Book review: It makes you fall in love with the hills

The Asian Age.  | Kushalrani Gulab

I want to explore the Himalayas with this book, just as the author did, not zip past them.

Zanskar to Ziro: No Stilettos in the Himalayas by Sohini Sen, Niyogi Books, Rs 995

I begin my review of Sohini Sen’s Zanskar to Ziro: No Stilettos in the Himalayas with a confession: I have not yet finished this book. This gives you a legitimate reason to stop reading this alleged review right away and start reading something else. It also gives my editor the opportunity to throw her computer at my head, and stop payments for all the reviews I have previously written.

But before blood starts flowing out of my arteries (my editor is a vicious creature), I’d like to tell you exactly why I’m being so unprofessional as to review this book without reading it from start to end. It’s simple. This is one of the few books of the hundreds I read every year that I don’t want to read at one stretch. Usually, I race through books at top speed, dying to know how everything turns out. But Zanskar to Ziro is different. I just want to dip into it every now and then, particularly on those occasions when I need to remove myself from my own surroundings, but can’t so much as go to the bank, leave alone the mountains. I want to savour every word and lose myself in places I may never visit. I want to explore the Himalayas with this book, just as the author did, not zip past them. And given that this is not a run-on novel with the traditional beginning, middle and end, but rather, a gorgeous extended travelogue with stunning photos, each chapter focused on a different place in these amazing mountains we call our own, I can do the dip and read thing very easily. In fact, if I’m not too greedy, I may even be able to take a year over this book. Which would make it far too late to review in a timely manner.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t read much of Zanskar to Ziro. I’ve actually read a fair bit, which is why I presume to review it, jumping from state to state as the mood takes me, though I did begin at the beginning, like a good girl. The prologue did what it was supposed to do: it set the stage for the pieces to follow, being less about the mountains and more about the “why travel” question. And, particularly for this country, the “why two women must travel unescorted to out of the way places” question.

Sohini Sen, a former journalist with an English daily, spent 10 years ranging through the Himalayas with her friend Sumita for one reason: both of them love the mountains. I mean, really, really love the mountains. Not the way I do (“Oh, what a pretty view! Help! Can’t look down! Vertigo! Must go back to the hotel and lie in a hammock and stare at snow-capped peaks and drink some tea before I nap”), but in the way true travellers do, which means all kinds of exploration and to hell with hotels without hammocks.

This was not a single (very) extended trip covering the Indian, Nepalese and Bhutanese ranges from West to East, as another young traveller I once met aimed to do over six months (she actually pulled it off). No, this was a series of trips based on a series of episodes of saving up madly, planning, and eventually getting there, wherever “there” might be in these mighty mountain ranges — which is an amazing number of places, and even after 10 years, I bet Sohini and Sumita still haven’t been to many. Which means I can expect another such book in another 10 years or so, hooray!

Right now, though, I have to be satisfied with 52 places. So far, thanks to Sohini Sen and her camera, I have visited Suru Valley in Jammu and Kashmir (best known to most of us as the place where the Line of Control is situated and the Kargil war was fought, now, thanks to this book, known to me as a place that looks like a painting by Monet), Nako in Himachal Pradesh (which I had never heard of before, and where I was thrilled to meet the stray dog who leads travellers to the best views), and Darjeeling (where, as a Calcutta-born person I puja-holidayed through my schooldays, and was delighted to revisit via this book).

Zanskar to Ziro has also taken me to Sikkim, a state I often gawked at from Darjeeling (random Darjeeling resident to puja-holidaying child: “You see the hill across this valley? That’s Sikkim.” Puja-holidaying child: Gape), but have never actually been to. And the Gangtok chapter introduced me to the ghost of Major Harbhajan Singh who died near Nathu La in the 1960s, but who often appears in soldiers’ dreams with accurate information about the whereabouts of Chinese soldiers in this border area. According to the writer, “The Indian Army believes that he would warn them of a Chinese invasion three days in advance.”

I have also read about Tawang, but not Ziro, which I stubbornly intend to keep for the last, but there’s little point my telling you about these places when Sohini Sen, with her wonderfully quiet sense of humour (which sort of sneaks up behind you before you notice it), will guide you much better when you buy this book. Because buy it you must. If you dip into it at random the way I do, I can guarantee you weeks of brilliant mountains minus the vertigo.

Kushalrani Gulab is a freelance editor and writer who dreams of being a sanyasi by the sea.