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A Pilgrimage to India
A Fulbright grant sends an MIT writer home to study mountain lore
By Tracy Staedter

When stephen alter was working on his travel book Sacred Waters: A Pilgrimage up the Ganges River to the Source of Hindu Culture, he trekked over mountains and through deep valleys to the holy river’s headwaters, as pilgrims have done for centuries. During his journey, he explored the myths and traditions associated with the Hindu canon but also looked into local stories connected to bird calls, trees, medicinal herbs, and even rocks. “I realized very clearly that there was a whole body of tales in folklore specific to the mountains,” says Alter, who has authored eight books and is now writer-in-­residence at MIT, where he has taught for nine years. He began to wonder how the stories he heard varied, if at all, from place to place, and he knew that he would have to return to India to find the answer.

That time has come. Last fall, Alter received a Fulbright grant to spend from January to October 2005 researching folktales of the Himalayas. Additional funding from the American Institute of Indian Studies in Chicago will give Alter a total of 18 months to pore over published stories, consult with experts in India and Nepal, and travel to a variety of regions to speak with residents about their local lore.

Although this journey will be similar to others Alter has made for previous books, it has a different focus: exploring the way in which the same natural event can inspire different stories and traditions. Take the variety of folktales centered on hail, for example. In one story from the Ladakh region of India, often called “Little Tibet,” a hailstone falls into a woman’s cup of tea. She swallows it and becomes pregnant, giving birth to a hero who appears in other Tibetan stories. In different parts of the Himalayas, where water from melting hailstones is considered as pure as water from the Ganges, holy men gather hail as part of a purification ritual. The hailstone is “a seminal object,” says Alter. “That it’s pure and sacred is there in both stories,” different as they are in other respects.

When Alter speaks of India, his eyes become bright and his eagerness to return there becomes apparent. He was born in India to Presbyterian missionaries and spent his boyhood in the Himalayan town of Mussoorie, where his family still has a home. Much of his writing deals with the kind of displacement he experienced as a fair-skinned boy growing up in India. “We’re all sort of straddling one culture or another,” he says, adding that MIT has an entire culture unto itself.

Whether or not he returns to the Institute after his travels, Alter knows he has left a mark on his students. “I always feel that if they take a creative-writing class, it makes them better physicists,” he says. “Making up a story taps into different parts of your brain, exercises some of those faculties that don’t get exercised in a lab.” Alter’s former thesis advisee Monica Morrison ’04 says tapping into her creative side helped her cope with the daily stresses of undergraduate life. “It gave me a release,” she says. “I think that was really important for my sanity.” Largely because of Alter’s encouragement, Morrison, too, ended up straddling two cultures, though in a different way than her teacher had. She double-majored in bi­ology and writing.

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