‘When the lotus comes it is time to go.’ That is what we say in Kashmir.
My copy of Coromandel Sea Change (Pan Macmillan 2013) includes a short non-fiction piece at the back called Summer Diary: The Herbogowan. It is undated. The only information provided is to be found on the title page, stating that it is copyrighted to The Rumer Godden Literary Trust 2004. The Trust, however, also has no extra information to offer the curious reader. I have Duck, Duck, Go’d until my fingers hurt, but to no avail.
All we can use is our own common sense…and then make up the rest!
As the title suggests, the Summer Diary is an account of a summer holiday in Kashmir with some of her family. Godden’s daughter, Paula is a young woman, and they are accompanied on their summer trek through the Himalayas, by her cousin, Simon, a Cambridge undergraduate, which probably dates this diary entry as late 50’s – early 60’s, given that Paula was born in the late 1930’s.
In a recent comment to Bill on another post, I wrote that I thought that reading A Passage to India had obviously opened Godden’s young eyes to what the British had done and were still doing in India. However, she was a daughter of colonialism, who found it hard to give up the ‘old ways’. The first line of her Summer Diary clearly shows this.
Going to the mountain regions of Pir Panjal (in the Lesser Himalayas) of Kashmir was a very colonial thing to do. The English would beat a retreat from the summer heat of southern India by heading north into the mountains, so when she says ‘that is what we say in Kashmir‘, she means that is what the English in Kashmir say. And when I say this was a family trek through the Himalayas, it was three members of the one family (plus one of Godden’s beloved Pekingese dogs, Sol), as well as a number of servants.
There was Subhan, the houseboat owner that she had got to know while they stayed in Srinagar. He was also a cook and guide. His family lived in the cooking boat that floated behind the houseboat that Godden was staying in. For their trek through the mountains, pony men were employed to help carry the gear, and look after the ponies. At Baltal they also met up with Jobara,
the headman of his village, caretaker of the Sonamarg rest house, and for long years our ponyman and friend, and beside him was his son, Amar, who had known Paula and Simon as children….There was also another ponyman and an old bearded coolie for fetching and cutting wood.
Godden does not say how long they had been holidaying in the houseboat before the summer heat appeared in Srinagar. But at some point in high summer, the pink lotus flowers bloomed and the ‘famous vale grows intolerably sultry…a heat haze hangs over the lakes and even the Jhelum seems to run sluggishly.‘
Trekking in the Himalayas is obviously something that Godden did regularly. She talks of high valley camps at Sonamarg, Nil Nag, the Blue Lake (probably Pangong Tso Lake) and Liddar that they have stayed at previously. However, this year they decide to trek over the Herbogowan,
a pass of 1,400 feet, to the valley of the Liddar. This is one of the more ordinary treks in Kashmir and renowned for its beauty, but being high it is one of the more lonely ones and in the five days we took to do it, until we came to the comparative civilisation of Aru, we saw no one but the bakriwars [Bakarwal], the nomad goat people, a few villagers, and once, a caravan.
Trying to find a photo of the Herbogowan took me down of rabbit hole of Kashmiri place names but Herbogowan simply does not exist online. I tried spelling it different ways, and I read an abundance of travel blogs by intrepid Himalayan trekkers in the hope of spotting a name that matched Herbogowan phonetically, with no luck. Except that I did learn, that trekking in the Himalayas, even in these lower reaches, still requires guides…and servants. Now, of course, we would say something like ‘accompanied by skilled local tourism workers’. But I wonder how different it is really? Wealthy outsiders coming in for an ‘experience’, to trek, meditate and take lots of photos, before flitting out again to write a blog post. At least Godden was a return visitor, who built up relationships with local guides over many years.
A colonial attitude hangs over this story from start to finish, but there is no denying Godden’s descriptive powers and her ability to evoke time and place.
Sonamarg is the Meadow of Flowers, and it is as beautiful as it sounds. On every side of it, the mountains come down, their peaks ribbed with snow and glaciers; but there is no feeling of narrowness for the valley is wide and rolls for miles with undulations of grass, rocks, fir trees, and hidden pockets grassed with clover, forget-me-nots and geums. Its sounds are quiet except for the streams.
I woke very early that morning at Aru and watched the sun come down the mountains, turning the snow to even more colours that I had seen it turn before: first to violet, then pink, then gold, then yellow-cream, then white while, all the time, the rocks held that curious bluebell blue.
The five day trek did not sound easy – criss-crossing snow fields and glaciers, ascending steep goat paths, sliding down uneven rocky descents, clambering across crevices, and fording icy streams – and there was some discord amongst the guides along the way. But it was memorable. Not only for Godden, but for this reader, who found herself sucked into looking at image after image of snowy Himalayan peaks and meadow-like valleys in the summertime.
I will most likely never trek through a Himalayan mountain, but thanks to Godden I discovered The Voices of Rural India. It’s a Covid-19 lockdown initiative designed to upskill and create alternative livelihoods for those living in rural India, focused on storytelling, oral traditions and ‘preserving grassroots knowledge.’
Summer Diary: The Herbogowan was only twenty pages long, but it turned out to be an unexpected treat at the end of a bewitching story. I hope the other Macmillan reprints have similar pleasures in store!
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.