Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
The similarity of the promotional blurb on the back cover of this novel to the author’s biography suggests that much of what is in The Far Himalaya is based on author Phillip Ernest’s real life.
Like the author, the novel's protagonist Ben Doheney leaves his small-town Ontario home at fifteen and lives as a homeless person on the streets of Toronto. Also like the author, Ben teaches himself Sanskrit, the ancient literary language of India, and spends his time reading the ancient Indian epic, The Mahabharata, in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto’s Robarts Library. There, Ben meets Aditi, a woman whose parents immigrated to Edmonton from India when she was sixteen. She is a Sanskrit scholar working on a master’s degree. Fast forward four years and Aditi is now working on her Ph.D. under Professor Boylan, an incompetent and abusive man who is single-handedly ruining the university’s once-renowned Sanskrit Department. Aditi will be the last person to receive a Ph.D. in Sanskrit at U of T—that is if Boylan permits.
Ben and Aditi spend many nights together in her dorm room, and their emotional and physical love for each other is as intense as it is graphic. Otherwise Ben still sleeps on the streets—on park benches, in doorways—amid the homeless crowd of downtown Toronto. The “skids,” they call themselves. He has one close friend among them, Moksha, an older man who also knows Sanskrit, but spends a good deal of his time lying drunk on park benches.
Ben is helping Aditi with a translation project for Boylan so she can focus on her dissertation. Although he has a student ID (faked with the help of his mentor, the elderly and ailing Professor Chamberlain), Ben has continued altercations, some physical, with Malhotra, a university security guard (and Hindi-speaking immigrant) who is close friends with Boylan. Ben, meanwhile, tries to keep Moksha’s drunkenness from getting him in trouble with the law. The tensions rise as the date of Aditi’s dissertation defence nears.
This novel is neither an appeal for the plight of the homeless nor an exposé of the vicious underbelly of academic life, though both of those themes are present. Rather it seems to be an immersion into the physical and mental sensations of Indian spirituality. At first, the constant use by Ben of Sanskrit words and concepts seems excessive and distracting, but after a while, it is clear that the author is showing how those words and concepts can be applied to a country and people far away in time and distance from the culture that created them. (Interestingly, the scenes in modern-day India that come at the end of the book give the strong, and certainly deliberate impression that India itself seems to have abandoned the substance of its ancient spiritual heritage to a large extent.) Through his characters, even minor ones, Ernest probes the nature of fate (karma)—good and bad, lucky and unlucky—and the possibility of forgiveness and redemption.
There are some moving scenes that illustrate this, particularly those in the homeless shelters, where a wide spectrum of personalities and backgrounds is on display. Since Ernest himself lived among Toronto’s homeless for so long, we can accept that what he presents is based on his own experience. He avoids dwelling on the obvious negative aspects of these people’s situation, though he does not ignore the facts. Rather Ernest chooses to highlight each person’s efforts, however limited, to retain their humanity even as they struggle to exist on the periphery of society.
All of this adds up to a rather compelling read, thanks in part to its relatively fast-paced narrative. Early in the book, there is some unnecessary foreshadowing and rather forced dialogue inserted to explain past events in the lives of Ben and Moksha. The explanations of Aditi’s participation in violence in India as a teenager and of the origin of Ben’s relationship with Professor Chamberlain could have been put far earlier in the book and given more detail as well. But no matter.
This book is neither long nor—on the surface—deeply philosophical, but the issues it raises linger in the mind long after the last page has been read.
The Far Himalaya is published by Linda Leith Publishing.