REMINISCENCES: SIACHEN, BEYOND KNOWN FRONTIERS
Lt Col S V Sundar
It was the first patrol that had been cleared to recconnoitre that particular piece of territory since the Indian army had moved into Siachen. It suddenly occurred to me that I was probably the first human being to have ever been here. The thought left me perturbed. Awe, a sense of thrill. I couldn’t define it. It was a glittering valley of white. I remember that particular valley because it was there that I came to know fear. Overwhelming paralyzing fear that left me weak in the gut and drained the power in my long lean legs. It was in that frozen wasteland that I came to terms with my own fear. The experience left me feeling purified and cleansed. But that’s a different story. Perhaps I might write it some other time.
What prompted me to put down my recollections? After I returned to Base, the inevitable question I used to encounter from those about to be inducted was “What is it like up there?” The only answer I gave was a short terse ‘OK’. And my mind would run the gamut of my experiences. Fragmented, disjointed thoughts running through my mind like a movie in fast forward. People, emotions, loneliness, I really couldn’t answer the question. So, I resorted to OK which meant everything and nothing at all. Then the questions came pouring out.
Is it as cold as they say it is?
How many pairs of socks are required?
How comfortable are the pre fabricated huts?
How’s the food?
I was disheartened because the questions formed a pattern. Everyone was interested in only one thing, their own comfort and survival. Understandable when you are going to an inhospitable place, difficult and unwelcoming. But the depressing part was that the questions stopped short of an inquisitive mind. The spirit of adventure, the thrill to pit your odds against the unknown seemed lacking. Persons who have served or are serving at Siachen would consider even harbouring such thoughts as being on the verge of insanity.
And it became a game. I waited to see if someone would pop a different question. The wait seemed endless. And one day I was asked. A strange offbeat question that had me gaping at the speaker
A captain from the Infantry. He stashed his gear in my hut, looked straight at me and asked the first and only question. Have you seen the Yeti? I could have hugged him for joy. That night we got drunk together and I told him all the stories I had heard from the locals at Base about strange figures that lurk in the night and how one could spot a Yeti if one had the patience to spend the night outside when the moon was bright. I preferred my warm sleeping bag and a good night’s sleep. That night I dreamt of a huge Yeti carrying me on its shoulders and crossing the glistening peaks with giant strides.
Another memory that lingers is of manmade frontiers. I was smoking a cigarette and staring at the peaks. It was dusk. The world seemed endless and horizons unlimited. My reverie was cut short by a phone call. Telephonic orders to go into no man’s land. Pack and move within two hours. Search a designated place. Enemy suspected. Take appropriate action. ‘Appropriate action’ – a euphemism for ‘kill’. The horizons weren’t as endless as I had led my mind to believe. It was just a mile from where I had been sitting. Manmade frontiers which were to be defended at all costs. We packed and moved.
The Maruti races were an entirely different affair. They were fun, joy and exhilaration. It made us forget for some time the monotony and humdrum of camp life. The long lonely vigil was, for a period of time, forgotten. We climbed one of the peaks. After a strenuous climb we gathered at the start point and straddled our ‘Marutis’. Maruti? It was one side of a ghee tin christened ‘Maruti’ by the men of my company. One tin could be used to manufacture four Marutis. One edge of the tin piece was bent and angled upwards so that it could slide through the snow. We shoved the tin pieces under our backsides, sat on them, aimed at the general direction of the camp which we could see far below us and let go. The heart stopping crazy slide downhill, the sheer exhilaration of speed without fear of accident, the feeling of snow smashing into my face, when I ploughed my heel down to change direction or brake, the total fogging of my goggles till I couldn’t see where my Maruti was heading and the final ignoble tumble into the snow.
A bottle of rum for the winner, always shared. A time when men became boys and spoke in the evening of how the back breaking trek uphill had been worth the fun.
I walked into my pre fab hut and found a new year card waiting for me. It was from the brigadier who was in charge of affairs at the Glacier. It was a beautiful card titled ‘Beyond Known Frontiers’. But more important was the message. It didn’t say Happy New Year or anything like that. The script in the Brigadier’s own scrawl read “May you continue to do yourself proud’. A nice thought to end a nice day.
Then the day finally came – my stint was over. It was time to go down. The handshakes and goodbyes over, I strapped on my knapsack and started on my trek down. After a while I looked at the Glacier and took stock. What had I gained? What had I lost? I had lost touch with civilization for three months. Quite a loss. I had not laid eyes on even one specimen of the fairer sex for the entire duration. An even greater loss. I had withdrawn into myself, become more of an introvert. I seemed to have lost the art of conversing for conversation’s sake. I had got used to silence and being in my own world. A habit I would have to make an effort to break. On the plus side what had I gained? Confidence, undoubtedly. The ability to take decisions without looking over my shoulder for support. I had experienced the kinship and camaraderie of my comrades in arms. Dangers shared; mistakes admitted. A mutual love and respect. Respect that had nothing to do with the amount of brass on one’s shoulder or the stripes on one’s sleeve. I had done things. I had had my share of the wild. It was time to go home now.
As I turned my back on the white hills, I remembered the dream of the Yeti carrying me on its shoulders and crossing the peaks with giant strides. Out here one felt so close to heaven sometimes. But more important than anything else, I had found time to look into myself. I had discovered a part of myself that I never knew existed. Came the question – so what? Pat came the reply. Knowing yourself. Isn’t that what life is all about? I chuckled, shook my head and with long fast strides headed towards Base, my first stop before Home.