‘Suddenly, writing fiction seemed much easier than trekking’

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Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh
Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

For the most part, writing is an unexciting, sedentary occupation, involving tedious hours spent at a desk, worrying over commas and gerund phrases. I’ve worked in this business long enough to have written my first novel on a manual typewriter and received a telegram informing me that it was accepted for publication. Now that I’ve revealed my seniority, not being a child of the digital age, let me tell you about an incident from my life as an author that was somewhat more adventurous than hitting the backspace on my computer.

Soon after my first novel came out, I submitted a proposal to write a book about trekking from Kashmir to Kathmandu. At first, it looked very simple on the maps, as I traced the meandering route with my finger. A publisher no less than Alfred A Knopf gave me an advance of $1,500 to finance this expedition. With my wife Ameeta riding pillion on a motorcycle, we set off from Mussoorie to Ladakh, where our adventure was about to begin. By the time we reached Srinagar, Ameeta decided it would be more comfortable to fly the rest of the distance to Leh, while I carried on by bike.

The first stage of our trek took us to the Zanskar Valley. My good friend and photographer Gurmeet Thukral joined us, along with two porters and a horseman leading a white mare loaded down with tents and gear. I had a romantic notion of travel writing. All you had to do was go out and experience exciting things, and the book would somehow write itself.

Of course, there was plenty of adventure along the way. One night, a wolf came into camp and terrified our horse until we shooed the predator off. Our diet consisted of lentils that refused to cook at high altitudes and yoghurt made from yak’s milk. Half way through the journey, we were joined by a lama who walked with us for several days, fording rivers and traversing landslides. Climbing up to the Shingo La pass, the lama tried to take a shortcut but slipped and fell several hundred feet into the valley. He looked like a maroon-and-yellow pinwheel tumbling down the barren slope. Gurmeet and I dropped our packs and scrambled down to where he’d disappeared into a ravine. We expected to find him in pieces. However, the lama must have had good karma, for he was alive but sore. That night we dosed him with aspirin and gave him a Vicks VapoRub massage, the only medication we had.

Never having taken an expedition like this before, I seriously under-budgeted our expenses. By the time we limped into Manali our money had run out. Fortunately, Gurmeet was able to sell several unexposed rolls of Kodak film to pay for bus tickets to Chandigarh, where he borrowed cash from a distant cousin. He and Ameeta headed home to Mussoorie, while I hitched rides on trucks, all the way back to Ladakh, where I retrieved my motorcycle. On the return journey, I had a flat tyre south of Kargil, not far from the LoC. Two jawans appeared out of foxholes next to the highway and marched me off to a military workshop, hidden under camouflage netting. I’ve always been grateful to the Indian Army for supplying me with the valve wrench I needed.

By the time I got back home and consulted my maps, I realised that we had covered only a couple of inches. Kathmandu was still far away and Mr Knopf’s advance had already been spent. Meanwhile, Ameeta was threatening divorce and Gurmeet was calling me unpublishable names for making him walk eight hours a day for three weeks.

After this experience, I realised how much easier it was to write fiction. All I had to do was sit at my desk and make up things in my mind. Scraping together what little royalties remained from my first book, I returned the advance, and quickly sat down to write another novel.

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