Christian James '14: Mountains Beyond Music and the Etymology of Belonging 

Christian James was the 2014-2016 Shansi Fellow to Jagori Grameen. This is his second year narrative.

Mountains there: waiting. I’ve been waiting, too: though wild, patient mountains were never my reason to live in this remarkable Himalayan village. Reason doesn’t govern these kinds of impulsions; it took me until some time after my arrival to decide that I was brought by a force not entirely social in nature—rather, one essentially tectonic. From Greek tektonikos “pertaining to building,” from the Proto-Indo-European (hereafter PIE) root *teks- “to make.” Compare with Hindi ṭeknā “to support” and ṭekrā “a hillock, rising ground.” Likely unrelated to Hindi ṭhekā “a contract.” So here I stand, my fellowship term nearing its end, finally marching deeper into the mountains that had been under my feet the whole time.

Shamu, who will serve as our guide, joins us on the pavement just uphill from my residence.

“Kriṣṇu bhai, namaste!”

“What’s up, brother?” I respond, shrinking slightly from this casual endearment. Even though I’ve only met Shamu a handful of times, he really does feel like family to me. From PIE root *bhrater. Cognates: Sanskritbhrātār-, Old Persian brata, Greek phratér, Latin frater, Old Irish brathir, Welsh brawd.

“Are you guys ready?” Shamu looked noticeably less melancholy than usual.

“I think so.”

We only made it about twenty paces when Shamu proved me wrong. “Did you bring your bansuri?”

I had talked with him about bringing one of my bamboo flutes along. Shamu thought it would be entertaining to play and sing some old folk songs by the fire, and I was eager to hear how the resonance of the flute’s tone would change with our position relative to the mountain face—not to mention the effects of playing in caves and other especially resonant environments. I didn’t hesitate to dump my bag and run back for it.

For a couple of weeks prior to our trek, my house-mates had been hosting a two-month workshop on learning computer code, attended by over thirty people from all over India and abroad. Almost a third of the “code-campers” came from the village of Rakkaṛ; I suppose one could add Javascript and whatever other programming languages to the seven or eight languages already in frequent use in this village.

I bypassed the crowd of young techies on their laptops, wondering which of my flutes would best serve my interests by virtue of its tone quality. Texture. From stem of Latin texere “to weave.” Cognates: Sanskrit taksati “he fashions, constructs” and taksan “carpenter,” Greek tekton “carpenter” andtekhne “art.” See also technology. From PIE root *teks-.

If you had asked me why I was departing for India in August 2014—almost two years ago—I would have talked entirely of Indian culture and society. I would have talked about the influence of classical Indian music on my work as a composer; about the ongoing effects of British rule in India imposed on its laws, languages, and aesthetics; about enforced appropriation of Hindu cultural and devotional practices within the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. I was and continue to be motivated by relationships within and between communities of people to whom I have connected. This trek in the mountains, taken in the third week of April, 2016, has led me to wonder whether the most important relationship lies between a person and their environment.

I still find it difficult to conceive of my relationship with my environment in a way that is independent from my relationship with other humans. For over twenty months, I’ve been working for Jagori Rural Charitable Trust, an organization that commits itself to improving the fairness of human relationships. My role at Jagori has ranged from teaching English through the organization’s youth livelihood initiative, translating and compiling reports for funding agencies, and organizing performances in protest of sex-selective abortion, to connecting single women with career opportunities through a government-sponsored rural development scheme, designing an employee handbook in Hindi to improve Jagori’s project monitoring, and co-conducting educational workshops on the intersections of gender, sexuality, and citizenship. Engaging with Jagori’s extremely broad range of activism makes it difficult to see my responsibility to the environment as anything more than a responsibility to humanity, to future generations of humans. That said, I’ve begun to believe that certain environments have a special value directly attributable to their independence from humans.

Listening to the mountains, I heard with clarity that surpassed even the most pristine music, even the most carefully insulated concert hall.

I wasn’t very surprised when I found that Shamu and the others hadn’t waited for me. We spent days preparing for this trek, not to mention weeks of planning, so no one wanted to wait any longer—and although I had organized the trek with Shamu, I had not done so for myself especially. Whenever I met with the opportunity to take leave from Jagori, I took to touring the country in search of concerts of classical Indian music; I had done so in the winters of 2014-15 and 2015-16 (see my first year narrative report for an account of the former trip). The motivation for our mountain trek came from a somewhat sudden visit from my cousin Shane, who has a supreme passion for forests, mountains, and walking through them. Shane grew up with a natural (albeit also nurtured) affinity with trees; he is the third of four children to my maternal uncle, who is a Northern Irish Christmas tree farmer. He once shocked the entire family by trekking 26 miles in one day over each of Northern Ireland’s Mourne mountains, which tower at heights of up to 2,790 feet. Shane’s visit was the perfect opportunity to finally experience the Dhauladhara mountains for their own sake.

