‘I Stand by Three Cups’
By Bapsi Sidhwa
GA_googleFillSlot("Dawn_Columnists_inside_468x90"); I met Greg Mortenson for the second time in October 2010 at a fundraiser in Dallas. As a recipient of an award I sat at his table and found him to be courteous, disarmingly shy and self-effacing.
He was the last to make a presentation and as he spoke, I was alarmed by the way he intermittently fought for breath and paused between sentences. It was obvious he was exhausted and ill.
I am shocked that he continued his grueling speaking schedule for almost six months after that — visiting schools and addressing fundraisers on a daily basis. I know now that he has a hole in his heart and is due for surgery. The way in which 60 Minutes ambushed him at a book-signing for children in Atlanta was not only a bullying tactic but also dangerous in view of his health.
“If you’re looking for truth, read fiction; if you’re in the mood for fiction read autobiography.”
I have heard something to this effect repeated so often that it has become a truism — and, paradoxically, the axiom is often dismissed as a witticism. But there is more accuracy in these words than first meets the eye.
As a writer I know there are many ways of arriving at a truth, and fiction, with its accruements of imagination, intuition and arsenal of complex trajectories, can help a writer to express her or his thoughts as exactly and completely as is possible, and in doing so arrive at the truth. Hard autobiography and biography, with their insistence on fact, appear to demand only one-dimensional slivers of truth, and whenever I’ve attempted autobiography I’ve sat frozen before my computer — wall-eyed with writer’s block.
In autobiography there’s a tendency to speak well of oneself and to embellish that self with virtues. Also, mindful of the consequence of portraying one’s family and friends in an unflattering light one dissembles — who doesn’t prefer to appear in a better light?
While the ‘truth’ is frequently a casualty of autobiography and of biography, one has to make allowances for those who would bend it somewhat to arrive at a larger truth. However, as one committed to a lifetime of writing fiction, I’d like to point out that it makes for a much more honest and interesting story if the author inserts his or her own disguised self, warts and all, into a fictional narration, as I’ve done in my novels and short stories, and no one is ever the wiser for it.
That is why shaping a story is so necessary to a biographer, or as in Mortenson’s case, to his co-author. Greg Mortenson has not professed to be a writer and he shares equal credit with David Oliver Relin as co-author on the cover of Three Cups of Tea.
Relin makes free use of dialogue as if he were present when the dialogue took place.
I don’t fault Relin for molding events to suit the necessities and niceties required of storytelling. Anecdotes need to be amalgamated and woven together and require a trajectory that includes a beginning, middle and an end. A larger truth is served by this means. That is why it is patently deceiving for 60 Minutes to paint a distorted picture by using inaccurate information, innuendo and a microscopic focus on a few points in Three Cups of Tea and to criticize events that occurred almost 18 years ago.
“I stand by the story of Three Cups of Tea,” Mortenson said in a written statement, but added, “The time about our final days on K2 and ongoing journey to Korphe village and Skardu is a compressed version of events that took place in the fall of 1993.
“As the co-author of the book, along with David Oliver Relin, I am responsible for the content in the book. There were many people involved in the story and also those who produced the manuscript. What was done was to simplify the sequence of events for the purposes of telling what was, at times, a complicated story.”
It is a complicated story because its characters live in the configuration of mountains at the ‘roof of the world’. My novel, A Pakistani Bride, is based on a true story I heard on my honeymoon at a remote military camp in the tumult of the Karakoram Himalayas in northern Pakistan, bordering on Afghanistan. It covers the same terrain as Mortenson’s in his books and its beauty and grandeur stamp themselves indelibly on one’s psyche.
Although A Pakistani Bride was my first novel and I had never visited the US, I instinctively knew that the world I was describing would be incomprehensible to people in the West. Halfway through the novel I decided to introduce Carol, an American woman and I tried to make this alien culture accessible to my Western readers through Carol’s interpretation of it.
It appears there are to be more allegations — for once blood is scented the poor guy will be hounded by the pack: and the pack is disposed to attack the countries and communities befriended by Mortenson. It will take time to refute the allegations and fabrications, but the truth in Three Cups of Tea speaks for itself and will continue to impress its truth upon its readers.