Myth, Science and Religion

Religion begins as science, as an attempt to make sense of the world. The birth of religion marked the dawn of humans as rational, analytical beings. This was humans moving beyond the worries of simply surviving from day to day, and reaching that point in evolution where they looked with wonder upon the world around them and asked: How did this come into existence? What is it that controls the weather and other variables? By observing the natural world around them, the cycles of day and night, the seasons, the migrations of the animals, they would have concluded that these patterns suggested a grand design and order.

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An assumption would probably be made that all this was controlled by benevolent beings, but beings who might need propitiating occasionally to keep them sweet; the odd ritual here, perhaps a sacrifice of some sort there.

And if that was so, perhaps they could be propitiated in a somewhat greater way, to grant other boons?

It would not be long before someone claimed a channel to the gods to relay their desires and instructions, and so the priestly class would be born. Self-interest? Quite likely. After all, we see that in most religions today, so why not?

Religions then, over the years, spawned new religions, the spark being reinterpretation rather than inspiration.

We think we see echoes of old religions in myths. Myths are the fragments of history we know, combined with assumptions about how our ancestors acted and thought, frequently combined with scarce written evidence, which may or may not be biased or wholly inaccurate. When our written sources include stories of monsters and miracles, we should probably be advised to treat them cautiously.

Myth-makers frequently come with an agenda, although depending upon your point of view that is not necessarily a bad thing. If you are looking for a scientific analysis of the lives of our ancestors, it’s probably best to give myth a wide berth. Or at least to be very, very, careful what you take from it. But in a way, it does provide an alternative world view that many find preferable to both the stark realities of day to day life, as well as the cold dead hand of religion. After all, if you’re using your imagination, it’s easy to plan your myth-world much the way you’d like it.

And perhaps myth does offer us a way of getting inside the heads of those people, at least superficially.

One assumption we can make is that there would be similarities in the thought processes of those people, with the thought processes of us today. It is perfectly reasonable to assume they would react in similar ways to us, to pain and fear, to pleasure, warmth and cold. Our reaction to the unknown tends to be to populate it with characters or situations based on our experiences, and they probably did the same.

Stonehenge is aligned with the solar calendar. This we know. It’s science. And we know a considerable amount about the geography of the area around Stonehenge at the time it was built, through archaeology and science.

What we don’t know is how it was used. Just because it was aligned with the rising sun at summer solstice and the setting sun at winter solstice, does not mean we know what took place at those times. We assume our ancestors worshipped or venerated the sun there, especially at the time of the solstices, but we do not know that. Were there sacrifices? Did they hold special ceremonies connected with fertility or birth or death? Was it perhaps just like a club where they turned up now and again and got drunk and held orgies? It could be, since there is no hard evidence for anything.

Believers in ley lines also claim it is at the centre of an intricate system of lines connecting natural (‘holy’) locations with important (‘holy’) sites such as churches, wells and crossroads. Pseudoscience? Coincidence?

Our assumptions, though, lead us to think that because of the immense effort required to build the structure, it must have been an incredibly important site, and we are surely justified in concluding important ceremonies were enacted there.

Whatever they were.

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Apologia

My apologies, in that you may be subject to some weird posts from me in the next few weeks – weirder than usual, that is.

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Having completed what I hope is the final draft of my novel, with the provisional title A Good Place, since it still seems the most appropriate title and will probably now retain it, it will now be read by my first beta reader – my wife – and then I shall put it out to three others *chews fingernails nervously* before what will hopefully be the final edit and then on to publishing!

This is the point at which I should get on with a new project, or return to an unfinished one. Or even just have a bit of a break, of course. But I am using this as an opportunity for a bit of a readjustment of my priorities. I have always had a deep love of the British countryside, and a strong interest in history, tradition, myth and folklore, although over the last twenty years or so, that has often taken second place to my interest in, and love of, India and Nepal.

