When I was a child, the five peaks of Kanchenjunga stretched across the vista, stirring awe, admiration, and exhilaration within me, especially on clear mornings when sunlight ricocheted off their surface, or when dusk painted them in pink or orange. Of course when I was self-involved or the weather was gloomy, the peaks were merely part of the landscape, not unlike the maple tree standing out against a backdrop of pine trees; the jewel-like scattering of cottages in the town below; the brooks and streams gurgling on dry days, transforming into frightening monsters on wet ones; the ridges of tea estates in the distance.
My parents taught at a boys’ boarding school in the Darjeeling district, near the town of Kurseong, and I grew up within the school campus. The best view of the Kanchenjunga from our section of the hill was from the “lower flat” of the school, an enormous playing field that can, without exaggeration, be called beautiful — encircled along the edges by tall pine trees and a grassy slope. The planners who built the school for the sons of British civil servants seem to have had the foresight to not plant trees along the section of the boundary in front of the Kanchenjunga, and so the peaks are framed on both sides by Cryptomeria japonicas (as my father, a biology teacher, tended to refer to them) or dhuppi, in Nepali. I seem to recall that on clear nights the Kanchenjunga shone silver-gray, its outline faint but unambiguous, shimmering, eerie in the stillness. Crossing the field in the dark was like crossing a lake of sand, with the otherworldly peaks watching.
Tiger Hill, which isn’t far from where we lived, is known for its panoramic view of the Kanchenjunga. At one time, relatives who were visiting us offered to take me there with them, but I didn’t want to wake up at an unearthly hour, since the plan was to see the peaks light up at the crack of dawn. I was young enough to believe my sleep was more important than seeing a more magnificent aspect of a mountain I saw all the time. Of course I regret it now. It would have been a chance to see Mount Everest too, though the mountain in front of it eclipses everything other than its summit.
Kanchenjunga, interestingly, was believed to be the highest mountain in the world for two decades in the 1800s, until the surveyor-general of India “discovered” Mount Everest in 1852. While Mount Everest is 29,035 ft. above sea level, Kanchenjunga, at 28,169 feet, is the world’s third-highest peak, and still retains an aura of purity and transcendence — in an age when cruises are organized to the Antarctica. Part of this has to do with its inaccessibility. While the overall fatality rate of Everest climbers is 1.3%, that of mountaineers attempting to climb the summit of Kanchenjunga is one of the world’s worst: higher than 20%.
In any case, despite the Kanchenjunga’s presence in my life and Everest’s absence, the latter too is embedded in my subconsciousness. The three houses in my parents’ school were named Kellas, Irvine, and Mallory, in memory of three pioneering mountaineers who attempted to scale Mount Everest in the ’20s. George Mallory participated in the first three expeditions undertaken. Dr. Alexander Kellas was to be a part of the first expedition too, though he died of a heart attack en route. During Mallory’s third expedition, which was Andrew Irvine’s first, Mallory and Irvine disappeared, not far from the summit. In 1999, a team found Mallory’s mummified body at 27,000 ft.; in all likelihood, he had suffered a fall. The duo’s camera, which may have recorded their journey, remains missing, and whether they scaled the summit is unknown. The school received from Mallory’s mother a compass that Mallory carried with him on his last expedition. As a kid, I was only dimly aware of this history. What I do remember though is my passionate feelings for Mallory house, which my parents were in charge of.
Today when friends post photos of the school on Facebook, I feel something akin to anguish. The past recedes further and further, existing only within a tenuous little corner of my mind. My mother and father are no more. That is of course the most painful change. But the school too is different. It is far more dilapidated. The path leading up to my childhood home is overgrown with weeds. The roofs of many of the buildings are in disrepair. The church with its once beautiful stone façade has been painted yellow. And, most jarring of all, the school’s solid wooden furniture has been replaced with plastic ones.
When I think about going back to visit the school, the town, the hills, I falter. Wouldn’t be simpler to treat the memories as sacred and let them be? Or should I be brave? Perhaps I possess the negative capability to absorb reality and let it coexist with the memories. If there is one thing I know, it is this: if I go back, I will feast my eyes on expanses of droopy pine trees. I will walk along the meandering road that connects my parents’ school with the sister school I attended, each bend of which is more deeply etched in my mind than the contour of my own hand. I’ll make my way up the hill to the scenic spot where my father once took me and my best friend and her little sister for a picnic. Weather permitting, I will travel to Tiger Hill as well, to see Kanchenjunga bathed in warm colors at dawn. If I’m fortunate enough to see it, the not-quite-satisfying slivered tip of Everest will be satisfying enough for me.
Ananya Bhattacharyya is a Washington-based writer, whose essays and short stories have been published inThe New York Times,The Guardian, Phoebe, So To Speak, and Washington Square Review. She is an assignment editor at theWashington Independent Review of Books.