Fourteen-year-old Debu has just one clue that his father might still be alive. His hopes are pinned on an amulet a Tibetan trader wears around his neck.
This adventure story is set just before the turn of the 20th century, amidst the community of Shaukas, who were nomadic traders along the Indo-Tibet route. Research apart, Deepa Agarwal has a feel of the mountains.
Her grandfather came from a village, possibly near Milam, on the Indo-Tibetan border. The author herself grew up in Almora. Her male cousins (girls were not allowed), says Agarwal in the author’s note, frequently visited Milam to find out more about their ancestors. Their tales provided the necessary inputs for Caravan to Tibet.
Life in the hills gave her enough material to write authoritatively about the high reaches. “We were quite familiar with the midnight knock—my father’s patients who came from the villages nearby. He would set off on foot with his flashlight.... At one time, he used to make his calls on horseback,” says Agarwal on her website.
This book originally appeared as a series in Target, the children’s magazine of the late 1980s. As the author acknowledges candidly, “I enjoyed writing Caravan to Tibet, too, though it needed a lot of research and a great deal of rewriting.” Agarwal’s first children’s book, Ashok’s New Friends, published by Children’s Book Trust in 1990, hit gold. It won the NCERT National Award for Children’s Literature in 1992-93.
Coming back to this one, Debu and his 10-year-old brother, Hayat, are forced to take up the responsibility of the family after their father disappears in a raging blizzard while returning with the caravan. They earn their living by selling rugs and wool to pilgrims and tourists on their way to Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar. Today, the Munsiyari-Milam trek from Almora is quite popular.
Debu spots the kindly Tibetan trader, Sonam Darka, who is wearing his father’s amulet and discovers that it was bought in Gartok, a far-off trading post. Almost sure that his father is alive, Debu manages—with a little support from Sonam—to convince the elders to take him on their next trip to Tibet, accompanied by his beloved pony, Bijli.
What follows is an adventure through icy mountain passes, close shaves with death and an unscheduled stay with the boy-Lama. A thrilling horse race on a high plateau rounds off this exciting book. Debu is separated from his companions, loses his horse and gets captured by robbers. They force him to join them in a raid on the gold mines. Unfortunately, it goes wrong and Debu is captured. But his captors turn out to be kind and a couple take care of him. Debu learns that there are Shaukas working in the mine. Could one of them be his father?
Agarwal handles the narration with ease. Little tips offer a glimpse of life in the hills. She talks about the Laptches (tiny religious monuments) with flags, which also serve as guides to travellers. How jaggery and tea with butter, flour and salt helps fight the cold. And, how scorching the sun can get because of the thin mountain air. Captivating stuff.
After the 1950s, the Shaukas stopped trading for political and economic reasons. “But I wanted to provide a glimpse of those exciting times,” writes the author. Agarwal has written books for even younger children. The Lippo and Squiggly series are popular picture books.
The writer is editor of Heek, a children’s magazine. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org