Four of us would attempt to climb over the Kundli pass, the second highest (though by no means most dangerous) pass in the Dhauladhara range. The group consisted of Shamu, Shane, myself, and a young man named Akshay, whom Shamu had hired to help carry supplies. We would take four days to reach the pass and, conditions allowing, cross into the neighboring district of Chamba. It was anyone’s guess as to whether we could manage the pass—the season for this kind of climb was only beginning and we had just gotten over a particularly unpredictable winter—but we came prepared to do so.

It didn’t take long to catch up with my fellows, but I paid for my forgetfulness with a brisk start that left me out of breath for the two hours of walking. Shamu took us between the first two foothills on a route that leads to a nearby slate mine, then onto an inconspicuous path directly up the side of the ravine. Passing over the hill and along a forested rivulet, I began to notice that Shamu had begun to transform. His usual solemn, serious demeanor seemed to be replaced by a lively engagement with the sounds and sights of our new environment, putting names to every birdsong and singing his own versions in response. For the first time since I had met him, he seemed joyful and spontaneous, even ecstatic. In hindsight, the fact that I took notice of Shamu’s change of attitude before reflecting on my own, internal response to our environment reveals a lot about my personal priorities.

Shamu, myself, and Akshay take a quick rest during the first leg of our journey. Photo courtesy of Shane Donaldson.

On the left is the boulder on which I first listened. Photo courtesy of Shane Donaldson.

Finally at the end of our first day of hiking, the four of us split up to find some even ground, along which we might set up camp. Disoriented, I mindlessly made my way to a large boulder and found myself on top of it, surveying the green ridge flanked by rhododendron forests. Separated from my companions and recovering from the inner chaos of physical exhaustion, I suddenly began to process a spectacular expanse of sound. Everything—every strain of birdsong, every gust of wind, every rustle of earth under feet—somehow, every aural stimulus felt impeccably clean. It was as though my perceptive faculty were a glass lens, which someone had dipped in Windex and now each sound was gently wiping away layers of sonic dust and grime. No grind of cement mixers, no barking dogs or chatting people, no bustle of automobile engines and car horns to obstruct the silence or discolor the atmosphere. Was it this improved clarity of audition that prompted Shamu into ecstasy?

In his book, “The Tuning of the World,” composer and activist R. Murray Schafer presents a theoretical model for making decisions about environmental conservation by interpreting the world as a macrocosmic musical composition. Schafer’s analytical framework aims to determine the health of a given environment by analyzing certain parameters of its auditory scene or soundscape. For example, Schafer lays out three possible sources for any sound: anthrophony, or sound derived from humans and human activities; biophonic, or sound derived from non-human life; and geophony, or sound derived from geological and meteorological processes. Schafer also adapts vocabulary for describing the effect of a sound on the clarity of a soundscape: hi-fi (high fidelity) sounds contribute to the diversity and complexity of a soundscape without deterring the presence of other sounds, whereas lo-fi (low fidelity) sounds do exactly the opposite, making it more difficult for other sounds to be heard by replacing silence with a monotonous cycle of sounds. According to Schafer, lo-fi sounds nearly always trace back to anthrophonic sources—think machinery and traffic—so that environments with the least human habitation most often have the highest fidelity.

Never have I personally witnessed such an affirmation of human society’s polluting effects. Here I was, miles away from any human settlement with only the sounds of my companions to call human, listening to an expanse more vast than any studio or concert hall could have replicated. Was it this degree of severance from human life that allowed me to listen so deeply?

Here’s me, testing the sound of my flute in the morning of our second day. Photo courtesy of Shane Donaldson.

It wasn’t until the following morning that I remembered my flute. Sitting on the highest ridge, I fingered a melody that climbed into the highest register of the instrument. In that context, I felt as though I was hearing it for the first time.

“Alright Kriṣṇu…” Shamu is the only person I know who calls me by a Hindi name instead of trying to pronounce my real name. He was even quick to give Shane a nickname, Shiṇu, which means ‘lion cub’ in his mother tongue of Gaddi. “Sing a song for us. A Gaddi song.”

I think fondly on all the songs that Shamu’s uncle, Fauja, had taught me. Fauja has been one of my best friends in these past two years; it was out of good-will for his family that I chose to employ Shamu for the trek, though I genuinely believe that no one could have been a better guide. After some rumination, I decide on a song that Fauja once described as particularly old:

हलकै-हलकै पाणियै बो मछली तड़ाफंदी ।

ए लोक न जाणंदै बो मछली री सार हो

कि मेरा राम जाणै ।।


In shallowy waters, that fish flounders;

this world doesn’t know the stuff of that fish

that my God knows.

I stop when I realize that Shamu isn’t singing along. I feel embarrassed to sing a song that belongs to his culture, his family, without the guidance of his own voice.

Shamu seems pleased all the same. “That’s a really old song,” he says, smiling. “You can go to every family in the village and you’ll find that only mine knows all the oldest songs.”

