“The solace I sought in the Himalayas” – Stephen Alter On His Book ‘Becoming A Mountain’

Posted on January 15, 2015 in Books, Interviews, Staff Picks

By Krishangi Singh:

Birthplace. It is somewhere you feel nurtured and safe, protected from the harshness of the world beyond. When three unknown intruders attacked Stephen Alter, a renowned author and professor of creative writing, in his own home, his worldview about ‘home’ changed forever. He and his wife, Ameeta, were left at the cusp of death. Their survival was a matter of chance and more so of their relentless courage.

becoming a mountainBecoming A Mountain’ is the beautiful journey of Stephen Alter as he comes to terms with the life-threatening attack on him and his family, and struggles to find closure as his attackers go unidentified.

The book covers his journey back in the Himalayas, where he tries to find meaning in life again. His journey takes him across various peaks, such as Nanda Devi, where he delves into the idea of ‘darshan’. As the self-confessed atheist shares with us, “For me, the mythology of the goddess is fascinating and I can appreciate the beliefs of those who worship her, even if I don’t share those beliefs. The mountain, Nanda Devi, has always inspired me and following our attack, it became a personal symbol of hope and recovery. Nevertheless, I remain an atheist and that isn’t likely to change.”

Alter’s journey in the mountain is purely cathartic. To find peace on such terrifying heights is not something one can easily wrap their minds around. But for Alter, it probably served as an answer to perhaps many a questions, as he tells us “This is the experience of the’ sublime’, which my book explores. It is a paradox or contradiction, between the creative and destructive forces in nature, which gives us a vision of our own fragility, as well as the ongoing cycles of life. Exploring and appreciating the sublime was part of the solace I sought in the Himalayas.”

The book forms a captivating narrative as Alter links his current journey to his memories of the past. With the descriptions of surroundings that he provides, the reader can vividly imagine the narrow paths, scary depths of the valleys and the quietness. In one particular instance, where Alter is hunting a deer, he is able to bring out the calmness in the mind of the patient hunter as he sits in his deer hunting blinds and waits for his prey. But he equally exposes the fear in the head of the prey, as it looks about to identify the hunter.

This book is not a collection of ‘everyday’ moments. It’s an odyssey of a man who can revel in the dangerous heights of Himalayas and still find its cold embrace as warm as that of his home. “If a reader comes away from this book with a greater appreciation for mountains, their history and ecology, then I will have achieved my goal” he says. So read if you feel yourself up to the journey and the experience of a lifetime…