Sometimes things have a way of building up gently, unobtrusively. Serendipitous straws in the wind have been pulling me back to James Hilton, after a gap of three decades. First, there were the three nights in a Singapore hotel named Shangri La, wher e soft-footed attendants left not only the customary chocolate on my pillow but also a bookmark with a quotation from Lost Horizon. The quotation changed every night, and would do so, I was told, for the entire week.
Then, early on a crisp cold Sunday morning, I found myself on a plane descending into a bowl surrounded by sky-scraping snow-covered peaks, not too far, as the crow flies, from Hilton’s setting of his 1933 novel beyond the Kun Lun Mountains. True, the town of Leh itself has no echoes of the peaceful, harmonious valley of Shangri La. It is too full of tourists, cars, cell phones, several German bakeries each proclaiming to be the original one, sellers of beads and masks, travel agents and so on. But even there a visit to a lazy café brought a copy of Lost Horizon, left casually for the customer to leaf through, and return.
But beyond Leh, there were enough moments that brought the evanescent and delicate dream of Shangri La to mind, like a once loved fragrance, long forgotten. Like that late evening when in warm yellow light we turned off the road above the Indus and walked into a hidden green crevice in the mountains. There, tucked away like a precious secret wrapped in silence, lay the monastery of Alchi, with its low structures, fruit trees whispering in the wind, a gentle lama or two and a sense of the timeless. Or when a near full moon rose above the Stok Kangri peak, bathing in lambent luminescence the Indus valley with its ancient rocks and unexpected wild lavender patches and silver water and then, as if to make the magic incontrovertible, Venus and Saturn moved within kissing distance of each other. Or when a sylvan spot with green wild grass and shady trees and a gurgling brook appeared almost out of nowhere as if its entire purpose was to provide a haven to travellers who had driven for hours along the brown Shyok river, past the heat of the sand dunes of Hunder.
At these moments, and more, the name Shangri La nudged at the corners of the mind but one hesitated to use it, so hackneyed has it become and so used by hotels, restaurants, travel agencies, rock bands……The US Presidential retreat in Maryland, the one called Camp David now, was called Shangri La by Roosevelt, and so was an aircraft carrier and even a strip club in Florida! Several valleys have pseudo legends built around them due to their resemblance to Shangri La- the Hunza valley, places in Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet, the Ojai valley where Frank Capra shot his 1937 film based on the novel. But as Hilton wrote: “There is only one valley of the Blue Moon, and those who expect to find another are asking too much of nature.”
I cannot find my 35 cent Cardinal Pocket Book edition of Lost Horizon, the one with the faint pink edging all along its pages, though I have the companion copy of Random Harvest, so old that it seems to have more cello tape than paper on its cover. Both were bought in 1977 from the piles of treasure that once used to mysteriously appear around Regal building. But there is a more recent edition, appropriately covered (does anybody still cover books?) in a blank patient’s history sheet from a hospital in Bhutan — another destination too casually referred to as Shangri La. And from the very first phrase — “Cigars had burned low….”, Hilton weaves his spell, gently, until the reader, much like the hero Conway, steps into a dream, never sure whether each step that he takes will fall on some ageless fantasy or on hard rock. The trance like narration follows the story of Conway and his unlikely group of a missionary, a junior consular officer and an American swindler on the run into a remote and mysterious valley of incredible peace, harmony and beauty, ruled from a well-stocked lamasery, under the shadow of a conical mountain. But it would be wrong to read this book as an adventure novel: philosophical questions abound, revealed suddenly, discussed in calm contemplation while the moonlight caresses the ancient lamasery above the valley, lost in its mists. Conway discovers that the lamasery is devoted to collecting and protecting the delicate and beautiful things of life for a time when destructive passions will destroy the world, a time when the meek shall inherit the earth. Even youth and human beauty are protected because Shangri La has discovered the secret of incredible longevity.
And long after the slim novel has been put away, a haunting question remains: how much time is enough? What would an intelligent man do if, like Conway, he suddenly has the option to exist for centuries? There are the beckoning possibilities of constant evolution of mind and spirit, the achievement of profundity and ripe wisdom and the enjoyment of “long tranquilities during which you will observe a sunset as men in the outer world hear the striking of a clock, and with far less care.” How would it be if one had enough time, “unruffled and unmeasured”, to read without ever having to skim pages, listen to endless scores of music, indulge in the joy of “wise and serene friendships, a long and kindly traffic of the mind from which death may not call you away with his customary hurry,” or if solitude is what one prefers, then to endlessly enrich the gentleness of lonely thoughts? But ultimately one can only agree with Conway that for the mind to remain keen, the future must have a point. “I’ve sometimes doubted whether life itself has any; and if not, long life must be even more pointless.”