Journey of a life time!
I wept and wept inconsolably. For a week a depressed state of mind persisted unwilling to let go and see the positive side of things. Even I wasn’t willing to let better sense prevail and wallowed in my misery. My husband who was posted as Project Officer to Military Hospital, Mhow had been sent to the dungeons. So I thought. His posting order had come and he was to pick up the designation of Commanding Officer Military Hospital Kargil. KARGIL, I hope you heard me right!! Anantnag, Sonamarg, Siachen or Tawang would have been better. After all these were also high altitude postings (my husband’s high altitude posting was due) and moreover no WARS were fought there.
WAR _ the name itself conjures up an image of never ending state of unrest. The Kargil War of 1999 was fresh in my memory, infact in the collective memory of us all. For most us it was the only real war which had been brought to our drawing rooms by the omnipresent media. Covert wars are altogether a different ball game. One is at war but still not at war (officially). But the Indian Army has lost many a soldiers in this official- unofficial jargon. Well, that’s a different story altogether which I will deal with in some other piece.
After the posting order was delivered to us at 11.30 at night by a well wisher (??) despair hit me like a tornado. Our friends from the Army helped me to see the bright side (if any) of the scenario. (And the civilians undid everything.) Many congratulated him on getting the Command of a Hospital. Gradually I soothed my frazzled nerves and like a true filmy heroine prepared to send my husband to the Front.
He packed and left and I moved to SF Mhow with my kids. My father came to settle me down and then in-laws followed to give me company. Life was running smoothly except for a few emotional roadblocks. I missed him! (roadblock)
Over a period of five months of separation we decided to move with him to Kargil. My son was in IX std and daughter in III. Many friends advised us against the move. My husband had discovered a small Kendriya Vidyalaya in Kargil which was upto X std. And we decided to take the plunge. Atleast all of us would be together. My father’s untimely demise also strenghthened my husband’s resolve to take us with him.
So we came bag and baggage to Jammu and from there we were to go by our private vehicle to Kargil via NH1 (Jammu to Srinagar to Kargil to leh). My brother is a very good driver (he’s not a driver by profession) and loves to take adventurous trips. So with him on the driver’s seat we set out the journey of a life time. But not before getting safety instructions from my in-laws (don’t stop on the way, don’t talk to strangers, don’t go to the border in Kargil, stay out of the enemy’s sight)
The drive from Jammu to Srinagar was picturesque to say the least. Only thing lacking was good eateries. We reached Srinagar and were asked to keep our mouths shut by my brother as army personnel didn’t a resounding welcome in the Valley. He frequents Srinagar on his official trips and has made quite a few local friends. We drove through the dreaded Lal Chowk on our way to ‘adoos’, a hotel specializing in kashmiri cuisine. Out of fear I refused to meet the eyes of a single local. What if they guessed my background and shot me between the eyes. The service and food at the restaurant was great. And no, nobody sprang up with a gun to pop bullets into our brains. Infact nobody paid any attention to us. Now that was also not too good.
Tourists from the plains roamed the streets of Srinagar with alacrity. I hope these are signs of good times to come. I also hope that a better understanding and reasonable degree of trust develops between the Army and the locals too, for the Army doesn’t deserve so much hatred. Moreover I want to proclaim to the people wherever I go that I am from the Army because I am proud to be one. If I start penning down the intensity of my pride I will again digress from my topic. So may be, next time.
Badami Bagh cantonment is a fortified cantt situated against the backdrop of the Shankaracharya Hill and the Himalayas. The peace and tranquility one experiences inside the cantt does little to hide the turmoil and the danger that lurks outside for our men in uniform. But the magnificent Chinar trees, clear azure skies and the balmy air makes you forget the gravity of the situation.
Morning came in all its glory. The lawns of the Officers Mess we stayed in were in full bloom. The air was crystal clear and we were in high spirits. We were scheduled to reach Kargil by the evening. We took the road to Sonamarg and overtook Army convoys, en route. It dampened my spirits to see armymen in full armour – being in a constant state of war preparedness even within the national boundaries. Boundaries gave a sense of ownership and security – same as one feels within his/her home with his/her family. But having to protect the sanctity of these boundaries day and night angered me a bit. Then again that’s is separate comment on the political faux pas (past and present) and political dilly dallying. And I want to keep my spirits high. Kargil is still a long way.
