The Sherpa Trail: Stories from Darjeeling and Beyond, Authors: Nandini Purandare & Deepa Balsavar; Roli Books, Rs 695/
Rajesh Singh
A Tribute to the Sherpas

If you want to learn about the legendary courage of the Sherpa people, feel what they feel, understand their triumphs and disappointments and get a glimpse into what makes them tick, there is no better book—at least not that I have come across in the English language—than The Sherpa Trail. It’s more than just the history of a community; it’s a tribute to the resilience, the family values and the friendships of the Sherpas. It is evident from the narration that the authors have in some ways, in the process of writing their account, become embedded in their life-stories. It is this involvement that tugs at the heart of the readers.

The very mention of the word ‘Sherpa’ brings to mind the image of load-bearers and companions of mountaineers who seek to scale the peaks of the Himalaya range. In a sense, that is where the problem lies. The Sherpas are more than that—they have been on several expeditions as equal partners, not mere footnotes. And yet, very few accounts of their valour on par with the rest are available. On the contrary, the other mountaineers who stood on high peaks have garnered much of the glory and attention.

On the few occasions when the Sherpas did get a share of pie, it was not followed by what they truly deserved. Take the case of Tenzing Norgay, who, along with Edmund Hillary became the first humans to scale the world’s highest mountain peak, Mt. Everest, in 1953. Hillary became Ambassador and High Commissioner and was knighted in recognition of his achievement. Norgay got a house built for himself in Darjeeling through what is today called ‘crowd funding.’ Beyond that and a government appointment at the newly instituted Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, there was not much that celebrated his enormous success.

Authors Nandini Purandare and Deepa Balsavar say that they it was sometime in 2012 that they decided to record the history and the many fascinating stories of the Sherpas. That it should have taken them over a decade to complete the project should not come as a surprise, when one reads the extensive accounts, they have managed to string together in the book. The Sherpa Trail is traced through the stories of remarkable men and women, with some of whom the authors interacted at length and over periods of time. In this way, very personal and intimate memories have been gently and almost unobtrusively explored. The authors also discovered that several Sherpas who had fascinating stories to tell of the mountaineering expeditions they had been part of, had unfortunately left no account of those days—and nobody remained behind to recount those tales.

There are a number of Sherpas that the authors write about, and, of course, Tenzing Norgay is one of them. But here is the intestine part that Purandare and Balsavar point out: Norgay was not in the strict meaning of the word, a Sherpa; he was a Khampa Bhutia. How he came to be called a Sherpa is told by his daughter—he got his first job as a Sherpa (a load carrier). He also married a Sherpa woman. After he scaled Mt. Everest, he began to refer to himself as a Sherpa. Tenzing’s days of glory following that achievement swept him off his feet. Sadly, the last months of life were far from happy. The authors quote his friend Durga Das as saying, ‘It was sad the way he [Tenzing] died. He didn’t die a happy man. He had family problems, pressures. He couldn’t understand the way people treated him—on one hand, praise him; and on another, push him around. He never knew where he stood. He was lonely.’

Each story that the authors narrate is no less scintillating than the other, and it appears that the whole of the Sherpa people is one big canvas of colour in all hues. There is one narration that has been left to the protagonist himself to tell it in his own words. It is that of Dorjee Lhatoo—in the authors’ words, ‘the keeper of memories, and the link that joins the old Sherpas with the old.’ Lhatoo symbolises all that is grand about his community, as well as much that is lacking. He pointedly explains that the Sherpas of today’s generation do not like to dwell much on their ancestors because the latter were ‘not big champions or warriors or heroes; they were porters.’ They were simple folk who came from the remote lands, primarily in Tibet, and somehow managed a living in the towns and cities of India, particularly Darjeeling and near-about. As Lhatoo says with relief, ‘If we had not come to India, what kind of life would we have had?’ Indeed, being in India gave them a sense of rootedness—else, they could be Tibetan or Nepalese or…

Lhatoo’s story is one of struggle; his father died when he was only six years old and his mother had to manage a modest business that he had left behind. But the good times did not last. Soon they were struggling; his mother also had to ward off amorous advances from men. It left him deeply bitter. He says, ‘I saw how my mother, being a widow, was subjected, how people tried to take advantage of her. When you read about Tibetans and Buddhists as holy, pious, religious—it is hypocrisy, propaganda. I say, “You haven’t seen Tibetans.” We four children would go cling to her, and some ruffians would try to pull her away from us. We would scream, and my sister would go running to the neighbour for help.’

But there are also stories of love, understanding and appreciation. These are ones that bind the Sherpas into one community, make them proud of their forbearers. Pre-1949, every mountaineering expedition to the Himalaya originated in Darjeeling, and none was possible without the participation of the sturdy Sherpas. Not every Sherpa became globally famous as Tenzing Norgay, but every one of them had a story to tell—some of which are related to this day, others buried in the sands of time. We should be indebted to Nandini Purandare and Deepa Balsavar for their pioneering effort in bringing alive those memories.

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