Monday, 8 October 2007

Book review: Three cups of tea

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 8th Oct 07

Three Cups of Tea
By Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin
Penguin Books, 2007
349 pages
Cost: Rs 395/-

Any book emblazoned with the banner, “A New York Times bestseller”, and prefaced with three pages of gushing reviews should be approached by the sensible with a degree of caution. But after a few wary pages of “Three Cups of Tea”, even the cynical would lower their guard and grudgingly admit that they’ve been caught up in the story of Greg Mortenson, an American climber, who staggered down from an unsuccessful attempt on Mount K-2, to a remote Balti village that was to become the focus of his life. Over the next ten years, Mortensen devoted himself to building a series of schools across Pakistan’s Northern Areas, or Gilgit-Baltistan, a region that education had barely touched.

In the unstoppable way that Americans go about the things that they are convinced about, Mortenson painfully overcame a chronic shortage of funds, the logistical difficulties in an area that even Islamabad wasn’t keen to develop, and wariness, even animosity, from fundamentalists, both local and in the US, who spat fire at him after 9/11 for “helping the Muslims”.

This is a readable, rousing saga about an underdog who makes good, co-authored (Relin wrote the story; Mortenson lived it) by a journalist who makes no pretence of objectivity. Relin was just one of many in his wide-eyed admiration of Mortenson. Another journalist who came to Gilgit to report from the Pakisani side on the Siachen conflict, Kevin Fedarko, diverted himself to Mortenson’s mission after an hour with him in a school in Baltistan. Fedarko explains, “At that moment, for the first time in sixteen years of working as a journalist, I lost all objectivity. I told Greg (Mortenson), ‘What you’re doing here is a much more important story than the one I’ve come to report. I have to find some way to tell it.’”

Fedarko’s report, headlined in 34 million copies of Parade magazine on the 6th of April 2003, illustrated the irony of Mortenson’s mission. While US forces massed outside Baghdad for their final push into the Iraqi capital, and into the Muslim consciousness as a hate figure, Mortenson’s story in Parade, entitled, “He fights terror with books”, brought into the American limelight an alternative way of doing things.

In contrast to the allegorical Ugly American, Greg Mortenson is easy to like. There’s a genuine respect for Balti culture, which stems perhaps from climbing with Balti porters in the high Karakoram; many Everest climbers display the same sentimentality towards Sherpas. But where Mortenson goes beyond others is in walking the talk; in physically living in the region, learning the language, and eventually being adopted by a Balti family.

Despite veering towards hagiography in describing “Girig Sahib’s” mission of mercy in Baltistan, the book is on surer, and more nuanced, ground in painting a portrait of an American completely out of tune with the mood in his own country. Mortenson’s girlfriend, Marina, who grew increasingly irritated at having to live with him in the backseat of La Bamba, his old Buick, because he didn’t want an apartment to eat up dollars that could be better spent on a school roof; military officers clutching files and looking down at their shoes as they walked through the Pentagon, unaware of the emotions amongst the civilians they were bombing; the Ray-Ban-wearing intelligence agents in the US embassy in Kathmandu who interrogated Mortenson about where Osama was holed up, and how many of his schoolchildren had parents who were extremists. From this maelstrom of madness, Mortenson finds refuge in the simplicity and gratitude of the people he brings education to. And in doing so he discovers a meaning to his existence.

Mortenson’s story is compelling enough for the book to have been left at that. But in its closing stages someone (Publisher? Editor? Co-author? I hope not Mortenson!) seems to have decided to sex up the dossier. And so, days after the Taliban was driven out of Kabul, a heroic Mortenson drives through the Khyber Pass, into Jalalabad, and on to Kabul. This part of the book is an syrupy mixture of Afghan clich├ęs and outright fiction. The Spin Ghar hotel in Jalalabad, which was untouched by bombing, is likened to Dresden in the Second World War; Kabul, which was an oasis of peace, is described as echoing with gunfire; and the Intercontinental Hotel, half of which is described as having been reduced to rubble, actually never received a single bomb. This attempt to embellish detracts from the larger story.

In the final balance, Three Cups of Tea is a well-produced, attractive paperback that is worth a read, especially for those with a cultural understanding of Pakistan and the issues around Kashmir.

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