Growing up in the Himalayas in the 1960s and early '70s, Stephen Alter's world was one of distant snowy summits and soaking monsoon rains, buffalo carts hauling sugar cane and wallahs peddling chickens and charcoal. As a young boy, he swung on the vines of banyan trees and hunted for barking deer, kept antelope and bamboo beetles as pets and spoke a mixture of Hindi and English.
Mr. Alter's anecdotes, memories and descriptions from that time and place are captured in his memoir, All the Way to Heaven: An American Boyhood in the Himalayas, from which he will read on Thursday, April 16 at 8pm in Bartos Theater (Building E15). Published in February by Henry Holt, the book recounts his experiences growing up in India as the son and grandson of American missionaries.
Mr. Alter, writer-in-residence in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies since 1995, is the author of four novels, all of which are set in India and address the dilemmas of characters straddling different cultures, as he himself has done for much of his life.
He began writing All the Way to Heaven just over two years ago at the urging of his editor, who, says Mr. Alter, "was intrigued by my backgroundï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ memoirs were [also] very much in vogue at the time."
A self-proclaimed "private person by nature," Mr. Alter intitially resisted the idea of writing a memoir, but once he started work on the book, he found that "it was much like writing a novel except that there wasn't the pretense of fiction to hide behind." The other difference, he said, was that while writing the memoir, "I always knew the outcome of the story, whereas in fiction the ending is never decided in my mind until I get there -- and sometimes not even then."
It was the writing process itself, said Mr. Alter, that helped him tap into his childhood memories. "Often it was a matter of association -- one recollection leading on to another." His research also took him back to his home town of Mussoorie in the summer of 1996 on a travel grant arranged by Professor Alan Lightman, then head of the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies.
It is clear, however, from Mr. Alter's wistful and detailed descriptions of the rivers, foothills, flora and fauna of Mussoorie that it is the physical environment of his Himalayan homeland that lingers most in his memory. "What I still miss the most are the mountains and forests," he said. "More than anything it is the landscape that draws me back."
"An Evening with Stephen Alter" is presented as part of MIT's 1997-1998 Writers Series, sponsored by the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies. For more information, call x3-7894.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 15, 1998.