Valdosta Daily Times

November 4, 2013

“Three Speakers from Nepal: VSU welcomes Apa Sherpa, Samrat Upadhyay, and Ubaraj Katawal”

Jeff Vasseur
Valdosta State University


Nepal.  Mountains. Hindi temples. All of them blending, criss-crossing.  A kaleidoscopic, tradition-bound, quickly transforming world.  One of the jazziest, be-boppingest world capital names anyone could conjure up.  Kat—spelled with an “h”—Man—Do.  Sound’s like the title of a Steely Dan song doesn’t it?
This coming Wednesday night the current world record holder for climbing Mt. Everest 21 times, Apa Sherpa, will join two other speakers from his native country at VSU on November 6 for an evening called: “Contemporary Images and Fiction from Nepal.” The event will be held November 6th at 6:30 p.m. in VSU’s Student Union Theater.
Travelers like difference and side excursions, enjoy surprises around the bend, the journey of discovering things, being open to change.  Imagine seeing vistas of our beautiful planet few humans will ever glimpse, slack-jawed views of glaciers, blue-ice crevice drops thousands of feet deep, awe-inspiring sunrises, thousands of acres of snow and undulating light.  
Imagine been born dirt-poor and your father dies when you’re a scrawny kid, so you’re forced to support her and two younger siblings.  You start to work as a “sherpa” that is, a porter, carrying twice your body weight since the age of 12 years old.  Imagine taking the heaviest loads, hoping to go back to school, knowing deep-down that’s not what the cosmos has in store, lamenting the fact you cannot possibly realize your dream of becoming a doctor, until one day you furrow your brow, looking up again, in a different way at Mount Everest.  Instead of carrying gear for hire, you decide to climb it.  You try four times and fail.  Your family keeps growing.  So you train harder, become determined, the failures cease. You become Apa Sherpa, set various mountaineering records, save climbers' lives on a few occasions coming down from the summit by carrying them out too, and you live to tell the tale.
Joining Apa Sherpa on stage will be the university’s new faculty member, Dr. Ubaraj Katawal, a specialist on 20th and 21st post-colonial literature.  He will be introducing the first Nepali author writing in English to be published widely in the West, Samrat Upadhyay, whose award-winning books have received rave reviews, and whose short story collection Arresting God in Kathmandu won him a Whiting Award and selection in Best American Short Stories.
Three natives from Nepal — all with different backgrounds and experiences from one of the world’s poorest per capita countries, a place where getting an education isn’t a given, and the basic adult literacy rate is 48.6% and for women 34.9%. Mr. Sherpa will be discussing his life story and experiences reaching the roof of the world twenty-one times.  However, Apa Sherpa has made the decision to quit, solemnly promised his wife and family.  After turning fifty-three, he’s content these days to scamper up 12,000 foot mountains like thePfeifferhorn and Salt Lake City’s Lone Peak for kicks.  Being fit isn’t the issue.  Everyone who knows him knows. Apa Sherpa could summit again, but they’ve made him promise.
Humble and huge-hearted, in addition to being courageous, a devout Buddhist with a million-watt smile, Mr. Sherpa will talk of the entrenched socio-economic difficulties so many of his countrymen face.  Many of the photographs he’ll be showing are shots of village life, views of the Himalayas featuring several mountains over 20,000 feet, including many of the world’s most dangerous climbing routes.  Apa Sherpa has done many of these baby-sister peaks since his days working as a “kitchen boy,” or carrying building supplies like 180 pound oak doors (wood, firewood, trees are scarce in Nepal’s high-attitude ecosystem) and bags of cement up precariously steep trails, building strength, increasing his genome’s oxygen efficiency and lung capacity even further. Many years ago, when Apa had only four summits under his belt, he and a fellow sherpa were doing an interview in Japan and a local wit suggested, “Hey, you two should run in the Tokyo marathon.”  Apa thought about it.  “So we said, sure, okay. They bought us good New Balance shoes.  But I’m not a runner. I’m a walker.  In Nepal we walk everywhere.”
Before his last trip to the roof of the world in 2011, sponsored in part by the cardiology department of the University of Utah, Apa was outfitted with a ten thousand dollar MacGyver altimeter watch from Denmark.  The contraption had an attachment leading to his index finger that shot a tiny laser through his index finger to measure O2 level each step of the way.  Before leaving, Apa agreed to a request by local skiers and snowboarders to be electronically monitored on a treadmill challenge.  All of the youths and Apa wore fifty-five pound packs.  Over four hours later, only one man was still treadmilling.  The youths finally gave up. Just last year in 2012, Mr. Sherpa trekked to raise awareness for the need of better education in Nepal’s most remote villages (where he and members of his team saw the effects of climate change on local subsistence farming).  They completed the 1,700-kilometer Great Himalayan Trail twenty days under schedule.  “When the media asked me which was the hardest, climbing Mt. Everest, or this, I just smiled.  This by far was more trying, unreliable food and water sources, maybe four showers in sixty days.”  
