Letters from India & Nepal, 1966-1972
Chin Music Press ($16.95)
by Gregory Stephenson
Many readers in quarantine mode may be yearning for books that offer armchair traveling. One such title is Marilyn Stablien’s 2019 Houseboat on the Ganges & A Room in Kathmandu: Letters from India & Nepal, 1966-1972.
Hand-painted paper fans and paper lanterns, exotic knick-knacks and tabi footwear, Parcheesi, Bonsai plants, and statues of Buddha: already from girlhood, Marilyn Stablein was enchanted by the cultures of Asia. During her teenage years, this fascination broadened and deepened to become a serious engagement with Asian and Southeast Asian poetry, art, philosophy and religion. In 1966, at the age of 19, Stablein hitchhiked from Istanbul to India with her boyfriend before remaining in India and Nepal for the next six and a half years. Houseboat on the Ganges & A Room in Kathmandu is a collection of letters sent home to her American parents in California, aerograms carefully preserved through the years by her mother. Written between 1966 and 1972, the letters (originally set down without any thought of publication) constitute an epistolary travelogue, a loose but highly readable assemblage of descriptions of incidents, landscapes, and people, as well as detailed observations on arts and crafts, architecture, food, and customs. A less obvious underlying theme of the letters is that of self-exploration and subtle, spiritual transformation.
Eager, observant, and plucky, Stablein makes an exemplary traveller, appreciative of local music, dance, art, culinary feats, and spiritual practices. “My enthusiasm never wanes,” she remarks to her parents. From teeming cities to remote villages, she travels over large areas of India, attending festivals, getting caught up in a riot, visiting temples, monasteries, and hallowed caves; she lives frugally, studying sacred texts, learning to speak and write Tibetan, and ever refining her talents as an artist and calligraphist. She encounters swamis, llamas, and a Maharajah, as well as scholars, wanderers, and pilgrims. Once, in an outlying village, she is surrounded by excited, curious women and girls who have never before seen blue eyes and have never heard of America. Stablein even has an audience with the Dalai Lama and meets both Maharishi Mahesh, of Transcendental Meditation fame, and A.C. Bhaktivedanta, founder of the Hari Krishna movement, though she is rather dubious concerning the teachings of both men. She also encounters Dr. Richard Alpert (later to become internationally famous as Ram Dass, author of Be Here Now) and Tenzing Norgay (the sherpa who climbed Mount Everest with Edmund Hillary).
In the course of her long sojourn in India and Nepal, Stablein drifts apart from her English boyfriend, then in Katmandu falls in love with an American scholar, marries, and gives birth to a child. In her last letter home to her parents, she writes: “I’m not the single woman, teenage traveller I was when I left.” And, indeed, she is not. From her long, heroic journey, she returns as a wife and mother, an accomplished student of Tibetan language, art and spiritual traditions, and a skilled artist. A dedicated, disciplined interest in Buddhism has imparted to her an inward poise and clarity of mind. An “Epilogue” appended to the letters recounts something of her life following her return to the United States in 1972.
From the Transcendentalists to the Theosophists to the Beats and beyond, undertaking a “passage to India”—whether in spirit only or as an actual geographical destination—has formed a significant strand of American thought and spirituality. Marilyn Stablein’s book makes a modest but worthy contribution to that tradition but may, perhaps, most profitably be read simply as the unselfconscious record of a sincere, serious, and very independent young woman pursuing a personal fascination with Asian art and philosophy.
Houseboat on the Ganges & A Room in Kathmandu is a well-designed, handsomely produced book bound in colourful covers with illustrated endpapers, the text enriched by drawings, vignettes, photographs and a map; it ultimately presents a charming and engaging, a slender but substantial, volume.