Point of Departure, an Autobiography, by James Cameron
James Cameron was one of the great journalists of the 20th century. In Point of Departure Cameron vividly describes eyewitness accounts of his many adventures covering the mid 20th century's momentous events as foreign correspondent for some of Britain's notable newspapers. Superbly written.
I stumbled on the London Readers Union edition of this gem on the Free Books shelf at the Deming NM Public Library.
An excerpt beginning on page 205 of the 1968 Readers Union edition:
That night I bathed in a large tin tub and went into what in any other hotel would have been called a lounge, for what anywhere else would have been called a quick drink, before what in most other places would have been dinner. In no single particular was this purpose accomplished; rather, in every aspect did it materialize some ten times life-size. To call this room a lounge would have been ridiculous; it was a salon, a caravanserai, a large room crowded, as we saw with surprise, with a multitude of striking and picturesque people in richly-coloured costume and exceptional hairdressings; they were occupied not, as one might have thought, in being photographed for the National Geographic Magazine, but in a variety of pleasantly domestic occupations such as pouring tots of rum and knitting socks, and discussing questions of mutual interest in an animated and formal way. Most of them were Tibetans; there were also several people who might have been economics lecturers on vacation, refuges from Cheltenham Ladies College, and at least one who was quite evidently a Benedictine monk in disguise. Before our entry we had considered dubiously whether our appearance - unshaven, khaki-shirted, carpet-slippered - might have been thought indecorous. We need not have worried.
We were received with a courtesy that was almost enthusiastic. The hostess, Mrs Annie Perry, said: 'Now do come in and meet some lovely people; I know you won't mind joining us, it just happens we were having a little party tonight,' (It turned out later that one would require to be singularly out of luck to arrive at the Himalaya, at any day of the year, when this was not the case). 'Now sit down somewhere, and what will you have; it so happens there's only rum. You must talk to this dear lady; I know you'll want to meet her; she has come a great distance.'
This was a Tibetan lady of high degree, attired most gaily in a dark blue smock with a traditional apron of vivid horizontal candy-stripes, high felt boots and gold earrings; she made a place beside me on a divan and said, in impeccable English and with a grave interest: 'You come all the way from England!'
Then I realized that values had to be changed.
The character of that evening - unremarkable, simple, possibly commonplace in such surroundings - has ever since been hard to convey; an atmosphere both grotesque and elusive; certainly unforgettable. I have spent many bizarre and curious evenings in almost every recognized quarter of the earth, but that night in Kalimpong remains in my memory as something not to be judged by ordinary standards. On reconsidering it, there was little in it that would have been unacceptable in many a conventional setting; nobody ate pickled mice or executed strange Oriental rites, nobody made dramatic pronouncements nor fell into any mystic excesses. Nevertheless I was on the edge of something remote and unprecedented; I count it still as one of the memorable evenings of my life.
It was a long low wooden room, intricately furnished with great numbers of curious and complex articles of copperware in some way associated with the domestic processes of Tibet; its walls hung with thankas - the great cloth votive paintings of the Lamaist creed, many diverse representations of the Lord Buddha and the Wheel of Life, used to help in meditation on the cause and purpose of the endless chain of existence, bordered with silk and intensely restful to the eye. The room was warmed by the customary North Indian brazier, which those who know it accept as the one really functional and decorative form interior heating - a large, circular, shallow iron dish on legs, filled with glowing charcoal; it has the inestimable advantage of being portable; one can shift one's fireside to any convenient part of the room; it is admirable for the preparation of popcorn and the boiling of toddy; and furthermore any given number of people can sit around it in a complete circle. It has but one disadvantage; after some time in an enclosed room it produces a gentle, imperceptible miasma that causes those around it to drop one by one into a torpid state that will eventually develop into a fatal coma; fortunately somebody usually remembers to open a window in time.