The first few pages of a book by Frank Smythe mentions the town where I live: "On June 1st I arrived at Ranikhet from Naini Tal where I had stayed with Sir Harry Haig..." This town, in the Himalayan foothills, is so inconsequential that it doesn't feature on most maps and when you are far away from it you begin to wonder if it does exist. Yet here it was. As a printed word, the place gained solidity and consequence because the year was 1937, and Smythe was about to begin the expedition that would lead to a book whose title changed the name of a Himalayan valley.
My copy of the The Valley of Flowers is an inherited one, annotated in the margins by its previous reader. The notes have little to do with Smythe's poetic, contemplative prose, or his thoughts on solitude, freedom, nature, humankind. "Remember to take napkins for cleaning dishes etc", says a scribble next to a paragraph about the expedition cook wiping dishes on his filthy shirt. Closely underlined is a passage that lists reasons for climbing accidents. Mosquito nets and ration lists are marked up, as are places where swathes of primulas and gentians had been sighted.
The annotations were made by a woman who was half-English, half-Indian, and in the photograph that stood on her husband Amit's shelf she looked like Ingrid Bergman in a sari. A mist of tragedy wreathed this photograph. Soon after their wedding doctors told her she had a savage cancer that would kill her in a matter of months. She and Amit, both advertising people in Calcutta, decided they would spend those last months alone with each other, in Ranikhet. Here she lived another eighteen years and their days included picnics, walking trips into the neighbouring hills, and quantities of gin and cigarettes.
I met Amit long after she died, when I began visiting Ranikhet. Once the visits felt too brief, however long they were, my husband and I found a cottage there to live in. Amit was then about seventy, a spindly, grey-bearded, thatch-haired man in glasses. He had lost interest in walking and sat all day in his veranda. The veranda was fronted by a meadow on which, alongside flamboyant yellow day lilies, grew spinach sometimes, sometimes radish or corn. Amit smoked roll-up cigarettes that looked grey and damp, but they kept him occupied, as did passing children who wanted cricket scores off his radio. He could no longer bring himself to read new books so he reread his old ones. His world began roughly with Evelyn Waugh and came to an end with Somerset Maugham. Eventually, when he thought - or hoped - that he was on the brink of death, he told me, with the air of having found a good home for a lost dog, that I could have his books, as well as the day lilies.
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