A woman author, over 400 pages, an eye-catching cover photograph and a title like Zanskar to Ziro—No Stilettos in the Himalayas… on the face of it, the book ticks all the boxes that a reader interested in travel in the Himalayas would desire. The title promises experiences from across the full expanse of the Himalayas, all of 2,400 kilometres of it. An exciting promise indeed! Unfortunately, the promise remains unfulfilled and the book is a big letdown.
Zanskar to Ziro features destinations from six Indian states—Zanskar and Ladakh regions of Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, West Bengal and Arunachal Pradesh—and our two neighbouring nations, Nepal and Bhutan. All the destinations are covered by author Sohini Sen and her friend Sumita.
Though years are not mentioned, the journeys have clearly been undertaken in different years; the eastern Himalayas seem to have been visited first and the western part of the mountain range more recently. The book though follows a straight west to east line, from Ladakh in the Western Himalayas to Arunachal Pradesh in the east.
This leads to minor irritants for a reader. For example, after reading about monasteries and Buddhism in the Ladakh and Spiti regions in the beginning of the book, in the section on Sikkim, which comes much later in the book, the author describes a visit to a monastery near Gangtok as her first experience in a Buddhist religious centre.
This, though, as earlier mentioned, is just a minor irritant and one which can be ignored to an extent. The bigger letdown is that after reading through the over 400 pages, the reader retains nothing. The details are sketchy and the short chapters do no justice to the various regions and destinations covered in the book.
The author takes you to a place and just as you want to know more about it, within a paragraph or two moves on to another. It’s like flitting from one stop to another without ever pausing at a spot long enough to take a look around with both feet firmly on ground.
At most places the writing style resembles point-wise jottings in a dairy. It is as if the author is in a hurry to move on. This might have, at a pinch, worked in a magazine article but in a book feels incongruous.
What salvage the book to an extent are the photographs. Most of them are gorgeous and they, more than the words, give an idea of the place you are reading about. And the best among these is the photo of Spiti’s Langza village on the cover.
The production quality and display of these photographs adds to the appeal. One photograph though is placed in the wrong chapter—the one captioned Buddha rock sculpture, Kargil. It finds place in the chapter on Zanskar Valley though it lies in Suru Valley, which is another chapter. To make things a little more confusing is the fact that there is no text that describes this impressive structure. In fact, the place where this sculpted Buddha is found—Kartse Khar, about 52 kilometres from Kargil—is not mentioned even once in the entire book.
The scope of the book is clearly expansive as it intends to cover a vast area with diverse cultures and landscapes. It seems though in a bid to keep the length of the book under control, the detailed text that such a work demanded was sacrificed. As a result, the title of the book—Zanskar to Ziro—is its highest point apart from the photographs that are a saving grace.