Sherpas. James F. Fisher, Foreword by Sir Edmund Hillary. University of California Press. 19 color plates and 104 black-and-white illustrations. Paperback.
To the best of my knowledge I have never met James Fisher. Nonetheless, I feel a certain parallelism in our karmas. He first visited the Sherpas in Solu-Khumbu in 1964 when he helped to construct the Hillary schools. I first visited them in 1967, just when the first effects of these schools were being felt. He also visited them in 1978, while, in 1979,1 went to Phaplu to visit the lamented “Hostellerie des Sherpa,” a chimerical luxury hotel constructed by a then 24-year-old Sherpa named Rinzi Lama. (At last word it had closed.) He last visited Solu-Khumbu in 1988, while my last visit was in 1983. He spent a little over a year with the Sherpas while, over the years, I must have spent a little over four months. But our conclusions about what has been happening to this remarkable culture are very much the same. This is gratifying to me, since he is a trained anthropologist, now a Professor of Anthropology at Carleton College, while I am a theoretical physicist and occasional journalist.
What has happened is that the Sherpas have been brought into the twentieth century—I would say eagerly—by tourism and mountaineering travel. There is an irony in this because, as Fisher notes, the Sherpas don’t regard their mountains as “beautiful” in the same way we do. This is not surprising. Europeans, by and large, did not regard the Alps as beautiful either, until the 19th century esthetes, like James Ruskin, taught us that they were. Both for Sherpas and Europeans, mountains were objects of veneration. But that is another matter.
The influx of technology and foreign visitors to Solu-Khumbu has caused a quantum leap in the society. Some of the effects are good and some are not. But to imagine that one can have only the “good” effects of progress is to commit what has been called the fallacy of utopian addition. To me, the most dramatic of the good effects—I am surprised that Fisher does not mention this explicitly—is the increase in life span. In 1967 it was said to be around 35 and now it is in the late 50s. This can be attributed to modem medicine; better in Solu-Khumbu than in most of the rest of Nepal. This, incidentally, has caused some resentment in the country. After all, the total number of Sherpas altogether in Nepal is less than 30,000, out of a polulation of 17 million.
To me, and I think to Fisher, the worst side effect of this progress is the dilution of the Sherpa culture. He notes, and I have seen this myself, that Sherpa children, bom in Kathmandu have come to regard their language as an embarrassment. Parents speak Sherpa to their children who reply in Nepali. It breaks one’s heart, but as a grandchild of Yiddish and Russian speaking grandparents with whom I would only speak English, I understand this only too well. What I like about Fisher’s book is that he does not sentimentalize. It is easy to become weepy over the loss of Sherpa “innocence.” It is important to remember that the Sherpas were never all that innocent, a point well made by Fisher. One should also ask oneself how one would like to live in a house without windows, running water or electricity at 12,000 feet. That’s the way things were in 1967.
Nonetheless, there is something Promethian about the fire that destroyed the Tengboche Monastery. In April of 1989 electricity reached Tengboche. It was thought that the use of electric heaters might save firewood. However, the main effect was that with lighting people stayed up later and used even more firewood. On June 19, the same year, one of the monastery’s heaters caught fire and burnt the place to the ground. Fisher says that in the reconstruction solar panels are being contemplated.