Who knows what really made those prints in the snow near Makalu Base Camp, Nepal – the strange, evenly spaced line of tracks that suggest an enormous foot-shaped pogo stick as much as anything else. The Indian army has declared them as belonging to a yeti, an elusive, extinct or perhaps imaginary creature, causing great amusement to many.
But there’s something about the seeming one-leggedness of what made those prints that conjures a more mysterious possibility. Lepcha people traditionally believe that if the corpse of a hunted animal is left in the forest overnight, the deity whom we know (through a series of confabulations) as a yeti would come to revive and retrieve the animal. To prevent this, one foreleg and one hindleg of the creature, on opposing sides, have to be maimed so that it can no longer be reintegrated.
Consider how one of the names of the yeti is “Abominable Snowman”, coined by a British journalist who mistranslated the Sherpa term “metoh” or “man-bear” to mean “filthy”. Not a leap, then, the subsequent popularity of “abominable” – like the rest of us subjects of the empire, primeval and uncivilised. Lepchas call the entity “Chu Mung” (Glacier Spirit), a feared, venerated and altogether meaningful part of their mythology.
So when we laugh at the idea of the yeti, lets be mindful of who we are really laughing at.
What’s missing in all this is the fact that we ourselves are colonisers. In this case: mainland India’s enfolding of peoples, ethoses and regions. They fall under the umbrella of diversity but in actuality suffer various erasures and deficits. So what happens is an interesting recursive colonisation. First, the adaption of imposed Western colonial thought, then the application of this thought onto cultures which themselves have been usurped of power – by cultures which now control the narrative.
I know about the yeti’s importance only from reading (Tintin isn’t enough), and to open my mind to these stories is the respectful thing to do. I have not been to Sikkim, but I’ve experienced the arcane in other places, and know the subtle shift between what I’ve been taught to see and what I can see when I shed that imposition. If it wasn’t for this, I could go to Sikkim and still laugh. Many do.
Internalised colonialism, when conflated with rationality, logic or science, does the work of entrenching both new and old colonialist modes. Not only in the realm of stories, but equally and detrimentally so in medicine, fashion, economics, immigration and more. There’s a difference between working with the consequences of the past – such as, for instance, reading and writing in the language of the oppressor – and allowing those consequences to swell – such as treating as inferior those who are illiterate in it.
This embarrassing gaffe by the Indian army’s social media wing will probably fizzle out with some bland information about what made the tracks. But I like their statement on having released the photos to “excite scientific temper and rekindle interest.” They did, and I read some lovely lore, and learned. Curiosity, after all, is really the opposite of being certain of what you’ll find.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 2nd 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.