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Op-Ed

The young man and the mountains

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By EMN Updated: Nov 02, 2013 9:16 pm
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Jack T. Chakhesang

 

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]n independent command in an outpost, and that too, at 12,000 feet above mean sea level on the wintry heights of Sikkim facing the Tibetan Jelep La pass in the north, was a lonely way to earn your pay. You are lonely in the real sense of the term. In the Indian Army, there is a social gap between Officers and their men. This was not because of any discrimination as such but in keeping with the norms of Indian culture which, inter alia, defined the roles of each and every rank.A commander must remain aloof from his men or else they will walk all over you. Keep them occupied in a regulated way no matter how much they dislike it and after a while they get used to it. There had been times though when yours truly had to rack his brains to think up some new thing so that my men did not suffer from boredom. For an idle mind can monger unheard of and undreamt of mischiefs.
The Jawan is the luckiest man. He has not to worry for his food, clothing, pay, leave, even fighting. There are others to do the worrying. A good commander ensures that all the worries are evenly delegated and then the men know instinctively that they are part and parcel of a superb fighting force. So, every command—or pinnacle—is loneliness. And I often wonder why some men do so many things to achieve this kind of peak.
When a mind is alone for long, it can come up with all kinds of ideas and observations. A writer wishes to be alone but he does so of his own volition. He has the (powerful) choice to change his mind. A commanding soldier is alone because he is ordered to—and paid for it. And not necessarily of his own volition.
Sitting alone in my bunker, I tune in to All India radio, Kohima at 1600 hours every evening whenever possible. It is good to hear news of home. In those days there were no TV, no mobile phones, no PCO nor even FAX facilities such as this present generation is blessed with. It was nigh on impossible to even book a call to Kohima via Army channels—forget my native Pfutsero. The portable transistor was the only means at my disposal. Plus the occasional letters from friends, men and women..
It mattered not that I understood but a few of the Naga languages. When a Naga meets a fellow Naga of another tribe anywhere outside Nagaland, they feel such a sense of brotherhood bordering on the emotional. But back home these same two revert to their customary norms. First and foremost is loyalty to the family, then the clan, the village, the area/range, district and the tribe, religion and nation—in that order. I sometimes think that it is difficult to buy the loyalty of any Naga because of his indoctrination of our social customs and traditions. The most I can venture to say is that maybe you can rent it for a while because anyone’s self-interest takes precedence over many other considerations.
In spite of diversions, a healthy young man, barely 22 years, has a hard time controlling his natural desires. The repressed energy can get channelised and find an outlet in the arts. I began writing love-forlorn verses and limericks especially in a land where only the bare rocks when not covered by snow and occasional rhododendrons were visible. No snakes, mosquitoes no flies or even women at that height.
There were times in that rarefied atmosphere that my perception of things became so clear that I could find a reason to laugh at anything. On clear days, on the West, snow-capped Kanchenjunga—Five Treasures of Snow—made me feel secure from the pains and expectations of love—that age-old source of man’s happiness and suffering. I was on the verge of discovering something, of unraveling the mystery of life which, for want of a better word, men call God.
There is something truly serene about the mountains and it is no wonder that practically all the deities of whichever religion, have their abodes on the mountains. There’s Zeus on his Mount Olympus, Shiva on Mount Kailash, the Japaneses have Mount Fujiyama, the sacred mountain of the Japanese. Other mountains have had a bearing on the cultural and industrial evolution of their areas. For the Christians Mount Sinai plays a vital role because it was here that Moses communed with God and brought down the Ten Commandments—not once, but twice.
Throughout the ages, mountains have fascinated men because “it is there” and they have always posed a challenge for man whose thirst for conquest is never satisfied. No man can really conquer the mountains but if he can survive amongst them, it is a victory for something deep within him.
The mountains have their moods, too. Sometimes it is windy and chilly, other times it rains or hails, yet other times it snows and when it snows the snowflakes can be friendly as they caress you. In fact, no two snowflakes have ever been alike in shape till date. Suddenly, there just might be a blizzard and an avalanche can rumble down. Then the sun shines and the reflection from the snows can be so blinding that you cannot look at it with naked eyes. Neither can you look at God with naked eyes. You can only feel His Spirit.
From the mountains you can gaze at the distant rivers and plains that seem to level with you, and the sensation you experience is something like prayer. You become free of mundane habits of competition and envy and you grow and expand. You can also become pugnacious, easily irritated and intolerant of seeing the same faces every day. So, the mountains can kill you too.
Towards the north, some distance from my border observation post (BOP), one can look down at the Chumbi Valley which is compelling. And in the background is the sweeping panorama of the Tibetan plateau powdered with snow and littered with snow dunes. A unique people live there with their time-worn customs, Buddhist religion and severe political climate. There is a saying that anyone from the mountains ultimately wishes to go back there.
A hot water bath morning and evening and my favourite tipple that followed made my vision even greater. Army Officers tend to bathe too often and though it may be because we sweat a lot even in the mountains, I think that this habit also has something to do with some psychological need just as soldiers are more prone to using vulgar words as it is a kind of outlet some may even argue, a substitute for coitus engagement except on an imaginary level because they are always dancing in our thoughts. But then bathing and romantic thoughts are among the many privileges especially of those confined in a military monastery and you may rest assured that we made the best use of them.
