A scientist confronts loneliness and a sense of infinity on high mountains. Pushpinder S Jamwal on sharing time with the stars
In the upper reaches of the Himalaya, way above the conical tops of alpine trees, lies an arid cold desert that we call ‘beyond the Himalaya’ or the Trans-Himalaya. Miles of barren land with naked brown mountains stretch to the horizon like endless solitude. Sparse vegetation stubbornly breaks out from gritty, gravelly grounds. The air thins out. The land elevates to move closer to the sky.
My work takes me to remote areas of the Trans-Himalaya, some parts of which have not seen daylight in millennia. In our offices in a prosperous Trans-Himalayan town, which also features an airport, a group of scientists and researchers debates for weeks on methods to use while collecting field data. We factor in contingencies using the best technologies, but we never consider the overwhelming isolation of the Himalaya.
The days can be filled with work. Especially if you are a field biologist, it gives way quickly. Soon the night arrives and stretches with a seeming infinitude. The night gives a strange character to time and thoughts. When sleep is elusive, night-time thoughts test the limits of plausibility. Time, on the other hand, freezes and stills against your stationary self.
If it weren’t for the stars, I wouldn’t have survived my countless Trans-Himalayan nights. Sometimes the starless nights suffocate me even in the rarefied air of the Trans-Himalaya. Blackness is absolute, the kind that perhaps merges into space. The night dissolves the body. Only sounds survive—rustles of breath, drumming of heart. And a piercing solitude. Had those nights continued any longer, I may have had to confront insanity. The stars of Himalayan skies are restless. On a celestially active night, they form a thick glittery quilt, and circumambulate the night sky before fading into the glare of day.
After a day’s work, I wait with my camera for the night sky full of stars. I trained myself to trace their movement, to locate the Milky Way, and I learnt to appreciate the drama of the Trans-Himalayan landscape in its starlit glory.
This photo-essay was published in Jan-Mar 2019 issue.