Book Name: Zanskar to Ziro: No Stilettos in the Himalayas
Author: Sohini Sen
Publisher: Niyogi Books
DNA carries the badge of many a disease that runs in our families— some fatal, most eventually so if enough care is not paid, and others that the ill are strangely fond of. In one such case of a loved-up illness, the patient or the acrophile shows symptoms of delirium at the mention of their object of strange veneration that urges them to gravitate towards and then on top of mountains. In simpler terms, they suffer from (or rather relish) the strange, strong pull of the mountains.
After a day of back-breaking work, these afflicted people can be found planning their next expedition by poring over the internet, travel books or hotly contested debates with fellow afflicted. They more often than not love tea that flourishes in this rarefied air, and will have a cherished photograph, or at the very least a memory, of a poetic sunrise or sunset. Having been denied entry into this august club on account of a dreadful fear of heights that refuses to be masked as vertigo, I salute this tribe and one of their very own—the author Sohini Sen, a front-running present-day chronicler of it.
Her latest book “Zanskar to Ziro: No Stilettos in the Himalayas” seems to be a long cherished travelogue. She and a friend Sumita have crossed over the Himalayas for more than a decade and this book records their adventures across 10,000 kilometres of six states of our nation, namely Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, and West Bengal, and even a couple of neighbouring countries.
Sohini’s having been a journalist is the invisible good vaastu of the book. She manages to keep the tone light and humourous, at times even self-depreciating. She tells her many tales like a beloved friend whose mature outlook to life you find inspiring. The way she packs the divine (call of the mountains) right next to the mundane (activities of the tough existence on these peaks) with the élan of a troubadour will unleash a smile on your lips. The accurate presentation of roughshod life in the mountains demands you doff your hat to her keen, observant gaze. This quality shimmers in this excerpt from the chapter on Deoria Taal, the lake where the Pandavas were said to have been tested by Yamraj in the form of a Yaksh:
Around 8,000 feet, just when the moonlight is fading and the sky turning lighter, the mountain top suddenly opens out to a tree-lined valley, and a huge freshwater lake comes into view. This is the Deoria or Devariya Taal where, according to local belief, devas or gods would come down to bathe.
We wait for dawn. At a shack some distance away from the lake, Jeet celebrates his survival with a double-egg omelette.
Mountains are an unforgiving terrain and their people are known more for their bravery and keen survival instincts than for gentleness. As the book follows two lone women trekking about the Himalayas, surely it cannot be an unending case of all is well! The author writes firmly and quietly about the trials of being a lady jostling through the mountains, be it in the paucity of clean toilets, in the slight (intentional?) brush of the driver’s hand over yours, or the grudging help lent by another elderly woman, mostly because of your gender.
Women are more sensitive, so you will love the way Sohini captures her surroundings–be it the stark yet colourful festivities of the mountains, the pristine beauty of nature at these heights, as also the different shades of male behaviour toward the other half of the population; sometimes helpful, at other times making the latter rather helpless. A fortunate example of the former conduct is a guide ready to go beyond his duty to cook so that the women travelers cannot be stopped from having a simple dinner after an arduous journey, and even stepping up as a driver, on the way to Gurudongmur Lake.
I am familiar with most of the places covered in this book, having an extended family of acrophiles who live near these mountains, love them and are equipped to traipse about them at will. Yet, her tales throw new light on the seen (Gangtok- the history, monasteries, lakes, and Nathu La) and the yet-to-be-seen like Dirang. Her chapter on Aritar/Lampokhari stirs long forgotten memories of an awesome retreat, and the beautiful photographs have given me new vacation goals. I wish you the same when you pick up this book for a weekend read.