We reached Sonamarg and saw many a happy tourists enjoying the scenic beauty of the Valley. Sonamarg was like mini-Switzerland minus the Swiss accounts! Deodars lined the river lowing alongside the road which was surprisingly motorable and good. On the way we had chai and pakoras served with courtesy by the local stall owner.
At Sonamarg the landscape was covered with snow and greenery sprouted on the ridges. An ideal ground for winter sports. Bus loads of people had come here to enjoy sports which only the pristine surface of the snowcover could provide. Luckily for us an army recce team was going up to Zoji la to assess the condition of the road. So we joined the convoy. Suddenly the scene changed from breathtaking to awe inspiring. Barren mountains with dry and loose rocks overpowered us. The road became rough and patchy due to the winter snow. Nothing much to do except clutch my heart at every bump and hair pin turn. If one looked out of the car window the sheer drop to the bottom made one giddy. We got stuck in a minor avalanche for a couple of hours. But the members of the convoy and their commanding officer instilled lot courage in me. These men did it almost everyday, I could surely do it once. So I put up false bravado for my kids sake and impress upon my hubby that I was enjoying the trip. He was very enthusiastic about it all.
Anyway we safely crossed all dangerous patches, Captain More (where we performed a little puja) et al. Its amazing how we venerate our heroes who become our guardian angels through the thick and thin of army life. I guess it’s the deep rooted belief in the protection provided by these angels that an army man is able to serve in the toughest of terrains.
There was no break in the monotony of the locale except white patches of snow which too were melting. And then we reached Zoji la. I had read about this pass in Geography books (may be History too)but seeing and passing through was totally a different experience. Here the terrain opened up a bit. Flat plain covered under a deluge of snow. Even the Army and GREF settlements were snowed under. The road had been cleared for the summer traffic and driving on it flanked by walls of snow several feet tall was an extraordinary feeling.
And then I heard my husband mention Tiger Hill. It jolted me out of my open-mouthed wonder. He pointed it out in the distance. It was definitely a tiger of a hill and surely only a tiger could wrench it out the enemy’s control. We had reached Dras. On the roadside were the signs bearing the names of the landmarks where the war was fought. But this was not where a war could be fought and won. The treacherous mountains provided no scope for battlefields. And surely no one could fight a war on the rocky slopes. But our men had fought one on these very slopes and won it too. They had taken the arduous journey by road (which we just did) and then bravely faced the enemy perched on the peaks like vultures. The lion hearts of the Indian Army had successfully wrenched their balding necks. The battle which the Kargil heroes fought in these mountains would silence the most vociferous critics of the Army if all of them were herded to this place and made to take a trekking expedition.
With a heart swollen with pride and a silent prayer for those who had attained martyrdom here, all my misgivings about the Kargil posting started melting away. The closer we came to Kargil the surer I became of the futility of my initial fears regarding this posting. It was in fact an honour to be a part of 8 Mtn Div and breathe in the air where our young officers and jawans had laid down their lives to protect the sanctity of our Motherland. It all sounds very melodramatic and over the top (OTT) but this is exactly how a true Indian would and should feel.
A small town ensconced in the seasonal greenery of summers and white snow of winters surrounded by bare mountains is where the Army is serving its Nation and its people. The poplar and apricot trees with wild flowering bushes lend some colour to the barren landscape in summers. The sparkling water of the Suru river add a sense of calm. On the contrary winters are long and harsh. But beauty doesn’t leave kargil even under the cover of snow. The temperature dips to negative depths. If you hang out clothes to dry they become like roasted poppadums in no time. Water drops falling from the corrugated roofs cling to each other and form icicles which are sometimes a meter long. Imagine a whole series of these icicles hanging from the roof. They add another dimension to the severity of the season. When fresh snow falls its like a silent cottony rendition of a heavenly symphony. Snow flakes fall on everything that’s ugly and equally beautiful. It’s a great leveler in a way. Everything comes under a white blanket to be gradually revealed at the onset of summers.
The scenic beauty, the tough terrain, harsh climate and the spirits of the war heroes wipes out all the doubts that had taken root in my mind at 11.30 that night. Today as my husband serves his tenure here in Kargil feel fortunate to have been able to put aside trunk loads of doubts and trepidations. Political compulsions notwithstanding, an armyman wins through sheer strength of will power and an indomitable spirit. Proud to call myself an army wife who remains a pillar of strength for her partner through everything that life in the Army offers…… then that’s another story!