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The Sherpa syndrome


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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.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (14) Closed

sameer May 31, 2012 03:48am
Tthe author could have been more straight rather than a misdirected piece of opinion.
Cyrus Howell May 31, 2012 08:57am
Thought of Rudyard Kipling before the author mentioned him in this piece. Liked the published story of Tenzing Norgay and his opinion of Edmund Hillary. So far as the Buffalo Soldiers are concerned they chose the army as a job when the civil war ended and Black men were trying to find their way economically. The Irish were another group who enlisted after fighting the civil war. These were uncertain economic times for new immigrants from Ireland. The army was a home and a feeder. Afraid Sarte is a little over my head. Not depressed enough to read him I expect. Before the rise of Western civilization with it's inventions and political ideas Man was trapped in a wretched condition.
sacheen May 31, 2012 10:40am
As usual confused and wage article by Mr javed. His message gets lost somewhere in this article.
Yuri Kondratyuk May 31, 2012 11:31am
I must appreciate the ability of Mr. Jawed Naqvi in making an entire article of what would be a concise tweet!
krish May 31, 2012 11:41am
Nothing new. This khichdi is failed just like the earlier ones. Keep cooking.
DinLala May 31, 2012 11:45am
I enjoy reading your columns. This is probably one of the best.
Malone May 31, 2012 02:31pm
Mr Naqvi can never be a one-theme columnist - he has to have multiple themes. First the article was about the noble Israeli, then he wonders why Indians and Pakistanis do not climb together, then he comes to the sherpas! By then we are looking for yet another theme!
Nimmo May 31, 2012 04:51pm
Good one Baba!
Ijaz Ahmed Jun 01, 2012 05:09am
brilliant point....the ones who have not been able to get the message...please watch pogo.
ouykcuf May 31, 2012 06:07pm
are you freakin kiddin ?
Jas May 31, 2012 11:24pm
This is a fine article. I agree Naqvi's style is not for everybody. If folks want something simple, skip Naqvi. Dawn is packed with op-eds from former Generals, High Commissioners, and Secretarys of something or the other, that are simple to fathom but may put you to sleep.
Kanadian Jun 01, 2012 12:26am
Great writing, subtle message. Enjoyed well.
Bossin Jun 01, 2012 04:13am
Remarkable insight you have Naqvi Sahib! Right to the point, to an inherent fact: you put into words what I have been thinking for years. What can we do to contravene this sherpa attitude?
Sukumar Jun 01, 2012 04:53am
The thoughts and quotes are good..but the article in its entirety has no sequence, no logic or message.