Harley Rustad’s new book, Lost in the Valley of Death: A Story of Obsession and Danger in the Himalayas, recounts the strange and tragic story of one travel blogger’s disappearance into the Himalayan mountains. With journalistic excellence, however, Rustad connects this mystery to a number of other strange disappearances in India, asking important questions about the dangers, motivations, and risks involved in international travel—some of which are unique to India itself.
Rustad’s book centers on the life of American backpacker and travel blogger Justin Alexander Shelter and culminates in Shelter’s unsolved disappearance in India in 2016. With journalistic care and accuracy, Rustad recounts Shelter’s devotion to self-exploration, spirituality, and the wilderness. Even as a child, Shelter was more comfortable in non-traditional learning environments, and Rustad tracks the trajectory of Shelter’s life that led to his presence in India five years ago. Shelter quit his job at a tech start-up and began a global tour first throughout the US and then beyond, to South America, the Philippines, Thailand, Nepal, and, of course, India. Shelter’s journey was somewhat unique because of the following he generated on social media as he travelled. When he reached the Parvati Valley, a remote and notorious area of the Indian Himalayas, Shelter began a spiritual journey that led him on a quest to a holy lake with a sadhu, an Indian holy man. He would never return from that journey, and Rustad recounts the subsequent efforts to find him in miles and miles of wilderness.
What was most compelling for me about this book was not, in fact, its central story. Although Shelter’s life and eventual disappearance is a crucial thread throughout the narrative, and his loss is as tragic as it is mysterious, I was truly compelled by the full picture that Rustad paints of the Parvati Valley and of the Western perception of India in general. I felt that I learned so much from Rustad’s writing in relation to the geography of such a large and varied country, some of its chief mysteries and industries—such as the drug trade—and the startling regularity with which tourists go missing, sometimes under their own power. Rustad paints a picture of a culture of potential danger and disappearance alongside the adoration Westerners have for India.
One of the most interesting aspects of Rustad’s book, which also helps to clarify some of the potential motivations behind the disappearances of Shelter and others, is his discussion of what’s known as ‘India Syndrome.’ The term has its roots in a French psychologist’s studies of French travellers in India. As Rustad writes,
“[The psychologist] began noticing a curious condition in some of the French travelers, particularly among those who had spent longer periods of time in the country: a spectrum of behavioral and psychological changes that later became known as ‘India Syndrome.’ … [He] would be dispatched to examine travelers who had lost their bearings, had become disoriented and confused, or had found themselves in manic and psychotic states. The contrast was shocking. … Initially, what [he] observed was blamed solely on drug use, but many of the travelers were also exhibiting feelings of disorientation in an unfamiliar land or culture. In rare cases, others were later diagnosed with acute psychosis, delirium, and delusion. At its most powerful, India syndrome could be all consuming, leading to a complete detachment from reality from an overwhelming disconnection from familiarity.”
‘India Syndrome,’ different from generalized cultural shock, potentially arises due to emotional and psychological expectations travellers have about the country and what it can do for them spiritually. Although drug use may sometimes be a factor in these episodes, Rustad points out that this is not always the case, and that India Syndrome has counterparts in other countries. Although it is not medically recognized as a diagnosable illness, Rustad writes that “the symptoms have become enough of a concern that insurance companies selling travel packages to India bound tourists have included clauses that void the coverage if the traveler has a psychiatric history or if he or she takes drugs. Several embassies and consulates in India have permanent psychiatrists on staff to address and treat their nationals in distress.” Recounting the history bizarre and unexplainable condition is just one of the ways in which Rustad paints a picture of the cultural reputation of India in relation to why someone such as Shelter might have wanted to travel there, and why he may have chosen to disappear there, too.
But ‘India Syndrome’ is just one of the many theories that surround this case, alongside disorientation, violence, robbery, and death. This case does not have a satisfying ending, and only elicits more questions with Rustad’s every page. In recounting Shelter’s life and his journey to the caves in the Parvati Valley, Rustad’s thorough research—including the knowledge he gained from his own travels to India—shines on every page. While I don’t think that this is a book for everyone—it is far more focused on the cultural influences of spirituality travel than it is on a crime—there is certainly a mystery to be explored here, and Rustad’s clear writing kept me hooked until the very last page.
About the Writer:
Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds a BA and an MA in English Literature with a focus on neo-Victorianism and adaptations of Jane Eyre. Her current work centers on neo-Victorianism and nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history, with secondary research interests in life writing, historical fiction, true crime, popular culture, and the Gothic. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan and in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. She is a reviewer for The Lesbrary, the co-creator of True Crime Index, and an Associate Editor and Social Media Coordinator for PopMeC Research Collective. Rachel is co-editor-in-chief of the international literary journal, The Lamp, and regularly publishes her own short fiction and poetry. Find her on Twitter and Goodreads.