My life-long friend Marilyn once told me that a book had changed her life.
In Secret Tibet, published in 1951, Fosco Maraini wrote a classic travel book
that was also something of a primer on Tibetan Buddhism and art. He drew on
two trips to Tibet as photographer for the great Italian Tibetologist, Giuseppe
Tucci, the first before World War II and the second in 1948. From the time she
read Fosco’s book, Marilyn looked East.
I recently reread Secret Tibet, curious about the powerful pull of that
Tibetan magnet, attracting Marilyn like a loose iron filing. Reveling in the clarity
of light, Fosco evokes the high desert landscape, the immensity of Tibetan
skies, the vastness of this great plateau ringed by mountains and sprinkled with
glacier-fed lakes. He photographs undocumented iconography in remote
monasteries while Professor Tucci deciphers the ancient inscriptions. Was
Marilyn lured by Fosco’s description and explication of Tantric Buddhism of Tibet
and ancient Tibetan beliefs?
Fosco’s Tibet is no Shangri-La; it’s real and often uncomfortable. One day
he partakes of yaks’ milk and hard cheese with nomad herders and on the next
he dines with an arrogant feudal lord, all the while expanding his grasp of the
Tibetan language. At monasteries Fosco meets Buddhist lamas in all shapes and
sizes — dull, conniving, learned, inebriated and, very occasionally, saintly. He
attends an all-day village theatrical performance on a religious theme, where the
audience is very drunk--Fosco included. The smell of rancid yak butter almost
rises from the pages of the book--the butter that permeates all of Tibet, burned
in lamps, rubbed on hair, drunk with tea, and carved into offerings on temple
Rancid butter did not discourage Marilyn. Fosco’s Tibet was real--distant
and inaccessible but not just a mysterious castle--or Potala--in the air. Marilyn
began her move east, physically and also spiritually. In 1959 she came to India.
There she established her reputation as a leading photojournalist by getting the
first pictures of the young Dalai Lama when he crossed the Indian border fleeing
from the Chinese. During the ensuing years, Marilyn covered the Indian
subcontinent, its wars, elections, riots and famines. Her photographs appeared
on the cover of Time, in Life magazine and countless European journals. But
ever so gradually she was drawn into the world of Tibetan Buddhism.
Rereading Fosco’s description of Tibetan Buddhism revived my
wonderment at Marilyn’s commitment to a faith I found difficult to comprehend.
She eventually became an ordained Buddhist nun, living out her life in the
Buddhist monasteries of Nepal and Bhutan. She adhered to the Nymapa sect,
the old believers, who cleave most closely to Tantric imagery and occult ritual.
Like Fosco, Marilyn was a serious student, an accomplished linguist and, of
course, a great photographer. But her religious pilgrimages to Tibet and her
embrace of Tibetan Buddhism would go far beyond Fosco who was not a
practitioner but a sympathetic observer -- as am I.
* * * * *
Why, you may ask, do I use the first name of this Italian traveler and
author? Fosco helped open a small window on another world for me, too,
although perhaps not in such a life-changing way. I had already moved east
when I met him in Karachi. (Marilyn was always a bit jealous that I knew her
The pull of the east in my case was no less passionate, although it
necessarily (my daughters would say, characteristically) had a practical edge.
For as long as I can remember I have been hungry for adventure, to explore
other countries and cultures, to wolf down the whole world. So fresh out of
college, I joined the State Department which only fueled my appetite for travel.
In a crowded Foggy Bottom elevator, someone seeing an old friend, would say,
“Joe, how are you? Haven’t seen you since the Mogadiscio evacuation.” Or
Surabaya. Or Kabul. Or Bombay. The elevator doors would open, those lucky
Jasons would depart, leaving me gasping for a whiff of that exotic oxygen, a
glimpse of the golden fleece.
At last, despite the objections of the Embassy to a woman, I was
assigned as a junior political officer to our mission in Karachi, then Pakistan’s
capital. I had worked hard in Washington to get this posting, immersing myself
in the region’s history and politics. I had done research and analysis on south
Asia and I was more than ready to plunge into the real thing. Initially, however,
the Embassy didn’t quite know what to do with its first and unwelcome woman
officer. They gave me odd jobs like organizing biographic files or doing press
summaries. And I proudly assumed the mantle of Embassy mountaineering
liaison officer, responsible for assisting the very, very infrequent American
expedition which might need a permit to climb in the Pakistani Karakorum.
