Five year-old Mukherji with his first hero Tenzing Norgay; Photo courtesy: Raju Mukherji

Off the cuff

Author: admin

Raju Mukherji pays tribute to his first hero, Tenzing Norgay, an exemplary mountaineer

Darjeeling, 1955. Dr ‘Pahari’ Guha Mazumdar was at the time the civil surgeon of the Darjeeling district. A selfless man of charm and honour. The hill people were his family. He spoke their language, he wore their ‘sarong’, he ate their food and he took care of them. The Sherpas and the other hill tribes literally worshipped him.

Among the hardy Sherpas who came to visit the ‘Pahari daktar saab’ was a man who began life as a guide and coolie to foreign mountaineers who came to the foothills of the Himalaya with the intention to climb the various high peaks of the region. Within a few years he was not only the best guide available but the most sought-after supervisor of the labourers, who carried heavy loads on their back to help the expedition teams.

Away from mountaineering expeditions, this stocky, tough Sherpa was a social worker par excellence in his hometown bustee in Darjeeling. He would carry the old and the infirm to the good doctor and flash his heart-winning smile. He became Dr Guha Mazumdar’s younger brother in every respect imaginable.

When Sherpa Tenzing came down from the skies in 1953, the noble doctor complimented him on his ‘conquest’ of Mount Everest. The world-renowned climber in all modesty replied, “Doctor saab, I was lucky to go on a pilgrimage to God’s abode.” The doctor embraced him and began to weep uncontrollably. Years later, Dr Guha Mazumdar told our family, “I realised there and then how small we were. The real people are these men who have the highest regard for the bounties of nature. Our knowledge is so very shallow, so very superfluous. These simple, innocent hill people have a far more profound understanding and respect for nature.”

In a country where genuine heroes are forgotten, erosion in values is the only option. A true champion of Tenzing Norgay’s stature has receded into the background. The spirit of adventure has ebbed. We have no inclination towards sports of high risks. Our whole ethos revolves around ‘heroes’ of doubtful potential.

The greatness of Tenzing lay in his simplicity. International renown and awards chased him. Presidents and kings followed his trail. Press and politicians pestered him. But he remained his smiling self with the barest minimum of needs. The greatness of the man lay in his innocence. He just could not utter a lie, not even a white lie. When asked who stepped first on top of Mount Everest, Tenzing replied that though they had the same rope around their waist, Edmund Hillary’s feet were the first on the summit and his own followed soon after. It takes great courage to express that degree of truth.

In mountaineering parlance, two climbers handling the same rope are considered to be together and not separate from each other. In a high-risk adventure sport like mountaineering, the issue of individualism does not arise. It is a total team effort. He could easily have avoided the issue with a vague answer, but then Tenzing would not have been Tenzing. This was the real Tenzing. Throughout his life, he was ‘used’ by others. On being appointed director of Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, he was assured by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Chief Minister of West Bengal Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy that his appointment was for life and that he would accordingly draw remuneration throughout his tenure. But after the death of those political leaders, he was asked to retire! No further remuneration, no pension followed. Moreover, throughout his period of directorship, not once did he get any increment on his salary!

When some little money came to him by way of book royalty and donations, numerous blood-relations appeared and came to stay in his humble home and lived off him. The kind-hearted man just could not turn them away. When India began sending expeditions to Mount Everest, nobody thought him important enough to be invited at the flagging-off ceremonies. But not once did he ever express any grudge against any of his exploiters.

Born in Nepal of Sherpa stock, Tenzing lived in the British-built hill station of Darjeeling in North Bengal. After the epic achievement of summiting Everest in 1953, he was offered ‘nationality’ by both Nepal and India. Both countries, which had done nothing for him or for his indomitable Sherpa people, wanted to claim him as one of their own for international publicity. Pressure was piled on him from either side, but Tenzing, true to his honest belief, maintained that he was both a Nepali and an Indian! In his innocence he highlighted the international nature of his personality.

