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In less than a year, Stephen Alter traversed nearly 600 kilometers of mountainous northern India by foot, completing a traditional Hindu pilgrimage to the four sources of the Ganges River. The route he followed, called the Char Dham Yatra, led him down footpaths and trails long fallen into disuse, taking him on a trek through time and distance.
In his book "Sacred Waters: A Pilgrimage up the Ganges River to the Source of Hindu Culture," MIT Writer-in-Residence Alter vividly describes the spiritual and physical expedition he undertook between August 1999 and June 2000. "Sacred Waters" was published by Harcourt Brace in 2001.
The MIT community will get a chance to hear him read from the book today (April 10), when he joins professors Anita Desai and Robert Kanigel in " Glimpses of India ," a reading sponsored by the MIT Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies at 7 p.m. in Bartos Theater.
Alter, who was born and raised in the Himalayan foothills of Mussoorie, India, as the son of American Presbyterian missionaries, took this journey to revisit the land and rich mythology of his childhood. Even though he is not of the Hindu faith, he adhered to the tenets of a true Hindu pilgrimage by abstaining from meat, alcohol, tobacco and sex. In "Sacred Waters," Alter writes, "I see myself as a pilgrim who does not follow the prescribed tenets of any particular faith, but seeks to find the subtle and mysterious connections between human experience, mythological narratives and natural history."
On his journey, Alter did not set out to conquer the Himalayan mountains or do battle with the elements. He described his travels as an opportunity to become one with his surroundings and explore not only his destination but spiritual places along the way.
"With a pilgrimage, rather than having an adversarial relationship with it, you absorb the landscape into yourself," he wrote.
In Publisher's Weekly, a reviewer wrote that Alter succeeds in evoking "a fast disappearing way of life and topography" through "vivid descriptions of the many people, villages, dharamshalas, shrines, ashrams and Indian customs so foreign and seemingly inaccessible to most Westerners ... portraying a landscape before it is effectively trampled by what is called 'progress.'"
Alter has taught at MIT for seven years, and maintains residences in Boston and India. Before coming to MIT, he was director of the writing program at the American University in Cairo. He is currently teaching a writing course that draws heavily on his experience with "Sacred Waters." The focus of the course is epic myth and personal memory.
Today's reading is free and open to the public. For more information, call x3-7894.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 10, 2002.