The genesis of Tso and La, as both the blurb and inner-pages will inform you, occurred when Vikramajit Ram, struggling with “a novel that has hit an impasse” was fortuitously invited by a friend, Manoj, on a driven trip through Ladakh (which, for your information, is a region lying between the Himalayas and the Kunlun mountain range). “Tso” as you will also read between the scenic covers (photographed and composed by Ram himself – a taste of the images within) is the “Tibetan-Ladakhi word for ‘lake'” with “La” being mountain pass in the same language. This is just a couple of the facts you will pick up during reading, or rather, that you will have snuck into your head without the feeling that you are at all being lectured – notable favorites include the Latin name for ‘plum’, a brief introduction to the Bactrian Camel and regional words for everything from dog to grandad.
Vikramajit begins with a description of viewing Manoj’s father’s photo album; the elder having visited the area in his time in the military during that, slightly hairy, altercation between Indian forces and those of the People’s Republic of China in late 1950s-early 60s. This introduction is interspersed with details about the main trip of the book and sets up a pleasant juxtaposition, seeming to locate the story quite firmly in the here-and-now: a fundamental necessity when telling a tale that, on occasion, describes events that seem impossibly coordinated or serendipitous for a factual description of something so haphazard as a real-life trip.
The blurb’s description of Ram’s journey as “the perfect fix for his jaded senses” unfortunately, goes severely against the grain – either his post-trip recollections succeed in unearthing experiences completely untainted with cynicism or the definition of ‘jaded’ which the blurb writer is using for reference has little or nothing to do with the actual use. At times the ‘work’ Raam is escaping is mentioned, usually in passing and always as part of some insight to one interaction or another, yet, apart from moments of exasperation and mis-translation, our narrator’s default attitude to what he documents seems to be one of absorption and awe from the off. This perspective, thankfully, is in stark contrast with the slow, sullen, teenagerly ‘coming around’ that the small yet important portion of descriptive text suggests (for anything other than persistent enthusiasm would have prevented such a deep an vibrant account ever being experienced, never mind retold). In fact if anything, Ram’s companion, Manoj, occasionally occupies the role of lovable curmudgeon, as exhibited by the interactions that are very familiar by the book’s end:
” ‘And you saw all that in less than a second.’ [Manoj]
‘Yep. You know, it’s a curse. I try so hard not to look at unsightly sights and see what happens. Which reminds me, what’s the word for dog? Zip-something? Zorry?’
Man frowns, , negotiating a gentle curve. Khardung La doesn’t seem at all as treacherous as it is made out to be. Not yet, at least. We’re gaining altitude at a steady pace, leaving Leh-valley behind in a smog-like haze.
‘Zhankey’ [again, Manoj]
‘That’s right. Zhankey. Even those bloody zhankey were caked in dried blood and bits of dead meat. Awful. Have you noticed how the zhankey in these parts have dreadlocks and yellow eyes? Yolk yellow to be precise. Fine in an egg but evil in-‘
‘Please shut up.’
Although do not misunderstand, ‘Man’ certainly has his own moments of puckishness and rapture along the way.
Ram’s experience as an author (this is his third published book) certainly shows through both in his telling of the tale and his poetic, occasionally whimsical, often self-aware, take on beautiful and extreme world of Ladakh. In some ways it seems like he was always going to write up his experiences, considering the diligence with which he frequently records their adventures, however, certain parts of the tale truly exhibit the unique quality of the area: leaving you inclined to believe in the sincerity of his epiphany around half-way through expressing a sentiment along the lines of: “how could I not write about this?” What is most effective however, is the dedication with which the memoir is truthfully told. Ram seems to take great pride in recounting the experiences as they occurred, including, without reservation, descriptions of human error, prejudice and fickle moods. He applies the same powerful lens which picks out such vivid details of the surroundings to those that he meets, to his travelling companion and, most importantly, to himself: quite deliberately including all of the color and drama of a two-man expedition to some of the highest peaks of the world. He conquers what would be, for some, a fierce temptation to edit life into a kind of personal propaganda or a bland and soulless exercise in “everything’s fine”: as a result producing a story that can be read and enjoyed for the very same elements that fictional novelists grit teeth and pull hair to create.
Tso and La can be found in most reputable Indian bookstores and online. For more information about the author and his other books, Elephant Kingdom and Dreaming Vishnus go to his agent’s website http://www.tnq.in/vikramajitram.html or his Facebook pages