in heaven or on earth, it is but a fraction of that all-presupposing fact with which our story sets out.”

Daniel Deronda, George Eliot

The wheels of the compact ATR 72-500 plane had just kissed the ground of the landing strip at Pokhara airport when the skies opened up and raged upon the fuselage with torrents of hail stones. White icicles pounded heavily on the moving plane like bullet pallets from a celestial firing squad, the clash of its whirling propellers and the sudden clattering giving way to anxious glances from passengers. The pelting bombarded harder whilst the roars of the twin engines were tamed. The plane nosed a few metres away from the arrival terminal, came to a halt and a collected relief swept through rising emotions. With just a backpack, R and I made a sprightly run, passing the sombre single-storey building straight out towards the parking lot. We were looking for a man, an agent in a vehicle who was to drive us to a village. This was in May 2019, my first of multiple trips, with G and I taking turns to see a slice of Astam that promises the Annapurna as a staging backyard.

We found the man in his vehicle ready to shelter us from the angry skies. Mr J, a thick man clad in a smart outfit and a Dhaka topi drove us out but was swiftly forced to pull up by the side of the road. It was impossible to drive. The wait brought a mixed bag of emotions. The experience was new and I was in awe like a child. I was imagining the body of the Scorpio to be dimpled by vicious hailstones. But I felt strangely reassured when the agent, in his speech and demeanour started an animated conversation. His ease took the edge off. The cloudburst, the torrent of ice, the deluged downpour and the lashings of lighting that followed maintained my starry-eyed lens from the window. Mother Nature clearly had some housekeeping to do up there. This was my native lesson being in the heights of an archaic Himalayan nation, up close and personal, that you do not have the liberty to mess with her. It was simply wise to bow and wait.

Mists veiled the landscape like soft tissue drying up tears from the outburst. In that first hour of being in Pokhara, I was greeted vehemently with an outcry. The towering Annapurna hid in submission in the muted sphere. There left mourning; of water molecules and droplets in tight embrace huddled around the shadowy peaks of the gargantuan mountains like shrouds of compassion after an emotional outburst. But so urgent was the errand felt to see what was calling, I saw wonderment everywhere. The onset of destiny, even in the heat of the phenomenal outcome began to shape the next few hours (and years).

Mr J powered uphill along a narrow muddy path. The ride was all bumps ploughing through wet foliage and forest. The air was cleansed. The lungs gulped in air purified from petrification. My spirits soared the higher we ascended. The obscured mountainscape, veiled in lamentation did little to dampen my eagerness. After 45 minutes of having my internal organs all shaken up, like a snow orb the flakes settled into place. The rain had turned into a light drizzle and Mr J parked at the threshold of the land.

Like a cascading trifle of lush greenscapes, the land gently undulated into a conservation forest and a stream. It was a sculpturing of earth, tufts of soft giant steps cultivated laboriously for crops and paddy by Ama-of-the-Land. In that staging of drizzle and clean air and flourishing terraces, I was gripped. And in that state of euphoria, when R suggested we checked out the forest, I was charged for it. We ran in like children following a trail carved from the feet of villagers, soaking in the rural ambience like deprived urbanites. It wasn’t too long before we realised we had companions of other kinds taking delight in our mammal characteristics.

A wave of tickle, of the revolting kind, brought the senses back to earth. We found love bites in our feet and ankles and there was more love waiting from above. There was a broadcasting of leeches celebrating rain, the dampness giving life and warm blood, a delectable addition. We exited the forest as swiftly as we entered it knowing the extra companions that we were carrying out. Back in the vehicle, Mr J and R laughed at my antics of trying quite desperately to shake off the leeches.

That encounter remained etched in my psyche and was retold in grotesque variations during bedtime to Big A and Little A. (Cloud Story 7: Joyride of the Leeches)

Dawn came anew. The first ray from the east illuminated and shine with enigmatic life. Down by the sheds, the roosters call out, the buffaloes groan, and the songbirds sing. When the massif began to reveal itself, there lay an enchantment no words could describe. All senses went instinctively to the north toward the golden silhouette of the Himalaya pulling in an unexplainable magnetic mystery; a mystery that took shape in a historical collision of two continents urged by powerful plate tectonic forces. There stood a towering sight of 50 million earth years! In the innermost recesses, every iota of cell was humbled. Every now and again from the welter of emotions that invaded the beating heart, I felt in the air that something was to brew, here in Astam.

That brew in the Astam air manifested potency. And that potency transfigured our next 4 years into an adventurous upheaval.

First glimpse of the land in May 2019

Swara is of the earth. A shadow, a spirit with a soul, a stronghold, a stirring, a journey for growth. She reverberates where the circle of dusk and dawn becomes a sphere of music and the sun is humming the wheel of the world. An abode rising, rendering homage to all that was given, budding from the seed of Mother Earth, cultivated from the soil it was built from, nurtured by tireless mothers whose quiet commitment feeds and diffuses beauty all around her.

She glows in darkness and waits for us to find the light. There is a strange brutality to it and yet, a reassuring quiet in the heath. She awakes in her anchorage and strains her ears and hears the quiet throb of every beating heart. Many moons ago there had been a surge of heat and youthful strength and clusters of buds that sprang saplings. Then the boughs were cut down as fodder for the enterprise of alteration. The shape of the earth grew uncertain. Sometimes, something new gives form. Sometimes, time becomes sticky and slabs become stuck in history.  A door opens somewhere, filtering through the walls. Distant voices coming from afar. Every now and again they stop. And there was a break. And they started again, coming and going like the slow breathing of the walls.

The shape of Swara grows uncertain. She wept with her whole being. Lulled by sweet hope, she waits. When she speaks you can recognise her heart is bare and quivering and the humanness embedded within the walls. Because when it takes shape in words, memory presents a previously unknown reality. In the interplay of voices, our relationship with one another impact our understanding of who we are. People refer to us because of the stories we tell them. Somewhere in between there is the truth but so many words get lost along the way, wandering aimlessly, losing courage. It requires a kind of undressing, a letting-go, to step out from silent thought.

Whilst her beating heart lay slumber in winter, her womb is nurtured. Her earthly skin is cleansed, scrubbed and moisturised with seed oil. She is accessorised to shelter, to provide comfort, and nurture the coming together of spirit. She has hope to cultivate a wiser and more loving generation. Although her dress is plain and unadorned, she promises to be lush and warm and loving inside. She is to remind us of the beauty of life itself, that lies within, as it is. We know it, we feel it and we can always give it meaning.

And when she awakens, she will call upon us.

George Eliot’s gift for perceiving and articulating the great tender truths of the human condition through remarkable prose, always witty and profound, played in the mental background whilst finding the sentiment to describe what Swara is. Her written word exerts such a powerful hold that it feels necessary to share the closing of the quiet heroine in Middlemarch which encapsulates the experience beautifully:

“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Pondering about the centuries of people who are now forgotten, and the hidden lives of those who have invisible hands in the sprouting of Swara, and knowing that each of them is a part of us in the immense tapestry of life, is humbling. She reminds us that we are here to do our bit, no matter how small it may be.

Our unwavering wood team after a day’s work chills out at the playground, whilst a kid defies gravity on the ping