I smile back. It’s largely those songs that make Rakkaṛ feel like home. From Proto-Germanic *haimaz “home,” from PIE *(t)koimo-, suffixed form of root*tkei- “to settle, dwell, be home.” Cognates: Greek kome “village,” Sanskritkṣeti “abides, dwells.” Compare with Hindi kṣetra “an area; locality.”

That was the end of our second day. In order to adjust to change of altitude, we had made a rather leisurely walk and took our time setting up camp at the base of a steep climb. We enjoyed one more night of proximity to water and firewood before the truly difficult stretch set in.

(from left to right) Akshay, Shamu, and myself sizing up our climb for the next day. Photo courtesy of Shane Donaldson.

Shamu preparing our lunch from the snowy mountain cave, where we endured a storm on the fourth night. Photo courtesy of Shane Donaldson.

The next two days presented the most extreme conditions I have ever personally witnessed. The higher we went, the less life seemed able to thrive. In order to ensure that we would have firewood, we carried up long branches of oak that we’d gathered on the second day. Luckily, Shamu managed to locate some scraggly juniper bushes that we could burn on the third night, thus conserving our wood for the fourth. Aside from the juniper, it seemed as though only grass, now yellow from enduring a cold winter, could survive in this frosty landscape, and an array of flies and beetles were our only neighbors. Not even they were around on the fourth night, when a foreboding wind was the only sound to which I could give a name. Stranded in a small cave surrounded by steep drifts of snow, sound itself seemed cold and thin.

On the afternoon of the fourth day, Shane and Shamu cleared a path through the snow. We would wake up early the next day to the trudge up the snow-covered pass, perched at a suffocating 14,500 feet—if only the mountain had not other plans. Shortly after the two of them arrived, we were greeted by a dazzling show of lightning, which would slowly transform into a storm of sleet and hail over the course of the night. Having done everything possible to stay dry, I finally found sleep, lulled by the desperate patter of ice all around.

With sun and bright clouds above, Shamu gave his recommendation first thing in the morning: we should return to home by the way we came. There was no questioning him; fresh snowfall from the previous night had created a risk of avalanches that would increase throughout the day. We packed our things and began the descent.

(from left to right) myself, Akshay, and Shamu descend the mountain, our hopes to climb the pass confounded by the previous night’s storm. Photo courtesy of Shane Donaldson.

Carefully treading down treacherous rock and muddy slopes, I tried my best not to get distracted by the exhilarating rush of oxygen. By the time we returned to the campsite of our second night, I felt myself more energized than when we began.

“Why don’t we just continue on?”

No one objected, so we ambled briskly back along the ridge, taking in the forested valley around us. We soon made it to the site of our first night’s stay.

“It’s four o’ clock” said Shamu. “We can stop here or we can get home before nightfall. It’s up to you.”

Though reluctant to abandon this area (it was here that I had recognized the cleansing effect of the mountain soundscape), I still felt as energetic as ever. Shane and I weighed the options, finally deciding that it would be easiest to continue on. We would be jarred to arrive back in the village after having woken up on the snowy mountain pass, but we both thought it unnecessary to stop now.

Looking down over the slate-mine road that we started on, it was hard not to feel a little depressed. The little dirt road along a river, though peaceful in its own right, signaled an end to the peace with which we’d grown familiar in the past five days.

Suddenly taken by the urge to get it over with, I picked myself up from our short, penultimate rest.

“Let’s go home,” I said, trying to sound cheerful.

“What home?” replied Shamu. “We’re going to hell.”

I sat back down, devastated. “What do you mean?” I protested. “You mean Rakkaṛ?” I felt seriously concerned by this. How could Rakkaṛ feel anything like home to me if it wasn’t Shamu’s home first?

Shamu explained his impression that everything and everyone in the village was beginning to spoil. “Rakkaṛ isn’t a home to me. The mountains are my home.”

As we made our way back to the village, I slowly started to make sense of Shamu’s statement. Shamu clearly felt out of place in Rakkaṛ—this much was now being reinforced as I saw his demeanor return to the usual sobriety. Perhaps the Gaddi inhabitants of Rakkaṛ—the families I’ve come to know and love—are also being pushed out of place as the village becomes the residence of more outsiders, the site of more NGO activity, and the destination of more foreign tourists, many of whom will never acknowledge the deeper connection between this place and the folks who were here first?

How could I know myself—how could I know anything—when I could only relate our identities by such remote, such shallow connections? What is an “area” to a “home”? What is a hillock to a mountain?

When I tell my friends and co-workers that I will be departing next month, the first question I usually get is “when will you come back?” I always respond to this question with uncertainty, saying that it could be as few as three but as many as ten years or more before I may get the opportunity to return. But I always make it clear that, though I will certainly return, it will only be for a visit. I will always love this place and I will always carry my memories of the last two years with me—but, similar to the mountain’s vast spread of sonic clarity, I hear beauty in the people of Rakkaṛ precisely because I do not belong to them.


McGregor, R. S. The Oxford Hindi-English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.

“Online Etymology Dictionary.” Online Etymology Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

Schafer, R. Murray. Introduction. The Tuning of the World. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1977. 3-12. Print.