I have found myself renewing that interest recently; delving into books about the British landscape, looking at many of the British painters who focused on this – Nash, Ravilious, Constable, and including modern painters such as Gill Williams and Jackie Morris, and especially those with a slightly esoteric aspect to their work (like Blake or Samuel Palmer, for example) then deciding how to take that into my own painting, plus, of course, walking as much as I can in villages, small towns and the countryside.

I intend to re-work a few of my short stories to reflect this, and write more poems on the countryside and our interactions with it.

While I am struggling with all of this, it is possible I may post some very strange stuff. Who knows?

One final thought on all this: Having already become more aware of my global footprint and made further changes in how I live to minimise it, I feel I can no longer justify flying and have concluded that, sadly, I shall probably never visit India or Nepal again, unless I can at some point find the time and money to make the journey overland. But what an adventure that will be if I do!

 

The Weald of Kent and Sussex

South East England is my area. It is where I was raised and, other than a few years spent abroad, it is where I have lived my whole life. In particular, the Weald and the Downs. Not so much the coastline, which has never particularly attracted me, but the hills and valleys, the woodlands and rabbits, the hidden crags and open downland, the land of streams and foxes and badgers, birds and villages and butterflies.

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On the Sussex Downs

There is a curious fact about the wooded areas of South east England, which is that there is more woodland, covering a greater area now, than was the case four hundred years ago.

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Back then, South East England was the industrial heartland of Britain. This was before the discovery of the coal seams of the North and the Midlands, and the various factors which would eventually lead to the greatest impact of the Industrial revolution being in those areas.  Instead, the modest iron deposits of the Weald were mined and worked into firedogs and nails, cannon and cooking pans, as the wealth of words such as hammer and forge in place names still bear witness.

 

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Huge numbers of trees were cut down to feed the fires of these forges, and huge numbers also for charcoal burning, for building, and near the coast the great Kent and Sussex oaks were in huge demand to build the large number of ships the navy demanded. But then from the mid eighteenth century onwards, industry began to shift northwards.

Despite the pressures on the land for building and for farming in this crowded corner of our crowded island, there is actually more woodland now than there was during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. And that is not something that can be said of many parts of Britain or, I suspect, many parts of the world at all.

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The Weald is an area whose underlying rocks are sandstone and clay, which means that the unimproved soils are inevitably either light and sandy or thick and claggy. In some parts there are old sunken tracks known as ‘Summer Roads’, so-called because they became impassable in the winter months, when they might have had a foot or more of thick, wet, muddy, clay on their surface. When these were in use, journeys between villages that might take an hour or two in summer, could became almost impossibly long during the winter.

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At the moment, all everything in the news seems depressing and unpleasant and so, this post is an indulgence. Just a smattering of information, and a few photos of places I love, largely to improve my mood.

Seven Cities of Delhi by Rajiv Chopra

 

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On my first visit to Delhi, almost thirty years ago, I was overwhelmed by the huge numbers of monuments there, such as the Red Fort and Purana Qila. I found the area around Paharganj to be chaotic and exciting and everything an inquisitive Westerner could wish for – a mixture of smells of food and incense and, yes, sewage. A mixture of ugly concrete buildings and beautiful dilapidated buildings left over from the British Raj and often much earlier. Milling crowds of people and cows and rickshaws and bicycles and autos, and history, history, history.

Chadni Chowk was incredibly crowded, the Lodi Gardens completely deserted. The Jama Masjid crowded by tourists and worshippers alike, the Janta Manta often almost empty.

There is so much history everywhere you turn in Delhi.

Other Westerners I met tended to be highly disparaging of Delhi, which was something I couldn’t completely understand since many of these same Westerners seemed to praise Mumbai and Kolkata for the very reasons they hated Delhi.

Yet Delhi is, I think, one of the most exciting and interesting cities I have ever visited. From a historical viewpoint alone, it has over ten thousand listed monuments.

Ten thousand!

