This is yet another book that has reserved a place for itself in my bookshelf dedicated to travel writings. Not so much for the author Bill Aitken’s travels or trekking escapades but because the book reliably captures the aura surrounding the forever mysterious mountain peak of Nanda Devi. Even after two decades when it was first written, the book continues to be popular and one of the most easily available resources on the subject.
Originally published in 1994 by Penguin, the latest reprint of the book is priced around Rs 299. Surprisingly, the publisher has mulishly disregarded a better typesetting in all its reprints including its original edition. In about 194 pages, the author talks about the mountaineering history and his fascination towards one of the most beautiful and revered high-altitude regions of Himalayas, the Nanda Devi biosphere.
It was legendry Eric Shipton‘s mountaineering literature classic, The Nanda Devi, which he wrote after he had successfully discovered the treacherous route to the base of the mountain that eventually inspired Bill Aitken to make a determination that come what may, one day he too would cross the blooming Rishi Gorge and win a way to this Hindu Garden of Eden. Having fled Britain because of a failed love affair, Aitken, a young Scot, claimed to have his true home at the mountain’s feet. “The affair with the ravishing Goddess had occupied a third of my life,” he writes.
In part through his travels and explorations spanning almost three decades as well as by way of acquiring knowledge through various published and unpublished chronicles pertaining to the region, he writes about the Nanda Devi, patron Goddess of Kumaon and Garhwal. As he begins to talk about his hikes through the hillsides of the dev bhoomi Uttarakhand, he gradually approaches the subject after giving inkling to the absorbing hill life. While doing so, he briefly touches upon the routine ordeals faced by the hill folks against the difficult terrain and painful weather as well as history and traditions in the light of the beauty and divinity associated with the high mountains. The arresting ecological as well as geographic features of the Nanda Devi continue to propagate a religious craze in the region and the sacred peak is considered to be the seat of Goddess Parvati.
From featuring the best viewpoints in the Kumaon region that offers an extraordinary sighting of the Nanda Devi to the contributions made by the legendary explorers right from Shipton, Tillman, Roskelley, Longstaff, Curzon, Traill, Ruttledge and even Pranavananda, Atkinson, Sax and Odell, etc. in highlighting the confines of the sanctuary, Aitken has tried to capture all. Wherever deemed fit, he would vent his frustration at those who threaten the peace of these mountain abodes: be it the bigheaded babus at the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF)’s Delhi office or the musk smugglers to the incompetent forest officials to the secret Indo-US mountaineering assignment in which a nuclear-powered spying device was proposed to be installed atop the Nanda Devi as well as the pushy professional climbers who cared a fig about the environment of the sanctuary that ultimately led to its closure. “Sara Kailash chut hagi – the entire mountain had been polluted, “he quips.
Initially, Aitken’s style of writing might appear to be complicated and one might judge him for his condemnatory outlook but the passion speaks for itself and his love for mountains is visible everywhere. The Nanda Devi Affair is undoubtedly the author’s bestselling and most popular book full of anecdotes related to the mountain as well as the land and the people surrounding it. His other published works include Touching Upon the Himalaya: Excursions and Enquiries, Mountain Delight, Footloose in the Himalaya, Seven Sacred Rivers and Riding the Ranges, etc. You may like to buy the book online here, here or here.