When I asked Terrell Pool, owner of Salt Lake City’s Diamold Mold, friend and corporate sponsor of The Apa Sherpa Foundation what was the secret, was it all mere genetics, secret conditioning, Red Bull, what?  “He’s got an iron will,” Mr. Pool explained with a faint smile, his amber-brown eyes tinged with awe.  “They’d challenged him, so after the last snowboard athlete quit, he kept it up for a while. I think Apa finally got off the treadmill because he finally just got bored.”
Oh, yeah, that marathon in Tokyo? His climbing partner & friend— totally unprepared, zero prior marathon training— finished in the top one hundred and Apa Sherpa came in thirty-first.  
*     *     *     *     *
Samrat Upahay’s world-class short stories first got him noticed by literary critics and his breakout collection Arresting God in Kathmandu features works that won him national attention. Mr. Upadhyay has lived in Ohio and Hawaii, where he got his graduate degree in creative writing, and now works at the University of Indiana.  One of the constant themes is Upadhay’s work is cross-cultural fiction and the clash between generations in the increasingly modernized major city of Nepal.  Kathmandu attracts third-world travel aficionados, spiritual seekers and New Age devotees out the yin-yang,ex-patriots working as teachers, journalists, and missionaries. This is a place where “$3.99 Five Hour Energy Shots” consists of a few radishes, a cup of rice, maybe a betel nut, a world where a harried woman’s niece barges into her home, dabbles in gossip, and snatches up an orange she’d been saving expressly for herself.
Upadhyay’s native city has entered the sphere of global high-capitalism and the scions of business own BWMs, major sugar factories and Honda dealerships.  Hundreds of world-class mountain-climbers make their pilgrimage through Kathmandu, often type-A millionaires who hire poor local sherpas to heave super-expensive survivalist gear and help them not to quickly become a corpse.  Stories about these men abound, as told by Jon Krakauer in Into Thin Air. Essentially, a freak storm can wipe out any team member.  Deaths occur on the way down, when euphoria gives way to exhaustion.  While scant mountain expeditions occur in the metropolitanized work of Samrat Upadhyay, lots of underdogs keep cropping up. He shines a beam of awareness onto the lives of the marginalized; these people dwell in a world known by tourists for colorful prayer flags, saffron and scarlet monk robes, but these impoverished often live in drab concrete apartment boxes, amid grey-brown poverty.  
At present, Nepal’s society has undergone vast political change since Crown Prince Dipendra murdered nine of his closest relatives in 2001 then shot himself. What really happened seems so labyrinthine —perhaps a Maoist plot, a coup by foreign intelligence agencies, a conspiracy orchestrated by the king in waiting—I’ll let the expert speakers give their own views.  Suffice to say, there was a revolution before that revolution, and the unseating of the Rana dynasty before that revolution.
People trump politics---that seems to be Upadhyay's resonating concern.  Despite his swish first-world education, he’s aware of families living in poverty, our earth’s everyday real-life super-heros in survival: clerks fired for speaking their viewpoint, a mother crushed and ashamed at what the neighbors might think, girls forced to work as semi-prostitutes, individuals forced to scramble enough rupees together to buy squash, lentils, and frying oil.  As Dr. Ubaraj Katawal points out: “Upadhay’s world is full of small gestures of compassion and care, despite moments of sadness, death, alienation, and these compassionate gestures make a difference in the lives of those they touch.”
Comic insights and psychological realism merge in these stories.  The humor’s subtle.  Blink and you’ll miss out.  In the short story, “Deepka Mistra’s Secretary,” readers follow one man’s journey of heartbreak and revelation about the comfort of unexpected love when he accepts the tentative, demure words of comfort from a secretary.  He hasn’t noticed her much, but she’s noticed him and his sadness. This secretary is not playing checkers.  One day he sees her shopping and she’s short for a clothing purchase, so he nonchalantly buys her a pink sari.  Later, he makes advances but stops short, wanting to keep things“professional.”  Besides, his lil’ blonde American wife has popped back up in Kathmandu after dumping him.  Finally his secretary, who has a distinctive birthmark that distracts his appreciation of her as a lover, emerges as the one spiritually in charge, and she is not playing checkers.  Rebuffed and rejected, she wordlessly leaves her job, abandoning him to his own emotional lessons.  However, he soon misses more than her computer skills. Deepak receives a package at the office returning the beautiful pink sari.  He smells the garment and laments that it’s freshly laundered, smelling only of detergent. This story ends with him abjectly yearning for her presence, roaming the city listening to beautiful ghazals and remembering her divine singing voice.