Rajiv Chopra is a Delhi based photographer with a passion for recording both the historical Delhi and the street life he comes across from day to day. In this book, he has combined his photographs with a little of the history of the seven historical cities that constitute Delhi, and also a perspective of the differing processes that photography has passed through from its invention up to the present day.

To illustrate all these factors, his book is split into seven sections – one for each of the historical periods – and in each section he has outlined one of these photographic processes so that, for example, in the section covering the first city, Mehrauli, he speaks of daguerrotypes. And then his own photographs he processes through Photoshop to simulate the effects of these processes.

This is not a long book, but it does not pretend to do more than act as an introduction to the history of Delhi. And in this it certainly whets the appetite for more, and then for anyone with even a passing interest in photography it gives a concise and potted description of these photographic processes. Finally the photographs themselves complement the text perfectly.

I unhesitatingly recommend this book for anyone who wants to know a little of the history of Delhi, and who enjoys photographs that give a real flavour of the history of that magnificent city.

Five stars out of five.

You can find Rajiv’s website and blog here

The Enduring Lie of A Golden Age

It seems that huge numbers of people have an impression that there was a ‘Golden Age’ at some previous point of their, or some other, society.

They may not define it in those words, or even acknowledge it as such, but it seems to be very common for people to yearn for another time. Sometimes, this is nostalgia – for the days of their youth – but frequently it is for some far-off time that they feel to be somehow better than the time they live in.

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Fantasy books frequently encourage this sort of thinking. Regardless of the actual storyline, the heroes and villains and cast of other odd characters tend to run around and fight and go on quests and sit around in quaint thatched inns quaffing head-splitting alcoholic drinks and everyone is jolly and no one ever dies of dysentery or bubonic plague in misery and agony and squalor.

The Lord of the Rings is a fine example of this. It is a favourite of mine, but it is very noticeable how no one dies of disease, but mostly lives to an exceedingly old age unless chopped into pieces by Orcs.

Hollywood, too, plays its part in this. To take a film at (almost) random, an old version of ‘Robin Hood’ (set in medieval England, remember) depicts a group of merry men dressed in very strange attire living in the depths of a forest and merrily ambushing the Bad King’s men, merrily dining at long tables out beneath the spreading branches of merry oak trees under starry skies and everyone looks clean and clean shaven and everyone is merry, and it never rains.

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This is meant to be medieval England. Life expectancy at the time was around 30 years. Huge numbers of people died of dysentery, mainly because there was no concept of hygiene. Occasional plagues carried off massive numbers of people, emptying entire towns and villages. There were no antibiotics or anaesthetics. Disease was sent by God and the only way to cure it was considered to be prayer. Or witchcraft. Women routinely died in childbirth, in great pain. The majority of children never reached their teens. Every peasant in every village was effectively a slave under the command of the local lord, who held the power of life and death over them, and might exercise this on a whim at any moment. The threat of famine was ever present.

Pain and misery was a given.

The majority of people lived, too, in a very real terror of the Devil and the threat of eternal damnation.

The list of horrors is almost endless. The phrase ‘life was nasty, brutish and short’ is an apt description of those times. Certainly, I would not wish to live under those conditions.

There are plenty of other ‘Golden Ages’, of course. Almost any time in history can exercise a fascination on us, if certain aspects of it appeal to us and there are things we dislike about the society we live in. And it is natural to yearn for something better; something more than we have.

And this is not to suggest that every age was a living hell for everyone in that society, but that life in most of these times was reasonably decent for the very few on top of the pile, and pretty miserable for the rest. In fact, the measure of how ‘Golden’ an age was, tends to be the conditions of the upper echelons of that society, and perhaps those of a middle class, if such existed.

There is much wrong with our world today. But the huge advances seen over the last hundred years or so, especially in medicine, have meant that our lives have been improved out of all recognition. No longer does surgery equate to filling the patient with a quart of whisky and then sawing off a leg or an arm. No longer do those patients routinely die of infections after surgery, thanks to antibiotics. High blood pressure is controlled, rather than routinely killing. Children usually survive all the diseases of childhood, rather than being most likely to die. Women rarely die in childbirth, and the pain can be somewhat controlled.

