Face to Face
“Mental health is vital to everyone, even for those who may think it doesn’t
An accident doesn’t leave scars only on our bodies but also on our minds. And yet,
we need to find the will to go on, fight back, accept and move on.
It was a foggy monsoon morning on 3 July 2008 when author Stephen Alter and
his artist, sculptor wife Amita Alter were attacked by four intruders, stabbed,
beaten and left for dead.
What followed was a long healing journey inside and outside. His award winning
book, Becoming a Mountain: Himalayan Journeys in Search of the Sacred and the
Sublime (Aleph 2014) was born post the attack.
Author of more than 20 books of fiction and non-fiction, Alter was born in
Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, India and his writing shows his deep connect with the
He has written extensively on natural history, folklore and mountain culture,
particularly in his travel memoir Sacred Waters: A Pilgrimage to the Many
Sources of the Ganga. Educated at Woodstock School and Wesleyan University,
Alter has taught at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, where he was director
of the writing programme for seven years. Following this, he was writer-in-
residence at MIT for 10 years, where he taught courses in creative writing. Among
the honours he has received are fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the
Fulbright Program, the East West Centre in Hawaii, and the Banff Centre for
Mountain Culture. Stephen Alter is founding director of the Mussoorie Mountain
In a candid interview with The Mind Diaries, Stephen Alter tells Prachi Raturi
Misra why it is important to find a positive space and move on.
When you and your wife were attacked in Mussoorie, how did you deal with
the sense of betrayal you might have felt, considering the incident happened in
a quiet town that has been home, from generations? -The fact that we were violently assaulted in our home obviously led to an
immediate sense of fear and alienation. If you can’t feel secure in your own house,
where can you be safe? Our immediate reaction was disbelief and, of course, a
sense of relief that we were still alive. After that, a feeling of anxiety took over.
We thought about leaving Mussoorie to escape the experience but decided to stay
here because if we ran away it probably would have made us feel worse.
What helped you cope?
-Friends and neighbours in Mussoorie helped us enormously and the entire
community was very supportive. Our family gave us strength too. Ultimately, the
trauma of a physical attack leads to a sense of violation and vulnerability. Being
surrounded by people who reached out to help us was very reassuring.
From finding the strength to get back on your feet to finally deciding to do an
exhaustive climb, please share about your internal dialogue with yourself.
-The physical injuries I suffered made it difficult for me to walk for several months
and I decided, early on, that I would work towards regaining mobility and strength
in my legs. Walking to a hill top near our home was the first goal I set and from
there I stretched the distance further and further. Being in the Himalayas has
always been a source of solace and inspiration and this helped me heal internally
What were some of the things that helped you in your journey of healing and
getting back to yourself?
-Attempting to climb Bandarpunch, a 6,000 metre peak in Garhwal, was an
experience that taught me many things, particularly the lessons we gain from
failure. I didn’t reach the summit but, in many ways, not climbing this mountain
means more to me today than it probably would have, if I’d succeeded.
How do you look back at the entire incident after so many years?
-For the most part, I’ve been able to put the attack behind me, though there are
residual anxieties that will probably stay with me for the rest of my life.
What do you have to say about the power of thoughts?
-Thinking is, obviously, the way we process our experiences and it can be
therapeutic but also, sometimes, harmful. If I had obsessed about the attack and not
been able to move on, it might have paralysed me. More powerful than thoughts,
however, are our actions and for me it was being with friends and family, walking,
travelling and writing that helped most of all – doing all of the things that matter to
Your book, Becoming a Mountain delves deeply into the attack, your healing,
your treks, losing your father, finding hope and so much more. What did it
mean to write a book of this stature, emotionally?
-I don’t usually think of storytelling as a form of therapy but, in this case, it was
important for me to recount, both verbally and in writing, the experience of being
beaten and stabbed, as well as the aftermath of our attack. Becoming a Mountain is
a book about healing and hope but it also tries to convey that life can be painful
and deeply unsettling.
Lastly but most importantly, how important do you think is the issue of
-Mental health is vital to everyone, even for those who may think it doesn’t matter.
For example, depression is something that each of us experience in different ways
and at difference levels. It’s important for people to understand how to cope with
mental health issues not just for themselves but also to help others.
As we walk forward, whether stepping on heels or toes, each of us sets off on journeys
short or long. Our mobility is what keeps us alive. It is the verb in the sentence, the wick
inside the flame, the pulse in the vein. When I walk regularly, I feel healthier and less
hungry for the kind of food and drink that poisons my body. My mind expels the stress
and anxiety that builds up during the day. On a walk, I seldom think in any constructive
or methodical manner, allowing my brain to react to the sensory experiences along the
way, rather than trying to solve a problem or compose a story. This helps ease the
tension of work and frees my thoughts to dwell on happier things than debts or
deadlines. Whenever I find myself depressed, pinned down by that terrible sense
of immobility that makes everything seem hopeless, I force myself to go for a
walk. Most times, this helps lift the oppressive burden of doubt and despair. At
first, when I start walking to escape that relentless sadness, I feel like a creature
with my feet turned backwards, not wanting to move, possessed by demonic
forces. But gradually my footsteps straighten and I find myself proceeding in the
same direction as my senses and my thoughts.