An ascent to remember
Jun 6, 2012-
This past week, parts of the former British Empire were abuzz with celebrations to mark 60 years of Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne. From all accounts her subjects, real and nominal, were effusive in heaping honours on a monarch who seems to have been around forever. Being neither British nor Commonwealth, we really did not have much to celebrate but whenever there is talk of how many years the Queen has been on the throne one cannot help but think of that one momentous event that links Nepal with the United Kingdom.
This was the conquest of Everest on 29 May, 1953, news of which took a few days to reach London in those days of mail runners scurrying down the Khumbu trails to telegraph posts. Fortuitous for all concerned, it coincided with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth on 2 June, 1953, and as John Hunt, the leader of the expedition, wrote, “The news had been announced over the loudspeakers along the Coronation route; the crowds had cheered...It all sounded like a fairy-tale.”
It had been like a fairy tale as well for Nepalis. Having just emerged from the dark years of Rana rule and as we were setting about creating a nation-state, we sorely needed heroes to inspire all Nepalis. And, so, when we learnt that one of two on the top of the world had been Tenzing Norgay, we went berserk.
It began on the way back to Kathmandu from Everest. In Dolalghat, Tenzing was told by some officious-looking people to say that he was Nepali. Anyone who’s seen photographs from that time will recall Tenzing in a daura suruwal. He was forced into them in Banepa, probably the first and the last time he ever wore them.
In Banepa, he was made to sign something and a bewildered Tenzing, who was only just beginning to realise what his success meant, did not think much of it and signed the paper. Since he could not read at that time, he did not know what it contained, but it turned out to be a statement declaring he had reached the top before Edmund Hillary.
The question of who reached the top first was something that would dog both him and Hillary for the rest of their lives. Apparently, already tired of it all, the two of them did sign a pact in the office of then-Prime Minister Matrika Prasad Koirala, declaring that they had reached the top almost together.
But it was a measure of Tenzing’s sincerity and his whole approach to climbing that he clarified the matter unequivocally in his 1955 biography Tiger of the Snows: “A little below the summit Hillary and I stopped. We looked up. Then we went on. The rope that joined us was 30 feet long, but I held most of it in loops in my hand so that there was only about six feet between us. I was not thinking of ‘first’ and ‘second’. I did not say to myself, ‘There is a golden apple up there. I will push Hillary aside and run for it.’ We went on slowly, steadily. And then we were there. Hillary stepped on top first. And I stepped up after him. So there it is: the answer to the ‘great mystery’.”
This brings us to the earlier point about what Tenzing’s citizenship was. He complained that no one had bothered about his nationality until then. But after becoming famous he decided to continue to live in Darjeeeling, India, the place he felt most comfortable in since that was where he had lived all his adult life, where his family was and where he had made a home for himself. As for the Nepali state, after having heaped on him the highest possible honours, including the Nepal Tara, and having tried to entice him to stay in Nepal, it turned around and spurned him in totality.
The question of borders would hardly have troubled Tenzing. After all, his family had simply walked from Tibet over the Nangpa La into Khumbu when he was a child and it was in Sherpa country that he had lived until the age of 18, when he decided to leave for Darjeeling to earn a living, following the footsteps of many Khumbu Sherpas before him.
Just like hundreds of thousands others, after Indian independence he found himself in a country with growing border controls, and his choice of abode became a political statement so strong that our state has still not forgiven him for that. The one concession made was in 2008, when the airport at Lukla, was named Tenzing-Hillary Airport.
Next year is the diamond jubilee of the Everest climb and we can only hope that unlike on the 50th anniversary celebrations, during which Norgay hardly figured at all, the Nepali state will bring itself to embrace Tenzing once again. One of the most famous songs of yesteryears begins “Hamro [Our] Tenzing Sherpa le Chadyo Himal Chuchura”. In the consciousness of many Nepalis, Tenzing is indeed still ours.
Published: 07-06-2012 08:43