Women and children are no longer the legal chattels of men.

Work conditions are hugely improved. Children do not go down mines or work at dangerous looms 14 hours a day. Instead, most receive a proper education. Adults, too, work fewer hours and under far better conditions than previously. When they are too old or frail to work, the state provides a certain amount of dignified support. People do not as a rule die these days of starvation. We do not execute children for stealing sixpence, or poaching rabbits on the Lord’s estate.

In most cases, for most people, today is the Golden Age.

A Short History of Blogging – reblogged!

Here’s a post from a couple of years ago which might be of interest if you haven’t read it before. (I would say that, wouldn’t I?)

Blogging has always been about self-promotion. The first known blogs were on cave walls, although they were pretty crude, to be honest, and it is often really difficult to make out what the bloggers were on about. There is speculation, indeed, that to refer to them as ‘blogs’ might be a little misleading. The fact that they tend to be short and that it is very hard to make out what they mean, leads some experts to assume that they were an early form of Twitter. And then the fact that they frequently depict crude human figures, especially exaggeratedly female ones, and various animals, suggest that even in these early times, social media were largely the preserve of the young person.

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‘Share if you think these babes are hot.’

By the time of the rise of the first true civilisations in Egypt, they were beginning to get the hang of it. They have left massive numbers of inscriptions all over walls and columns and pretty well anything else that they could get a hammer and chisel near.

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‘Amenhotep snubbed in Big Brother Pyramid game – LOL’

Some even see the Rosetta Stone as a forerunner of Google, but others don’t.

The first English blogger was The Venerable Bede. His blog is one of the main sources of our knowledge of Saxon times, which is a bit of a bugger really, when you consider how reliable social media are today as a source of modern history. He probably missed out most of the good stuff. But he blogged in Old English, anyway, which no one can understand nowadays so it probably doesn’t matter.

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Leonardo da Vinci did a wicked selfie, but would probably be criticised nowadays for how few he produced. To be anyone on social media, it is probably necessary to post a minimum of twenty selfies in any twenty four hour period, but Leo was never up to that. But most of his blogs were all about what would then be science fiction and art and politics…so he’d have fitted in quite well with today’s bloggers really.

Samuel Pepys’ diaries are, of course, just the notes he took for his blogs. They are a mix of politics and news and what his family were up to, and his ‘conquests’ of various ladies. Wisely, he wrote most of this in shorthand and, even more wisely, put the more salacious bits in code. Nowadays, it is unnecessary to use code, since language is now changing so fast that no one can understand anything that was written more than six months ago anyway.

The Puritans thought blogging might be fun so they banned it, along with just about everything else, except breathing and praying. Well, praying, anyway.

A little later, newspapers were invented. These were not really blogs, since they were filled with news, rather than self-promotion, and it took a number of years before newspaper owners and editors realised that. Once they did, however, they worked very hard to make up for lost time, and now there are very few newspapers in the world that print mainly news.

And quite a lot that do not print any news at all.

In fact, they tend to be full of primitive opinion and often depict crude human figures, especially exaggeratedly female ones, and various animals.

And thus life turns full circle.

 

Photo credit (picture 1): jmarconi via VisualHunt.com / CC BY         

Photo credit (picture 2): PMillera4 via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Visit to Kashmir

I fell in love with Kashmir.

It was 1989, and I had come to India to have a closer look. A year before, I had flown to Delhi and the same day taken the bus to Kathmandu to go trekking in Nepal.

This meant that I had a lot of hours sitting and watching Northern India go past the windows of the bus, and this had piqued my interest and convinced me I should go and have a proper look.

