Q. Yatra Pathe Rabi and Ladakh: A Photo Travelogue, your earlier books chiefly dealt in photographs. What led you to straight-up travel writing, with minimal photographs, in your latest book, Zanskar to Ziro: No Stilettos in the Himalayas?
A. I have been writing feature stories for close to three decades. Writing is my first love, always will be. Photography became a hobby when I started travelling to the Himalayas from 2007. While the photographs in my earlier books were hugely appreciated—I am grateful to my readers for this—I felt that in Zanskar to Ziro: No Stilettos in the Himalayas, the narration by herself would allow the reader to vividly imagine the places described.
Q. Could you briefly tell us about the inception of Zanskar to Ziro?
A. My friend Sumita and I travelled across the Himalayan ranges over 10 long years and 10,000 kilometres. This book offers a diverse and colourful collage of 52 places across the Himalayas (six Indian states and two neighbouring countries): from Ladakh in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east. It tries to capture both the stillness of the mountains, and the chaos of the quaint s festivals. It weaves together the fine silk thread of ever-lasting literature and the coarse yak-wool of oral narratives. It blends insight with intuition, a sense of peace with a sense of danger, laughter with pain.
Q. What were the initial challenges you faced while attempting travel writing for the first time in the book-length format?
A. Strangely enough, apart from meeting my own expectations from my writing, there weren’t any challenges. The structure of this book was very clear in my mind: that I would begin with the toughest and the most barren Himalayan ranges in the north, and end with the gentle, verdant slopes in the east.
Q. Could you talk about the difficulties you encountered during your journey in your trip, covering roughly about 10,000km?
A. I suffered serious bouts of Acute Mountain Sickness twice, and was once almost killed by it. Our cars have rolled down slopes in reverse, once on the highway to Nako Lake, featured in History TV channel’s IRT Deadliest Roads, and another time at Ravangla. A massive boulder the size of four loaded trucks piled two by two missed our car by seconds while on the way to Gurudongmar Lake. Sumita was embraced by aggressive monkeys, I was slapped by an old Nepali woman. Of course, there were the usual incidents of theft, bandhs, chauvinism and sexual harassment.
The acceptance that comes from having lived half of our lives helped us face difficulties with a sense of humour—often self-deprecating—that readers will find throughout the book.
Q. How do you think a woman, willing to traverse the landscape of a country, can overcome these problems while travelling alone or, as in your case, with another woman? Any tips?
A. You cannot prepare for the unexpected. We took some precautions regularly, such as, returning to our hotels by sunset, checking our hotel room locks and latches before retiring to bed, wearing androgynous attire, carrying a good stock of medicines and even a portable oxygen cylinder.
“A massive boulder the size of four loaded trucks piled two by two missed our car by seconds while on the way to Gurudongmar Lake. Sumita was embraced by aggressive monkeys, I was slapped by an old Nepali woman. Of course, there were the usual incidents of theft, bandhs, chauvinism and sexual harassment.”
Q. Do you think being a woman—as you had to be cautious of your safety all the time—you somehow missed out on experiencing the destinations the way you would have like to?
A. To a small extent, yes. But we have mostly found the mountain towns safer than cities on the plains. Not just the inhabitants, those who love the mountains enough to keep going back to them are men of a different mettle.
Q. You have been a journalist for 10-plus years. Do you think that experience especially in terms of researching, observing and writing, helped you in any way when you sat down to write this book?
A. Yes, definitely. Before every trip, I would do a tremendous amount of online and offline research, a habit formed during my long stint with the Telegraph newspaper. Writing a weekly travel column—“One Place at a Time” for the Financial Chronicle helped me understand the importance of brevity and wit.
Q. There are fine details mentioned in this book about the destinations you have been to? Could you share with us your method of note-taking?
A. You touch a raw nerve. At the end of every tiring day on the hills, I would settle down after dinner and scribble my impressions, longhand. Once back home, I would again key in the notes on my PC. Until Sumita took pity on me as late as 2015, and gifted me an iPad. It spared a lot of duplication.
Q. Could you share some of the best experiences you had during these journeys recorded in the book?
A. Driving through the resplendent autumn colours of Suru and Zanskar River Valleys, feeling the shiver down the spine when we realised we had been watched by a leopard, trekking up to Chandrashila Peak (13,000 ft) for a breath-taking—literally and figuratively—view of both the Kumaon and the Garhwal Himalayas at sunrise, being blessed by a humongous phallus, completing the Tiger’s Nest trek to discover that we were related to Guru Padmasambhava… The list could go on.
Q. Did travelling with a companion change you as a person? If so, how?
A. A sense of harmony and a shared sense of madness are crucial. We had those to begin with. Sumita and I are quite different from one another. Over the years, we have imbibed each other’s traits. Like her, I can now let go. Like me, she is learning to hold on to names: of birds, and peaks, and little villages. We are both able to live more simply. Believe in the impermanence of life.
Q. What advice would you offer to someone who is considering travel writing seriously?
A. Travel. Read. Extensively. Repeat.
Q. Is it possible to change the mindset of society towards women travellers? How so?
A. Women who travel are not very different from women who do not. It is for men to stop their use and abuse, both at home and outdoors. Society has a long, long way to go in this direction.
Q. What are you working on next?
A. Possibly a photo travelogue on Bhutan.
Zanskar to Ziro: No Stilettos in the Himalayas is published by Niyogi Books