AT THE GATES OF TIBET
Two Years on the Gates to the Roof of the World
The dominant feeling of those two years in the mountains was one of loneliness and boredom pierced by the glorious white panorama of great mountains harking the sky. One awoke out of cramped sleep in an unwashed smelly sleeping bag to the sound of the Gorkha pumping the primus stove in your rathole. Then he went out in the rocks with a pick axe and started hacking ice to make water. He came back carrying a quarried block of ice and started breaking it with a stone into smaller clods. They sputtered when he slipped them into the empty milk-powder can used to melt ice on the primus. I watched over the rim of my sleeping bag, as he worked in the light of a sooty lantern. It was still dark outside the small tin igloo perched on the ledge of a high, soaring mountain. Sepoys had made boulder pathways between tin igloos along the steep boulder slope. The rocks were the size of rooms and tractors, black gray rock that had lain for millions of years at the brimming pinnacles of the Himalayas. The mountains lay closed by the snow on all sides. The north face of our home mountain was Tibet. The highest wall that I have seen fell from our mountain a few thousand metres into the fissures of Tibet.
“Leave the door open.” He pushed the steel door hard and it screeched, crushing and grating over the icicles. There was a dark void beyond the yellow shadow. The flame tongues of the primus danced like a movie playing on the sooty concave wall. He knew his breath was frosting in front of his face.
“Should I light the bukhari?” asked the batman. “No leave it.” The interior of the hut was swimming in kerosene fumes. Everything smelt of kerosene; it was the sour fragrance of his life on the steep mountain.
He looked at his Murga wrist watch. The battalion baniya sold it at fifteen rupees a piece. He pressed a small pimple on the watch face. The watch spoke out the time and a cock inside it did a cock-a-doodle. Still half an hour to dawn and the day’s first report to the adjutant far down below in the battalion headquarters. He wondered if the telephone line was working. It was a recurring problem, and for weeks they stayed cut out of communication. The best thing to do when it snowed for days on end was to stay inside your stone holes or your tin igloo, sallying out off and on with spades to clear your door and roof from getting buried under tons of snow. You cut the ice all around, using the spade as an axe and scoop and throw the ice over the snow parapets.
“I am going to get tea.” The Gorkha left unobtrusively and followed the clumps in his thick snow boots. It was dangerous, negotiating the rocks in the dark. You slipped on ice and could end up with a broken bone. The Gorkhas could move with a blindfold within the spread of their company and on most of the scree trails and through the giant boulders. The snow boots were two or three sizes too big for most of them. The thick khaki woolen socks slipped into the empty toe space and bunched there; they had to frequently untie the laces and pull them up.
The green magneto phone started whirring. He picked it up. The sound of the man at the base telephone exchange came faint and dim over miles of cable.
“Snowing, visibility ten metres, NTR, nothing to report.” He put the handset in the notch of the phone. The report hardly ever varied in the snow and ice months. On clear days when the sun came out, he would haul himself up, pulling at the ropes tied to iron pickets hammered home into sheer rock face. Ploughing through waist high snow he would bulldoze his way to the machine gun bunker that overlooked the pass. It was a grand wide saddle, sloping into India. The slope burst into emerald green grass in the summer months and hundreds of Tibetan yaks converged there to graze. Now it was all a sheet of ice and snow.
The Gurkha sentry sat with a primus stove burning at his feet, staring out into the grey cloud through the bunker’s porthole. Everything was white all around, except the black tip of angular rock that caught no snow and was scalped bare by the powerful wind. On the slab made of ammunition boxes a damp and soggy register lay in which the man on duty had to note down everything he saw. That is, everything that he saw along the pass down below. The Chinese Army had a long double-story barracks on the pass and a road coming right up to the pass. There was a circular glass hut on the pass with a cemented plinth all around it. They knew the Chinese were there beyond the iced up no-man’s land. Nobody went close to the no-man’s land. Both sides passed sleepy months, while nothing stirred under the cold rock five kilometres above the sea level. Ice melted, trickled from forlorn lakes down the valley to form raging torrents far away from those gentle, silent lakes amidst knotty rhododendron.
The bored watch slid from one week into the next and one kept sitting in one’s soot-fluffed bunker in grime-dyed coarse wool clothing. The snow fell like the skies were shedding huge seas of dandruff. Deep fissures between rocks got filled and the steep slope, on which we had clung and cleaved tiny bunkers, looked like an even quilted ground of soft-surfaced cotton, ready to swallow a man in one quick burp and close its mouth again.
A Gorkha on duty pointed down to the far-off Chinese hutments at the pass. “Not even a mouse has stirred out of their post.” They were burning wood inside; blue wood smoke drifted out of their chimneys. It was frontier in cold sleep and our neighbours, we envied. We lived like salamanders in holes and piles of stones on the mountain. Its pinnacle rose into the sky like the sword of a sky invader. When you looked up at the peak, the sky looked small and distant. The section of Gorkhas and the artillery observers who were incarcerated on the tip of the sword had it much worse than the rest of the two platoons that clung around the hilt of the sword a thousand feet lower.
Those who talk of Kaala Paani and Tihar or Sing Sing or Belmarsh or Guantanamo Bay have no idea about the perilous ways in which the army beads the Himalayan oyster with platoon and section strength pearls for thousands of miles. In the snow the Chinese never stirred out; their presence on the pass was the light plume of wood smoke that was distinct like a vaporous gray stain on a white bed cover. They didn’t care a hoot about the pass being covered by our machineguns. Sometimes I thought that I could take my Gorkhas and kick them out in one hour and start living in their long wood fire barrack. Not in the thick of the cold season, but when the snow melted and one saw the Cyclopean rocks naked. I was sure we could use the rocks, hide in them and overrun the pass. In the young, the very concept of physical fatigue is eliminated and replaced by rash courage.
The Gorkhas are silent troops; they have a soft tongue and they never slide into anger. When two Gorkhas are talking to each other, it is hard to hear them at five paces. This soft exterior is so deceptive to an Indian born and bred in the vulgar-tongued and noisy races of north India. The Gorkhas don’t sing songs of braggadocio like the Sikhs and Jats. Their soft songs are songs of love and longing for their wives and their children and their mountain homes in Nepal. They love and honour their women and spend their money lavishly and at startling speed on their loves.
The temperatures were dozens below zero and blizzard and snow reigned. The observation posts with the machineguns had to be manned with two men round the clock in each bunker. Even at 3 in the morning, when twenty foot of snow would bury most bunkers, the men stood awake and ready. Of course, each person knew that not even a snow leopard would venture out five yards from his lair in such weather. But orders were orders, sacred orders, sacreder than Gita, Koran or Bible.