So I arrived and, a couple of days later, took the bus up to Srinagar, a journey of 24 hours. In those days, I never kept a travel journal, which is something I regret now. It makes it difficult to piece together the details and leaves me, at best, with impressions and, of course, a number of photographs.

The photos, though, were taken on a cheap camera, and I did not take many.

But I had a week in Srinagar and although I did not venture far afield from there, I loved what I saw of the valley with its gardens, Lake Dal with its confusion of meandering paths through fields and grass, naturally, the houseboats on the lake and also the shakiras, the sampan-like boats used by the fishermen and the traders on the lake.

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Shakira on Lake Dal

I found a houseboat when I arrived, managing to resist ending up in a hotel in town that was being pressed on me by a fellow on the bus. I seem to remember I found my houseboat by going to the lake, hiring a shakira and asking the boatman to take me to the first of a long line of moored houseboats, where I asked if there was a room. I think at the second or third I struck lucky.

I keep trying to remember the name of my houseboat.

Occasionally, during their waking day, a dreamer will catch a glimpse, a snapshot – no, not even that; perhaps no more than a hint, a flavour of a previous night’s dream. Something akin to catching a scent on the breeze that is gone before it is even realised that it was there. That is the best way I can describe the teasing hint I may get of the name of that boat. I think ‘Ah, yes, it began with ‘S’…no, wait, it didn’t, but there was definitely an ‘S’ in it somewhere. Perhaps…’ then it has gone.

But it was my own floating palace for a week. A marvel of beautifully carved wood, a magnificent bedroom and living room all to myself, and a fellow who lived on board (not the owner, I gathered) who cooked my meals. When I wasn’t ashore exploring, I sat on the deck and read.

I remember the Shalimar Gardens, and that there were at least one or two more; masses of flowers, large lawns, trees…I wandered around there with the high mountains towering above us.

And, there was the beginning of the agitation. At that point, I knew next to nothing of India’s history or politics, and although I could detect the tensions, I was unaware of what they comprised. Once or twice, there were isolated gunshots in the distance, especially at night. ‘Bandits’, said my fellow on board, rather too casually. I came across a mass demonstration outside a mosque in town, with either the police or the army, I’ve no idea which, a very heavy presence. There was a lot of shouting, and the atmosphere was hostile enough for me to make myself scarce fairly quickly.

But I personally encountered nothing but politeness and good humour, and other than the underlying tensions, despite getting ripped off now and again in shops (it was Kashmir, and I was a tourist!), I felt comfortable and happy there. When I left the valley to return to Delhi and thence further afield, it was with the thought I would return again one day.

Regrettably, though, each time I have returned, it has not been considered a safe destination.

Perhaps, though…perhaps…one day…

Resources for Writers – #1

A long, long time ago (heavens, it seems an age!), I wrote a post about the difficulties of historical accuracy facing writers.

Really? So kind of you – it’s here: HERE

Gosh, people are so kind.

Anyway, I have a number of books which I find invaluable when I am writing, so just to mention a few:

I have a first edition of Chambers’ Encyclopaedia; two volumes, published 1848, which I got for a song many years ago. Of course, anyone who has ever heard me sing will know that cannot be literally true – the only thing I might get for a song would be a heavy fine or a spell in prison. Or a slap. But enough of that.

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Referring back to my post on historical accuracy, I argued that even contemporary accounts of history are suspect – possibly even more so than many later ones – but as a snapshot of the world as it was seen by a group of British writers in 1848, my Chambers’ Encyclopaedia is invaluable. It gives me their view of other nations and religions, their understanding of science and commerce, and many other topics. A story set in 1848 or thereabouts, would use much of that information.

And 1848 in Europe was known as the year of revolutions – a good setting for a story or ten.

Equally, I set a long short story in 1920’s England, and many of the travel books of the time (I have a guide book to Dartmoor published in 1920) carry adverts for food, drink, hotels, buses, etc, which give a lot of the detail I needed.

