Written by Saritha Rao Rayachoti
Book: Zanskar to Ziro – No Stilettos in the Himalayas
Writer: Sohini Sen
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Price: Rs. 995
On the third day of the 10-day reading period that I had set for myself, I was dragging my feet in the Nubra Valley, unwilling to move on to the next stop, Pangong Tso. The journey seemed interminable and the destination, Ziro, just a word at the end of the book. I realised, later, that I was reading the book all wrong – from start to finish.
Zanskar to Ziro: No Stilettos in the Himalayas is a collection of vignettes of journeys undertaken by Sohini Sen and Sumita Rakshit, across more than 10,000 kms of the Himalayas. The book is arranged by geography, spanning the Himalayas from West to East — from Jammu & Kashmir, traversing through Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Nepal, Sikkim, Bengal, Bhutan, and, ending with Arunachal Pradesh.
The narrative in a travelogue usually follows a specific timeline, geography or usually a combination of the two. There is, sometimes, an initial preamble about “preparing for the journey” even before the bags are packed. And, there is usually a sense of coming home towards the end, a last leg of the journey, perhaps with a promise of journeys to come.
While Sen’s prologue and epilogue act as bookends that delve into the inner landscape of two women travellers and their enduring love for the Himalayas, the accounts of the journeys do not follow a chronology. Besides, this book is not just about one journey undertaken at a stretch, but many forays into the mountains over a period of ten years. The reason I wasn’t making much headway in my reading was because the progression in the book itself is not linear.
While the book is a vivid evocation of a sense of place alright, it also simulates a sort of timelessness, of being on a long journey that is in equal parts riling against the elements and of discovery and insight.
The journeys are described in the book much like the harsh, remote, physical landscape they depict — with elements that appear similar from place to place, but also change in infinitesimal ways across the chapters; just like the terrain, the flora and fauna, the people, the food, the spartan accommodation, the chortens and the monasteries, the monks, the priceless relics and folk legends that border on the fantastic.
Once I let go of the rigid need for sequence and context, and picked places I wanted to read about more spontaneously, the journeys and the landscapes came alive. There is an encounter with a Ladakhi toilet: “…shovelling is an act often eschewed…” Kargil martyr Captain Vijyant Thapar’s last letter home was poignant; and, the deadpan recounting of the paranormal efforts of a ghost rider army major who warns armies on both sides of the India-China border of upcoming invasions, was amusing.
Interspersed between these accounts are stunning photographs of azure skies, gurgling brooks and the imposing vision of the Himalayas in its various moods — desolate in its cragginess, sedate with its snow-capped peaks, set aflame by the setting sun.
Sen doesn’t shy away from describing the sheer arduousness of the journeys — the biting cold, isolation, near-death experiences, inevitable illnesses that come with the altitude, and, the near-endless vigil of two women travelling by themselves. But there’s also the constant presence of the object of their ardour — he, who was “born of the tumultuous union of two vast land masses, and one of the youngest of his kind in the world, he is violent at times, unpredictable always. He is the Himalayas.”