Himalayan folktales tell about cultural differences

Stephen Alter


A writer in residence at MIT who spent his childhood in the foothills of the Himalayas has been awarded a 2004-2005 Fulbright grant to research folktales from the mountainous region that is home to Mount Everest and people from contemporary India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet.

The Fulbright grantee, Stephen Alter, will spend January to October 2005 in different parts of the Himalayas affiliated with Himachal Pradesh University of Shimla, India, and Tribhuvan University of Kathmandu, Nepal.

Alter described a unique aspect of the folktale tradition he will study as the "way in which nature is interpreted differently from one range of mountains to the next."

"A bird's call in Nepal will elicit a very different story from the same bird's call in Kashmir. The allegorical significance of a certain wild herb in Garhwal will take on different meanings in Bhutan. All of these narratives are drawn from nature and reflect cultural differences as well as ecological diversity," said Alter.

Alter has taught in the MIT Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies since 1995. He is the author of four novels, "Neglected Lives" (1978), "Silk and Steel" (1980), "The Godchild" (1988) and "Renuka" (1990). All are set in India and address the dilemmas faced by characters straddling different cultures.

The son and grandson of American Presbyterian missionaries, Alter, 48, grew up in Mussoorie, India. In addition to his fiction works, he has written a memoir, "All the Way to Heaven: An American Boyhood in the Himalayas" (Holt, 1997), and two travelogues, "Amritsar to Lahore: A Journey Across the India-Pakistan Border" (Upenn, 2000) and "Sacred Waters: A Pilgrimage up the Ganges River to the Source of Hindu Culture" (Harcourt Brace, 2001).

In commenting on "Sacred Waters," Alters said, "I see myself as a pilgrim who seeks to find the subtle and mysterious connections between human experience, mythological narratives and natural history."

Alter's newest work, "Elephas Maximus: A Portrait of the Indian Elephant" (Harcourt, 2004), explores the mythology and natural history of India's elephants.

The Fulbright Scholar Program is the U.S. government's flagship academic exchange effort, conducted since 1947 by the Council for International Exchange of Scholars (CIES) on behalf of the United States Department of State. CIES annually recruits and sends nearly 800 U.S. faculty and professionals to 140 countries and brings 800 foreign faculty and professionals to the U.S. to lecture and conduct research.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 17, 2004 (download PDF).


Topics: Humanities, Literature, languages and writing, Arts, Global

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