Finally, Lonely Planet. My current novel, for which I still don’t have a title – don’t judge me – is set mainly in the India of 1988-ish. The 1986 edition of West Asia on a Shoestring while not being a great deal of use to the traveller of 2017, is incredibly useful to me when writing my book. I can easily get a sense of the price of everything that my English traveller of the story will encounter, and also a sense of what is available – where buses or trains might run, what sort of facilities are to be found in small hill towns, and many other things.

Obviously, our old chum Google is always at hand to help us out with our queries, but resources such as these are not only more accurate, they save us having to sift through many sites that may provide inaccurate information.

And God help the writer that uses that.

Older Pictures – Nainital

I have to begin this post with a caveat; it is quite possible that one or more of these photographs are not actually of Nainital, but perhaps of somewhere else. They are certainly of India, but there is nothing written on the back of the photographs. The majority were my father’s, taken by him on leave during the 1940’s, and since he died a long time ago I can no longer question him.

Nainital means the ‘eye lake’, and refers to the goddess Parvati. According to legend, her eye fell into the lake when Lord Shiva, her husband, carried her body back to their home on Mount Kailash.

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This first one is a postcard I bought on my visit to Nainital in 2005. Normally, you expect a postcard today to be a picture of as good a quality as possible, so I was delighted to find this one. I have no idea how old the original would have been, but I would guess that it dates from the inter-war period.

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This one was taken by my father (or so I assume – another caveat, I suppose!) since it was amongst the ones I inherited from him.

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This one I believe is of Nainital, although I cannot work out any details of either the direction it was shot, or the buildings down the hillside. Someone who knows Nainital (Rajiv?) might be able to help me with this one.

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Snow View, Nainital. The back of the postcard is blank, and so again I have no idea how old it would be. Google is no help, either. I found two other copies of the postcard, but neither told me anything about the picture.

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A view across the lake.

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And a view of some pretty serious recreational boating.

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My father indulging in some of this recreational boating.

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Finally, a photograph of one of his army mates. Although I have no idea who the subject is, I really like the photograph.

The Past is a Foreign Country; We Did Remarkably Similar Things There

Or, following in my father’s footsteps, or something like that.

Putting up some old postcards of Darjeeling earlier this week set me to thinking. And, let’s face it, anything that can achieve that is a good thing!

I have posted before that my father spent time in India, both during the Second World War and in the days leading up to Partition. If you would like to re-read it, the link is here: My Father In India

In this post, I mentioned that when I first visited India in 1989, at least, my first proper visit rather than simply passing through on the way to Nepal, I visited the Red Fort in Delhi, taking plenty of photographs, of course.

Some while later, at home, I was going through some of my father’s photographs, and discovered that I had taken a photograph of a view of the mosque in the Red Fort that was almost identical to one that he had.

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Above: the one my father had. And, below: the one I took.

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Looking at the minaret in front of the dome closest to the viewer, it seems I took my photograph from the archway to the left of the one my father’s photograph is taken from, but otherwise we must have been standing in the same spot. My father would have been quite a bit younger at that time than I was when I visited the Red Fort, and the circumstances very different. But I’m sure that he felt the same sense of awe that I did.

Now there are mature trees behind the mosque, a couple of low hedges in front, and the creepers on the wall have gone.

Otherwise, the view is the same.

And because my father is no longer here, there is an extra poignancy to this; although our footsteps crossed and merged at this place, thousands of miles away, and we both must have lingered in this same spot and, who knows, possibly thought similar thoughts, the passage of time means in reality we might as well have been tens of millions of miles apart.

And this led me to look more closely at his other photographs.

There are not many, perhaps thirty or forty of them, but it is strange that when he was on leave in India, one time, he went with a few chums up to Nainital, and again there appear to be photos taken from spots where I have stood. The images are not the same, this time, but again our footsteps must have crossed.

I think the greatest regret I have about this, other than the obvious one that he is no longer alive, is that I cannot talk about these places with him. But just sharing them is good, even if it does make me feel sad.