Oh, the mysteries of life & not-always-funny universe, our responsibility of free will, the arduous mountain-climb of intermingling separate individual desires.  Since time immemorial, each individual has taken his or her quest.  Many of Upadhyay’s characters are supremely devout and several older characters adhere strictly to their disciplines.  They have their pantheon of major and minor gods.  The Book of Life.  The Wheel of Fate.  Accepting what one cannot control, learning backwards and living forward, what theologian Paul Tillich calls loving oneself and others with divine acceptance keeps occurring as a dominant theme.
The role of elders as would-be-seers makes for another element in Uphadyay’s unique blend of transcultural storytelling. One Hindi mother physically strikes her unwed daughter, bombastically tries to hide her pregnancy from the whole neighborhood.  Her husband, Mohandas, who has a soft-spot for inviting street-dwelling holy men to his home and whistling religious tunes, finally tells her: “You worry too much.” Heprovides an embodiment of namaste and the “OM-like” peace he radiates throughout his wife’s moral journey, toward a non-rule based awareness of what their beloved daughter’s going through, perhaps shows us Upadhyay at his best.  Prior to her husband’s cool-headed intervention—abortion is totally out of the question—the mother insists that their family’s only option would be an orphanage:  
“It won’t stay with us,” she said, slamming the door shut so that Shanti, her daughter wouldn’t hear.
​“It won’t?” Mohandas said, combing his hair.
​“Do you know what you’re saying?”
​“I’m not saying anything,” he said calmly, ignoring the rise in her voice.  He pointed towards Shanti’s room. “What is she saying?”
Gradually, this mother accepts the presence of yellow-toothed codger who plants himself outside her house, not a beggar precisely, as he never requests anything, but a sadhu, or devotee of Shiva.  She gives him tea and a little bread.  She’s constantly complaining because her husband comes from the landowning Bhandari Brahmin family, resentful over his menial job. Following a long night worrying that her grandson’s father was a dark-skinned “madhisey from the flatlands,” she finds the yellow-toothed man peeking in the house’s front door:
​“What do you want?” she asked.
​“Beautiful, beautiful,” the man said, pointing toward the room where the baby was sleeping.
​“No,” she said.
​“Beautiful, beautiful, he said again, shaking his head in admiration. “Lord Krishna,” he said, taking the glass of tea.  Shakuntala looked at him in distaste.  He did not know what a calamity the child had brought!
Desire, death, religious belief, how people think, feel, act—the rustle between what they say they believe and how they behave—such concerns link the narratives in Upadhyay’s collection, leading up to “The Great Man’s House,” in which a servant works for a businessman turned nirvana-seeker. This businessman has gone through Siddhartha’s stages-of-life.  He’s beginning to eschew ideas of financial transcendence for the life of a true seeker.  He works assiduously at reading the Upanishads, the Ramayana, and Buddhist sutras, while his manservant dusts the books' spines.  Such books elude him yet an innate capacity for empathy enriches his monotonous life in a passage echoing ideas from the New Testament: “I was always glad when my ailing master chose not to read in the evenings.  Never did I feel as satisfied and peaceful as when I massaged my master’s feet in the quiet of the evening and watched his face as he fell asleep.  Then I forget my own concerns: the distance I have drifted from my village, the thoughts of my dead wife. I was once again a child.”  
Rom Mohannarrates this story as a bystander with everything at stake (i.e. his servant job).  His businessman boss meditates, adopts vegetarianism, works on achieving “moksha,” or liberation from material craving, even though he runs one of the city’s prosperous hotels and has married an outspoken, brash, still healthy wife.
That is, for now.  
Her own journey will soon begin in earnest.
*    *     *     *     *
Life has to be lived, potential partners, husbands and wives must be found, families raised, a measure of money must be made.  However, the name of one’s creed—the names with which one designates the Divine—what one believes internally doesn't matter so much as how one treats people. As one Hindi mystic puts it in his quasi-gnostic twist on Jesus’ injunction to love others actively: “It is only an illusion that makes you think that your neighbor is not your self.”  That’s a message reverberates throughout the work of Samrat Upadhyay.
After moving his family to the USA over a decade ago, opening a mountaineering-gear business and seeing it fail (overseeing a retail store wasn’t really in his skill set), Apa Sherpa says the thing he dwells on now isn’t lamenting that his world record will eventually be broken but watching his daughter, Dawa, achieve his dream of becoming a medical doctor. She’s well on her way, and her son, Tensing, works as an office manager with his B.A. degree in accounting. 
Also, this past April 2013, for his efforts to preserve the land and removing discarded materials from Mt. Everest, the University of Utah and its board of trustees award Apa Sherpa a Doctor of Humane Letters.  
Please mark your calendars for Wednesday at 6:30 PM. Come to shake hands with this Guinness record holder, hear a first-rate author, and learn more about an absolutely fascinating country.  
Jeff Vasseur is a professor in Valdosta State University English department.