A Collection of Essays on Ladakh written “with feeling"

We live in times in which we are overwhelmed by ideas or, perhaps more accurately, by notions. Those of identity in our politics and specialization in our knowledge. We could even say “overtaken” is deliberate, for it has the sense of being overcome or swept away, to have lost control. The root cause of how we came to this pass is a long and complex history; its consequences easier to describe.

One result of it has been a divided mentality; a mind disabled of inclusivity, of convergence and of the ability to live in the moment. Ours are brains suffused by ideas of purism in race, religion, ethnicity, language or politics to which we hanker for legitimacy. Similarly, a corollary of expert information has been yielding knowledge to the tyranny of the specialist. We are in awe of technical know-how, dependent on the “expert” to tell us how to think, unable to synthesize experience for ourselves. Some symptoms of this are of how we are rapt by a bookish fixation with references; a theological obsession with monopolizing truth; a writer’s neurosis with originality; and a political mania for personal and group “security” that isolates individuals and collectives.

In such a mental climate, it is difficult to come across narratives that speak of the beautiful complexity of our world with simplicity, accuracy, candor and genuine elation. The late Eliezer Joldan’s book, first published in 1985 (Reprint, Central Asian Trade and Other Essays”, Gulshan Books, 2018) is one such narrative on Ladakh, a land that has been much photographed, researched and interpreted in the last half century.

“Aba Eli-ley”, as he was affectionately referred to in our family, was highly regarded by everyone who knew him. I remember him from visits to his Kashmir home for Christmas greetings or, in later years, seeing him strolling on the main street in Leh, eyes twinkling, searching for memories. My own curiosity about the anthropology and history of Ladakh surfaced only just before his demise in 2001, which tragically deprived me of conversations with him that would have opened many a window of knowledge about home and life.

Typical of his generation, the reprint of six delightful essays opens with two disclaimers by the author. One about himself – “I am not knowledgeable…” – and the other about the past – “I would not call them the good old days because conditions are vastly better now”. No pretensions or trite nostalgia. Yet the book, he tells us, is about “some memories I still cherish”. But this collection of notable essays is important for two reasons not cited by the author.

It is important, firstly, as the observations of one from Ladakh’s often neglected Christian community, many members of which have contributed much to the life of Ladakh in scholarship (they are pioneer translators, writers and educators), in society and social science (as administrators and professionals) and in the humanities (several members of the younger generation are carving a place for themselves in art, architecture and other fields of study). Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it is a between-the-lines message of seasoned interaction with the west – thus modernity – because Ladakhi Christians were among the first in their society to have engaged with the “west”. This was with the arrival of the Christian missionaries in Ladakh in the second half of the nineteenth century. It has given them a unique familiarity with modernity from which any society in transition stands to gain much.

But throughout the book, the author never mentions that he is a Christian by faith, even as his narrative describes encounters, transactions and relationships with Turkic-speaking, Hindi-speaking, Kashmiri-speaking and European languages speaking peoples with a spontaneity that is as unique as it is natural. Clearly, he was cosmopolitan citizen who is disarmingly un-self-consciousness about mere identity. The book’s narrative is a fluent flow of a person who materially and mentally integrated – today a rare phenomenon.

A few examples of this are his stories about how, after many years, he met a former student called “Miskeen Tsering”, a name of Urdu and Tibetan mix; of how “chang”, the Tibeto-Himalayan barley beer, was being poured by a Ladakhi pastural nomad from a Kashmiri brass vessel; of how the author danced clockwise in the “Ladakhi way”, while his Dardic hosts dance “anti-clockwise” and many more such anecdotes. In yet another passage, he writes of Safa Kadal in Srinagar as if it were a suburb of Leh! The reader is treated to the lived experience of life assimilated and integrated in a synthesis both collective and individual. For some today may be an infuriatingly tolerant, inclusive and integrated ecosphere in a world of increasingly zealous chauvinism, exclusivism and xenophobia.

There are also some innocently political statements without forced “political correctness”. For example, he refers to the boundary that separates the Da-Hanu region of Ladakh from its cultural continuum in Baltistan as the “Ceasefire Line”, to reflect the true state of affairs between South Asia’s two large neighboring states, without intending to be critical about the euphemism of “Line of Control”. He speaks as a witness to colonial visitors who were “severe”, yet worthy of “respect”. Similarly, while Mr. Joldan’s aptitude for critical thought allows him to acknowledge both “good and bad developments” in present-day tourist-inundated Ladakh, he is humble enough to acknowledge learning from the visitors and pointing out that “it is better to stress the good things” while, in what is a near-Taoist observation, acknowledging that “Good and bad must coexist.”

There are many more stories and anecdotes in the “… Other Essays on Ladakh” that divulge a mind that is qualitatively different from most today. One that could be called an “unpartitioned intellect”, to use the Irish American poet John Montague’s phrase. A mind that effortlessly integrates myth and logic, distinguishes between paradox and contradiction and differentiates between nostalgic romanticism and empathetic insightfulness.

This last binary elicits an event that is not recounted in the book but serves to illuminate the author’s personality. First let me briefly talk about the difference in the meanings of the binary. “Nostalgic romanticism” may be defined as ineffectual sentimentality that contributes neither to the solution of a problem nor an understanding of it. “Empathetic insightfulness” is understanding the context of an event and the reconciling limitations of that experience.

Now the event. Aba Eli-ley’s family was among the first converts to Christianity. The intrepid Isabella Bird Bishop’s 1894 travelogue recounts how this was opposed by his erstwhile Buddhist compatriots and, perhaps, the Dogra regime. It was probably during the time of the author’s grandfather. Bishop goes on to tell us about how the Joldan ancestral home and other properties in the village of Stok was confiscated by the Dogra wazir and the new house in Leh “burned to the ground more than once by incendiaries”; events that probably resulted in the patriarch’s self-exile to the Kulu, Manali. The very next generation of the family returned to Ladakh, the author’s father, Jonathan, serving in the British Postal Services. The memory of the tragic events would not have faded yet but there is nary a mention of it in Mr. Joldan’s memoirs. Nostalgic romanticism would tend to recall those events with sadness if not bitterness. The author’s silence over them as they continue to make Ladakh their home, divulges empathetic insightfulness, absent of any bitterness.

This is the legacy that Eliezer Joldan’s book, which he modestly describes as “only a collection of essays” but is written with what he describes as “feeling”, leaves for his family, Ladakh and the State of J&K. We are the richer for it.