This is exactly the kind of pettiness and disregard we showed a man who literally put India on top of the world.

On 29 May 1953, he and New Zealander Edmund Hillary reached the summit of Mount Everest as part of the British expedition team under John Hunt. When the tricolour fluttered on top of the world on that historic day, the brave man holding the pickaxe was none other than this self-made mountaineer from Darjeeling in Bengal. When they realised they were on the summit, these two toughest and bravest of men embraced each other and began to shed tears. They were mesmerised by the beauty and the grandeur of nature. Tenzing took out the sweet lozenge and the coloured pencil stub his daughter Nima had given him and offered it to the Almighty!

People who climb peaks are themselves at the summit of the human race. They have little interest in borders and barriers. Rarefied realms they traverse in isolation. They do not bother about nationality, race, colour of skin, levels of education, financial backgrounds. Edmund Hillary would not have opted for the ‘coloured’, poor Sherpa when he decided on the final launch if he was a racist. Tenzing did not blink an eye to say Hillary was the first to step on the summit ahead of him. In mountaineering, two climbers together on the same rope are like twins. The rope is the umbilical cord. They are together, inseparable. They have the same identity. Both Hillary and Tenzing were very appropriately given the honour of being the first to climb the highest peak on earth. None would consider them first and second in order.

If Tenzing was magnanimous, so too was Hillary. On top, Hillary reciprocated by clicking Tenzing’s photo on Mount Everest and did not insist on having his own photo taken. Why was just Tenzing’s photo on the summit taken? Why not Hillary’s as well? The reason: they had just two exposures left! Hillary realised that Tenzing may not be able to handle the camera well enough. So to get the perfect frame, he took Tenzing’s picture and with the single remaining frame he clicked the final path they traversed for the benefit of future mountaineers. These acts of Tenzing and Hillary are at the summit of man’s selflessness.

Mountaineering is an amazing sport exclusively for the bravest and selfless of men and women. There are no spectators to cheer and applaud up on the mountain. No media support for instant glory. It is a complete team effort. No individual can do it alone without the active, selfless support of his colleagues. One small error and the climber invites his own death; sometimes even dragging down his partner with him. The progress is very lonely, very slow, very difficult. Courage, strength, patience, teamwork, leadership all combine to be successful in this most dangerous of all sports.

Mountaineering is man’s communion with nature, not a sport between humans. It is a pursuit to overcome the almost insurmountable hazards of natural obstacles: climate, rain, blinding sunlight, gusty wind, snow, rocks, crevices, chasms, lack of oxygen, no shade or shadow, glaciers, avalanches. Why would anybody want to volunteer to attempt to overcome such odds?

The mind of a genuine mountaineer is almost impossible to fathom. They are above the concept of self. These daredevils care not about fame or fortune. Why would any sane person opt for a sport where there is no return in any form? Why aim for a deserted summit? To help us understand the reason for a mountaineer to climb a peak, a legendary climber by the name of Keith Mallory simply said, “Because it is there.” Full stop. All questions vanish in a moment. One is astounded in the face of such selfless courage. Incidentally, Mallory vanished in the Himalaya in the 1920s while attempting to climb the world’s highest peak. His body was never found.

Tenzing could not write yet he sent hundreds of letters to his fans worldwide. Tenzing could not read, yet he received thousands of articles and books written on him from his admirers all over the world. Generous, courageous, honest and selfless, the exemplary mountaineer remains a legend and inspiration to millions around the world to this day. But in his own country, he is a forgotten man.

When ‘Pahari’ doctor took our family to meet him, the ever-smiling, all-conquering Tenzing Norgay picked me up in his arms and related constantly to my parents, “It was a pilgrimage to the Almighty’s abode.” I was five years old then—I can still feel the blessed touch. He was my first hero. And despite each passing day, I can still smell the earthy odour of the most marvellous of human beings. For me, it was a pilgrimage to the best of creation.

Kolkata-based Mukherji is a former cricket player, coach, selector, talent scout, match referee and writer

Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
December 2018