Mountaineering was definitely my bag. Not literally; this was 20 years
before Arlene Blum led a women’s team to the top of Annapurna. I climbed
Himalayan peaks with mountaineering books. Leigh Mallory and Irvine, who
disappeared on Everest in the 1920s, were my lost idols who put in a ghostly
appearance in every Himalayan epic. In Annapurna, Maurice Herzog, with French
flair, trumpeted the heroic, first ascent of an 8000 meter peak. Sir John Hunt’s
The Conquest of Everest described a disciplined assault on the world’s highest
mountain. Splendid team work and organization, he made clear, put Ed Hillary
and Tensing on top. My virtual knowledge of mountaineering almost matched
my book knowledge of south Asia.
Alas, alas, the only American expedition that year to the Pakistani
Karakorum didn’t need my help. They quite handily got their permit for Hidden
Peak (Gasherbrum I), beating out the Italian Alpine Club for the privilege, and
left Karachi without my laying eyes on them.
A week or so later Fosco Maraini appeared in my office to inquire about
the American expedition’s plans. Here was my first live mountain climber and
one who exuded Italian charm and worldliness. Fosco, in his early 40s, lean and
very fit, balanced on the balls of his feet as if ready to climb the Matterhorn.
His high check bones, olive skin and flat features suggested some lingering
Mongol genes brought home, no doubt, by Marco Polo. I was entranced. Fosco
described himself as interpreter, official photographer and liaison for an Italian
expedition. He was applying for a new permit to climb in the Karakorum, this
time Gasherbrum IV, a peak of over 26,000 feet near Hidden Peak.
I certainly wished him well and passed on what little knowledge I had
about Pakistani bureaucracy. While he waited for the permit and for the
expedition’s equipment to come, I was happy to show him around Karachi and
we shared a bottle or two of wine that he caged from the Italian Ambassador.
The expedition members finally arrived and with Fosco quickly headed north to
the towering Karakoram.
Many weeks later the Italian expedition returned triumphant, having
reached the summit of Gasherbrum IV. Fosco dropped by my office, his face
dark and blistered, his lips cracked from exposure, his thoughts still deep in the
expedition. We had drinks or dinner a couple of times and I remember an
evening when we walked along a sandy beach near Clifton, Fosco talking,
talking, still sorting out his experience on the mountain.
His torrent of words uncapped the mountaineering world and let me
glimpse its intensity, conflict and pain: rebellious porters; an infuriating Pakistani
liaison officer; avalanche-induced terror fused with fatalism; exhaustion matched
by tenacity on the oxygen-starved heights; the painful crawl out of a warm
sleeping bag; and the rare moments of exhilaration. He described how tension
built as older, more experienced climbers were forced to give way to younger
men for the summit team and the furious frustration of one veteran Alpine
guide whose recurrent diarrhea confined him to base camp. Fosco, an “old
man” in the expedition, proudly reached Camp V at 23,000 feet.
Fosco buried my romantic notions of mountaineering under an avalanche
of gritty reality. Mountain climbing was revealed as far more painful, messy,
complicated-- and alluring-- than all my literary fantasies had conjured up.
Was it perhaps a little like my golden fleece of south Asia itself, which I
had so long studied and imagined? Now in Karachi I was beginning to explore
the messy, complicated-- and alluring--reality of Pakistan; its zamindars and
exploited peasants, its Muslim sufis and secular intellectuals, its corrupt
politicians and poets, its professional women and their burqa-clad sisters. Yes,
like Tibet for Marilyn, Pakistan was opening up the many-layered world of south
Asia, my golden fleece, which would take a life time to explore.
The next year Fosco came back briefly for some follow-up work with
the Pakistan Government. He brought me a photograph of the Gasherbrum
massif that I still have in my study. Taken from under an ice overhang on the
“Italian mountain”, the photo frames the soaring pyramid of Hidden Peak, the
“American mountain”. In the foreground, the small figure of a mountaineer
leans on his ice ax, looking up at the heights above.