A 29 years old Indian, studying at Nanjing University under the aegis of Stanford University decides to take an irksome road homeward. When Vikram Seth leaves China for his summer holidays in 1982, he treads along a journey that years later, proves to be an itinerary for explorers of an obscure land. While China, no doubt is far from being vague- parts travelled by Seth are eccentric with people more than amiable. His log of a month long journey becomes the base for ‘From Heaven Lake’, a book that can hardly be overrated.
As he carves a path for the readers to hang around, he makes sure to be objective. There is not a single aspect that comes off as questionable, but only a dose of slight dizziness for the reader unaccustomed to geography. Seth criticises both the neighbour countries, and at the same time provides reasonable solutions to problems less thought of. He praises equally the hallmarks of history and the maverick rise of two most powerful developing nations of the world.
The route to Delhi is decidedly hazardous. But the humour with which Seth voices his anguish makes the excruciating track tolerable. He colours a colourless nation, talks about unintelligible tongues and mops a huge mist of distrust from our eyes. Audacious that he is, he ‘hitch-hikes’ dangerously on the steep of Lhasa, stand ordeals of paper works- both demanding and at times, discouraging. But he seldom falters, seldom exaggerates, and seldom becomes less human.
Not a single person he meets in his way lets him down. They are not only hospitable but they also run the risk of ensuring a foreigner’s safety. Akbar endorses his pass to Lhasa; Sui skirts him around the steeps of Germu to Tangula Range; Norbu ensures he is strong enough to reach Kathmandu healthy and a score others light up his path in similar trails. Coming from what they call as ‘Yindustan’, Seth becomes an object of curiosity and at the same time, a person of reverence among the humble folk.
That it is politics which divides countries and that it is humanity which binds nations is undoubtedly the embossed essence of the book. We, as a race are always suspicious, expecting hypocrisy from people who, according to us, do not share our blood. People die, and the suspicion passes on, unabated, unquestioned as the cudgels of power keep on shifting. It is only by the efforts of a few, neutral, and impartial writers as Vikram Seth that we get a bird’s eye view of the reality beyond reservations.
‘From Heaven Lake’ is more than a travel book- more than a nonfictional narrative. It is, at once, a celebration of humanity and at its zenith, a guidebook for pacification. For, no ‘Chinese’ Seth questioned liked the Indo-Sino war of 1962, for people still awaited the return of the Dalai Lama, for not everyone welcomed Mao’s Red Guards, for there are problems that yet require to be combated. However, in negating xenophobia and promoting goodwill, it is the people who are responsible, not brand ambassadors.
As he writes-
“Here we three, cooped, alone,
Tibetan, Indian, Han,
Against a common dawn
Catch what poor sleep we can,
And sleeping drag the same
Sparse air into our lungs,
And dreaming each of home
Sleeptalk in different tongues.”
If I had to rate this book, I would give it a 9.9 on 5. That much I loved it!
©Anannya Nath (17th July, 2018)