Heart, Soul And Backpack In The Valley Of Flowers 

 

Chris Collins, a traveller and author talks about his journey through India, his novella set in Uttarakhand,  his view of Hinduism and the Bhagwad Gita.

When was the first time you visited India and where did you travel?

In 1999, I came down from Nepal on top of a 30-hour overnight bus where, halfway down, I made the striking rediscovery that trees grow at a lower elevation. I stayed in Varanasi during my first week or so. Then, I went across North India, to Rajasthan. I went to Udaipur. Then, I doubled-back to take an overnight bus to the Himalayas all over again, to Dharamsala, this time inside the bus.

Which places in India have you visited? 

Since then, I’ve been all over — North, South, East and West. I love Kolkata. The way you can walk down the middle of some side streets on Sundays, just taking in the sights. I love the old colonial buildings there. The people are nice and the food and the feel of the place is great.

The Periyar Sanctuary in Kerala is where I really started on the story of Valley Of Flowers. It took shape there. I had been taking notes but I didn’t have the story yet. There is a little house there, a library, just inside the gates, and the proprietor there was very nice. He allowed me to stay after hours, if I locked up each day when I left. And for a couple of weeks that is what I did. So, I really got this high Himalayan story started way down south in India, perhaps oddly.

My last trip to India was a couple of years ago to Tamil Nadu. I flew into Chennai and took the pleasant highway down (should I just say ECR) along the sea to Pondicherry. I stayed at a wonderful old guest house which was a converted haveli.

Tell us about yourself. What prompted you to visit Asia and India?

I am from Santa Barbara, California, USA. I left the States early. I finished school, then worked and saved for a year or so. Then I was gone, for no reason other than to see other places. I had it good in the States. Southern Cal is simply perfect and I well know it. But I had already done it. I went to England first. Worked there. Then I heard you could get work in Australia. I got the visa. But, I only had enough capital to fly to Hong Kong. I guess I figured I can walk the rest of the way because that’s what I did, I flew to Hong Kong. And that’s how I got to Asia, silly as it sounds.

As for India, well, it is the big one for travellers. A visitor should give India the proper time it deserves to see it, is what I thought, which I did. But it took me a while to do that. For my first trip, I stayed for four lovely months.

What do you like about Uttarakhand?

I love being in the mountains, naturally, all the Nature. I also like Dehradun. I like the sound of the name. Cary Grant in Gunga Din. I didn’t stay long in the city when I finally got there, though. But I’d like to scout around next time. I went up to Mussoorie to stay, which I liked a lot. There’s a wonderful old library in Mussoorie that greets any and all on first arrival, which is unique.

Have you been to the Valley of Flowers?

I’ve not been to the Valley of Flowers, if you can imagine it. I’ve been all over the Indian Himalayas, from Dharamsala to Darjeeling, but not there. I wanted to keep that for when my little Valley of Flowers novella was all done. I hope, as a special treat, to go up there and read the Bhagavad Gita itself. I’m all set. I’m in good shape. I just need to get there.

What does Ganga mean to you?

The Ganges is a recurring cycle. The all-pervading force is surely behind it. The water travels down from the high hills, onto the plains, then off into the oceans to be brought back again miraculously up to the high mountains. Visually, the Ganges from the old city of Varanasi comes to my mind. Varanasi is a fantastic place; no place like it.

Your novella, Valley of Flowers, is about Nicolas Kumar. Tell us more about him.

Yes. He’s a young Indian guy of 17 when he arrives in the Valley, and he seems to have it all — good looks, money, family, fun with friends, and he’s something of a golf prodigy, having just qualified for the Open Championship in the UK.

What made you to tell this story?

I wanted to get at what is most elemental to all of us — the self in relation to Nature. How to act is the Gita journey. Lord Shiva best represents the natural world by the things He wears. Any struggle too, large or small, with some one other, is one remove from self and place. For example, a person can go all day without another but try that for even a minute, without the place you are in.

Hinduism features in the novella. What is your view of Hinduism?

As in the Gita, which relates to the Vedas in a capsule, it is more what you do than what you believe in. Brahma, Vishnu and Lord Shiva depict, quite honestly, all the changes in life. To me, Hinduism shows boldly, without shaming us, what real life situations we all find ourselves in, and then, provides the correct thinking on how to deal with them.

Tell about your interest in the Bhagwad Gita.

The Bhagwad Gita is a moral life guide. The struggle with ethics, while appearing harsh at first, is in fact, all ours. The Bhagavad Gita doesn’t tell us what to do, blessedly, and to its great credit, but provides a way for us to choose, which certainly is ours also, and it informs us that we must act.

I wrote Valley of Flowers to fill a gap. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, TS Eliot, WB Yeats, and a surprisingly long list of other writers, too, have said Hinduism was a guiding influence. Thoreau even had the Gita on him at Emerson’s pond. (Curiously, Thoreau wrote of civil disobedience which in a strange way came back to influence Gandhi.)

If speaking of short novels – Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea; Crane’s Red Badge of Courage; Golding’s Lord of the Flies, all have Christian motif or some allegory. Hermann Hesse’s Siddartha depicts Buddhism well.

Yet not one school read highlights Hinduism. Why is that?

Valley of Flowers does this, or at least tries to. It attempts, in the most respectful way, to showcase Indian high philosophy, with emphasis on the Bhagavad Gita.

Year after year, TV pundits and others debate whether the Gita should be taught in school. The message, of course, should be. But I have long thought, and this should be clear, that it would be best to do just as the books above do it, through fiction. Have a regular work of fiction, as Valley of Flowers, refer students back to the real thing, in this case, the Hindu holy text Bhagavad Gita.

My highest wish for Valley Of Flowers is that it finds itself in the classroom, in the US, UK and Europe and other places. I particularly hope it could be taught in India so school-goers may see their rich heritage (Indian philosophy) in a modern light. I taught literature and so I tried hard to include in the text quite a bit for the instructor.

How does Nicolas find himself in the Valley of Flowers?

He has trouble with any personal enlightenment. Hinduism is not easy to grasp at first pass, and Nicolas was no different. He made the trip because he interrupted his father in public, which I believe is a well-known conceit in India, one I got from the Katha Upanishads. Nicolas, a composite character, is in part, Nachiketa.

What do Nicolas and Chris have in common?

Not good looks, that’s for sure! Nor money or any real talent, now that I think of it, and I thank you kindly for the gentle reminder. We are both 185cm tall I guess. And I played competitive golf too as a kid, which came in handy while telling the story.

Backpack rules for Chris Collins.

My rules are few. No sudden moves, and a smile goes a long way — this is something of a motto. As to the practicalities, bring a small cushion as headrest for those long bus rides. It’ll be helpful more than you know. Earplugs too are a good idea, not just in India, but on any trip where things could get heady. Finally, be open and ready for it all, to go off track and discover.

— Sumati Mehrishi 

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