Tso and la: A Journey in Ladakh B Vikramjit Ram Harper Collins 2012, pp 233 325 All adventures are not meticulously planned and organised. Some are serendipitous. This trip to Ladakh belongs to the latter category.
As Vikramajit says, quite honestly, this trip had no agenda; neither was it a fact finding mission, nor an arcane quest. He jumped at the offer from his friend Manoj on the spur of the moment, his decision coming at a time when he had writer’s block and wanted to distance himself from a novel-in-progress, which we assume, had reached an impasse.
The introduction sets the pace and tone of the book: easy, nostalgic and reminiscent ofa favoured holiday. His cantankerous friend’s father shares his album with Vikramajit, an album of photographs taken when he was in the army, during the conflict between India and the Republic of China in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The reader is then taken on a journey in an SUV named P Singh whose unlikely nomenclature is a “nod to the part-Sikh roots of his owner, the aforesaid Manoj or ‘Man’. The SUV, in many ways, resembles its owner: puckish, cantankerous, and totally reliable. And the three of them set off on this journey, gliding and sliding their way from Bengaluru, culminating in Ladakh.
Throughout, the author’s special blend of his interest in architecture, history, botany and zoology, couched in sensitive language, combine to describe a very readable tryst with the countryside he traverses.
His eye for detail, especially visual, and particularly in colour, is enhanced by his nuanced vocabulary, as on page 2/3 he describes the different shades of blue as revealed by the Pangong Lake, jewel-like shades that flash in the mind’s eye just as they flashed in the author’s eyes. Or when he describes the child monks playing in the snow, and compares them to a rope of ruby beads in their red robes, tumbling down a dun coloured slope. His descriptive powers extend to characters, as in the monks’ “tonsured, flappy robed, rumbustious as yellow billed choughs” or the flora and fauna. Added to all this is a delicious spice of humour as when talking about their encounter with the Bactrian camels. In fact, his own description of a monastery, “high on form, texture, aroma and colour”, could well be applied to his writing.
He weaves together elements of what he knows about the land and what he observes. In between, he intersperses unusual words in Tibetan-Ladakhi which will be definitely useful for an anticipated traveller to the region. And you gently learn that ‘tso’ means lake and ‘la’ means mountain pass, both of which he has his fill of.
There were two moments of epiphany for me: one, when the author reaches the highest motorable pass in the world, and decides, on the wing, that he will ‘expunge’ the reams of words and pages of the fiction that he was trying to write and taking a break from. And he decides to chronicle his trip — warts and errors and all — being the here and now of reality. Lightness remains after this decision. The second is when he revisits Ladakh by himself — to round off his story of what happened on the expedition — with his moody friend and his amusing vehicle, P Singh.
Easy reading, although sometimes I found myself wandering in mind because of the plethora of descriptions and too much detail. Silence, sometimes, can be equally empowering, as he finds in some desolate areas of Tso and La.
The book is a must-read for anyone interested in Ladakh — and a true armchair travelogue — no hair raising adventures, no adrenalin-inducing encounters, risky but in no seeming danger, and with lots of quirky characters, including the two-legged and the four-legged kind. For me, it was like a closure for the aborted trip I made to Ladakh when a cloud burst put paid to half the holiday and we had to return. So a lesson learnt that such bleak beauty can be dangerous — something that luckily, Vikramajit Ram did not experience.