Phillip Ernest’s newest book, The Far Himalaya is one of those novels that you will either like or dislike. The subject matter and the way it plays out could be polarizing to some readers, but for those that persist in reading it, a fine story is to be found within its pages.
The story (which appears to parallel the life of the author) is that of Ben Doheney, a young man that left an abusive home at fifteen and has been living on the skid row streets of Toronto for a number of years (he is now twenty-two). He has taught himself Sanskrit and has even come to the notice of the aged Professor Chamberlain, head of the University of Toronto’s South Asian Studies department, who took him under his tutelage.Ben has learned to survive on the streets (“You really are at home in this world” he is told) but he’s not a drug user, alcoholic or given to any other vices. His best friend is Moksha Das, an alcoholic, but intelligent Hindi scholar. Ben also works at a car wash, so he doesn’t have to beg on the streets. He carries a backpack full of books and often spends evenings in one of the university’s classrooms reading from their Sanskrit collection. This is where he meets Aditi, a Ph.D. student under the loathsome impostor Professor Boylan, who has taken over the Sanskrit program and has all but destroyed it. For Ben and Aditi, it is an immediate attraction, fueled by their love for Sanskrit, she a legitimate Ph.D. student, he an “unofficial” one under Prof. Chamberlain. Ben knows his future is now inextricably linked to Aditi’s successfully obtaining her Ph.D., then likely being accepted at Cambridge for post-doctorate studies. He confesses to Prof. Chamberlain:
“My future is absolutely dependent on Aditi’s, if she lives through this Ph.D., I’ll follow her wherever long as I live, however I’m living, I will always be a scholar. I used to live for that, being a scholar. Now, it’s just what I am: what l live for is her. If she succeeds, I will be a scholar with her. If she doesn’t succeed … there’s nothing for either of us to think about. Her success, her survival, is all that matters.”
Chamberlain looked down at his hands resting on the knob of his cane. “I believe you have found the path that will lead her to success,” he said. “If she faces a challenge at the end of it, I may intervene. But you know that that will be very dangerous for me and that I have everything to lose. As a scholar, Ian Boylan is fraud, but as a fraud, he’s a genuine master, with a special gift for the art of blackmail-—as Aditi knows.” He looked up at Ben. “But at this point, as I say, it doesn’t look like Aditi will need my help.”
Ben looked out at the lake. “I hope you’re right,” he said.
At the core of The Far Himalaya is a love story and one that faces the age-old trope of good vs. evil. The “good” being Ben, Aditi and Prof. Chamberlain (like that of an elder god) versus the “evil” Prof. Boylan (as the fallen angel and pretender) and the doofus Ganesh Malhotra a campus cop who relishes abusing street people (like Ben and Moksha) whom he encounters on the university’s grounds. Even Ben’s verbally abusive mother threaten’s Ben’s fragile sanity at times. What transpires is a suspenseful, academically-inspired novel in which you will cheer on the young lovers while they are beset by various challenges, the major one being Ben’s “encounter” with Boylan and Malhotra in the library’s stairwell that has the potential to destroy their dreams.
I quite liked The Far Himalaya for it was a very different type of story, particularly the settings: either on the streets or in the halls of academia, from sleeping on a park bench to an āsrama in the mystic Himalayas. All this serves to give an otherwise conventional story a singular dynamic that elevates it beyond the norm. Recommended as a different or alternative type of read.
The Far Himalaya by Phillip Ernest
Linda Leith Publishing
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