There were yet other times when yours truly wondered why you have to put on a uniform and carry a weapon with which you are trained to kill your fellow human beings, and you wonder why men cannot live together in peace. But then, if men did live together in peace, I suppose it would be an unnatural phenomenon.
The fourth and fifth months passed that way. By the sixth and seventh months the repressed sex becomes intolerable. Thus any crack, any crevice, any odd-shaped driftwood or stone, reminds you of what you are missing. Such thoughts sing in your head all the time. In the second week of the eighth month, I decided that it was time I went on leave. I got the Adjutant on the field telephone.
“Good morning, Sir. Jack here.”
“Ha! Jack, bolo (shoot),” boomed Captain Balwinder, from HQ 20 kms away down the mountain. I could smell the garlic and onions on his breath and the sweet sickly odour of those hirsute guys and who sweat a lot.
“Sir, request 14 days casual leave.”
“Bloody fellow! Saale! Aaj ka bacha! Abhi, abhi fauj mein bharti hua aur saale chutti mangta hai!” (Today’s boy! You have just joined the Army and now you dare to ask for leave!”) And he slammed down the phone.
Considering that we had been in some operations together, I think that was rather unfair. But if he could stand himself all day long, I certainly could bear with him for a few moments. I decided to try again. When the Adjutant came on the line again, I said, “Sir, repeat my earlier request for leave.”
“Neither you ask for it nor vill you get it,” he assured in his Punjabi accent.
“Sir, with due respects, may I point out that each and every man is relieved from high altitude every three months but I am onto my third round.
“So bloody vhat! You can’t take some ragra (bullshit)?
“I can and I have. Now its only fair that I get some respite.”
“Vhat!?”
“Respite Sir. Rest Sir.”
“Don’t lagao your Angrezi on me.” He slammed down the phone again.
I drummed my fingers. It would be against protocol to approach the Second-in-Command of the Battalion although Officers’ welfare was his portfolio. I finally decided on persistence.
“The Adjutant is not available on the phone,” said the operator at Battalion HQ. Not available for me would be nearer the truth. He would not respond even on the wireless set. For the next several days I called and called even at odd hours. No responses form the “Lion” (Army code for Adjutant).
Finally, I told the operator to take an “Op Immediate” message: “Tell the Adjutant that I am about to post a letter to the Chief of the Army staff copy to my representative in the Lok Sabha for discrimination against an innocent minority member for no rhyme or reason other than communal. Also. under my command a special commando raid will be conducted on Yatung (Chinese outpost in Tibet) early morning. I am fed up of inaction up here.”
I knew exactly what weapons the Chinese had and even their approximate strength. Contrary to what most civilians think, in such situations, we rarely find ourselves afraid. Rather, we live under constant threat of death what with the enemy’s guns and rockets trained on our positions all the time that fear like pain, can become dull. Besides, courage is not the absence of fear. Rather, it is how you overcome it. Hemingway once described it as having “grace under pressure.”
Of course, Yatung was not a feasible operational venture and it is unlikely that I would have made a success of it as I would have to pass through the operational areas of other Indian units and they would be sure to challenge me every time especially without prior information. But the Adjutant understood that people can go right round the bend any time in the high altitude.
In retrospect, I like to think that he had a rather high opinion of me by keeping me up there for so long.
“Nao, Jackie dear,” (conciliatory voice), “vhat is this? I don’t believe that you vill do such a thing. I know you my dear and I am trying to get you relieved. Okay, okay, you vill go on leave after some veeks.”
“Vhy note nao?” I mimicked.
“Because you get promoted to Lieutenant soon and to Captain three veeks later.” As if I didn’t know! I persisted nevertheless.
“Don’t take me othervise, Jackie. Try to understand my problem also.”
“Then please permit me even one night in Gangtok until then.”
He was silent for a few moments. Then said: “Nao, give me von ploody good reason why I should let you go to Gangtok.”
“Because Sir,” I said slowly, “I have neither seen nor talked with a woman for almost eight months.”
“Vhat! Vhat!” This Sardarji truly had difficulty in understanding Angrezi.
“Because, you….” And I belted out a string of gaalis in both Punjabi-Angrezi mixed expressing all the frustrations and suppressed anger.
Pause. Then he roared with laughter. It reminded me of the missing link.
“Okay, tomorrow morning you start. But I vant you back by last light day after.”
“No thanks. And up yours,” and I slammed the phone down before he could say anything. It seems you get results when you give gaali to a Sardarji. Had I asked for leave in the twelfth month, I’d probably have got it immediately.
Early next morning, three of us, my batman, driver and I started for the four-hour ride down to Gangtok. I decided to sleep it off. I ordered my batman to wake me up when we are on its outskirts. In no time he was shaking me awake. I washed my face on the move itself. I was thrilled to see Gangtok and knowing that I was returning to civilization, I had a hard time not to feel and think like a wild animal.
Then I espied a bakhoo-clad woman walking ahead. Her figure looked good. I told the driver to slow down. It seems that I was always seeing a woman walking in front whenever I’d be riding a vehicle.
This time, I was determined not to offer her a lift but you bet I was going to say “Hi!” while on the move. At that moment, I didn’t much care for the good name of the Army. I deserved a treat. So, just as the Jonga was overtaking the woman, I leaned out to greet her but my voice got stuck in my throat.
She was an old woman!
I settled back in my seat self-consciously hoping to hide my embarrassment when the driver said: “Koi baat nahin, Saa’b. Sabhi ko yeh haalat hota hai jab upar se aata hai.” (Its all right Sir. It happens to everyone who comes down from the mountains!”)

This is an excerpt from the novel “Goodbye, My Regiment” published by Lancers Books, New Delhi, 1985.

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By EMN Updated: Nov 02, 2013 9:16:38 pm