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The Sherpa syndrome

May 30, 2012

THERE are several ways to glean facts from a news story that can put an entirely new focus on a narrative.

For example, a dozen train passengers were killed in India in the turbulent 1990s. A report said they had gotten off from their overcrowded coaches when the train stopped unexpectedly for several hours in the middle of nowhere. It was pitch dark and a speeding train on an adjacent track mowed down the passengers, who had probably dozed off from fatigue. The last line of the story threw up a tangled fact. The stalled train was crammed with people returning from a political rally of backward caste Hindus.

That’s how the world knew that the ousted prime minister, V. P. Singh, was organising massive pre-election public meetings of his voters across the country. What showed up in the tragedy was this: India’s upper caste-dominated media, angry with Mr Singh’s politics of quotas for Hindus from the lower strata, had been quietly ignoring his public meetings.

Last week I read this other story, also with an unintended gem of a fact thrown in casually. A 24-year-old Israeli mountaineer who was close to becoming the youngest representative of his country to climb Everest had abandoned his plan on the last lap to rescue a stranded Turkish friend. The beautiful story would tug at the heartstrings of anyone who feels for amazing human gestures. I even wondered why Indian and Pakistani teams couldn’t climb a K2 or a Kanchenjunga together. Had the stranded friend been a Palestinian, would the story be more poignant?

A line in The Jerusalem Post report interrupted my reverie.

“Lifting Irmak over his shoulders, Ben-Yehuda carried his Turkish-New Yorker friend alongside his Sherpa guide for about eight hours back down to Camp IV — without gloves, as they made the rescue process too challenging — and without oxygen, as his mask had already broken.”

Brave act indeed, but everybody in the story had a name except the Sherpa. There was some accusing line in the story about how the Sherpa came late and delayed the departure for the last lap, although there was a mention also of how he guided his stricken companions through some difficult passages. In such stories everyone becomes a hero in the end except the ubiquitous Sherpa, who is always there in the background as part of the logistical paraphernalia, not someone who makes the summit in his own right.

I remember meeting a few Nepali Sherpas who had climbed Everest more than once but who found mention only as Sherpas. There’s always that subtle difference inserted in news reports. What makes this more ironic is that some of these men make climbing Everest look like an annual picnic. I believe the one who holds the record is a Nepali man with well over a dozen summits to his credit. Two years ago, he was involved in the precarious task of cleaning the route littered with dead bodies and rubbish left behind by some of the world’s decorated heroes. One would have thought that the feat of Tenzing Norgay, who helped Edmund Hillary conquer the peak in the 1950s, would make Sherpas an equal partner in future ventures. That didn’t happen.

“It has been a long road,” Norgay wrote without any airs or fuss. “From a mountain coolie, a bearer of loads, to a wearer of a coat with rows of medals who is carried about in planes and worries about income tax.”

Following their collective feat Norgay reportedly felt that Hillary had made several disparaging remarks about him and his contribution to the climb. In Man of Everest, Norgay says: “Hillary is my friend. He is a fine climber and a fine man, and I am proud to have gone with him to the top of Everest. But I do feel that in his story of our final climb he is not quite fair to me: that all the way through he indicates that when things went well it was his doing, and when things went badly it was mine. For this is simply not true.”

This Sherpa syndrome is a more widespread phenomenon, though. In its many avatars it turns Kipling’s romance with the White Man’s Burden on its head. Instead of being rendered civilised it is the native’s turn to literally carry the responsibility of delivering fame and fortune to his new-found patron saint, who may be of a different ethnicity. India Gate in New Delhi is a grand memorial to the many natives who died while fighting for their British patrons in Afghanistan. Bob Marley sang ‘Buffalo Soldier’ to underscore the plight of segregated black soldiers who were not even allowed gallantry awards although they fought for their masters.

The Sherpa syndrome is evident in many spheres of activity, though not least in the media. You can see the changing ethnic composition of journalists from the degree of the risk the fieldwork poses.

Sherpas often struggle to get an assignment. The Indian defence minister’s offer to provide logistical support to President Bush in invading Afghanistan was turned down because of bad geography. Pakistan got the job because of geography, but also because of its keener willingness to do the difficult errand. It doesn’t make sense to now punish a mere doctor for being a smarter Sherpa who helped the CIA locate Osama bin Laden. The state would have flaunted the same feat as no mean achievement had its more resourceful agencies carried out the task first. The embarrassing snub for Pakistan at the recent Nato summit in Chicago was of a piece with the relationship that exists between the toiling Sherpa and the wilful summiteer, ever ready with an alibi when the climb goes wrong.

It’s been more than half a century since Sartre wrote his famous preface to Fanon’s cult book The Wretched of the Earth. The Sherpa syndrome is my description, but Sartre had this to say:

“Not so very long ago, the earth numbered two thousand million inhabitants: five hundred million men, and one thousand five hundred million natives. The former had the Word; the others had the use of it. Between the two there were hired kinglets, overlords, and a bourgeoisie, sham from beginning to end, which served as go-betweens. In the colonies the truth stood naked, but the citizens of the mother country preferred it with clothes on: the native had to love them, something in the way mothers are loved.”

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.