2000, Essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, Kargil

Kargil: Winter Clues to the Portents of Summer

A fragment from a long essay on the Kargil War: Part 4. The essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, was published in an eponymous collection on the Kargil War by HarperCollins India in 1999

Along the high and desolate road to Kargil

Kargil/Srinagar: For a few weeks midsummer, between the melting of snow and the onset of snow Kargil is awash with yellow roses. Kargilis have an odd passion for picking them and sticking them into their mouths. They make a queer comic sight, like overgrown babies suckling on oversize soothers. But faith turns on its own illogic. Kargilis chew on yellow roses in the belief that it is good for the body and the soul and the future.

This summer there wasn’t enough time to pick flowers, though. And eventually there weren’t enough people to pick them. War had brought a desperate season to Kargil. The yellow roses stood mostly unclaimed. Military convoys moved up and down and the dust from their tyres and gunpowder from the artillery settled on them. The rain would oft come and wash them and restore their freshness but the trucks and the guns this summer were quite unrelenting.

When I had first gone to Kargil in the September of 1998 in search of a story to tell, it didn’t look remotely like a place roses could bloom in. The mountain were bare but for moss which had caught the chill and turned an unreal mauve. The snows were about to fall and Zojila Pass about the close for the winter. Kargil was already preparing for its long hibernation — its high mountains aloof and its valleys stripped to cold, dun earth by early frost. The slow pirouette of confrontation that would churn up into this summer’s war had just begun. Kargil was under fire from Pakistani artillery.

Fayaz had driven me up from Srinagar then. A veteran Valley hand, Fayaz was no stranger to peril. But the drive to Kargil had shaken him. When shells began flying between Kharbu and Kaksar, he ducked his head into the steering wheel and stepped on the accelerator. I remember telling him what I would repeat often this summer: ducking inside the car or speeding is no insurance against a flying shell; if it has to get you it will, no matter what the vehicle’s speed, or the angle of your body’s contortion.

Late one night, Fayaz shook me awake. We were at the Kargil Dak Bungalow and a few shells had flown close over its gables. “Lagta hai kayamat aane waali hai, wapas chaliye,” Fayaz told me. He did not want to stay; he wanted to go and never ever come back.

At a newly dug gun-point on the Zojila-Drass road
At a newly dug gun-point on the Zojila-Drass road

Fayaz was in Kargil again during this summer’s war, driving a CNN team; he appeared less afraid and more accepting even though June-July of 1999 in Kargil was much worse than the September of 1998. But the penumbra of the intruder had begun to emerge even on that first trip. One of my reports for The Telegraph had said, “For a tribe that so few in the Valley can even claim fleeting familiarity with, they (foreign militants) have built up an awesome reputation. Nobody quite knows them but everybody seems to know of them. They are there, somewhere, probably in the hills and villages up north, and they are up to something. Some say they are launching preparations for a jehad. Others, that they are the apparatchik of a violent insurrection being meticulously planned in Pakistan. Who are these foreign militants? Why are they in Kashmir? Where are they in Kashmir?… A low-intensity response to the shelling from the other side may not quite be the right measure from Kargil… the mounting ferocity of the adversary’s posture requires new arrangements.”

On my return to Srinagar, a senior state government officer had called me. He thought I was in need of serious advice on my vocation. “I think when journalists have nothing to write, they begin making things up. It is sometimes a good idea not to pay much heed to hearsay. People in Kashmir are idle, they gossip.” That evening, at his riverside country home in Ganderbal, I told Qayoom, a dear friend and a sensitive Kashmiri, about the officer’s counsel. We agreed we were probably being a little morbid about the state of Kashmir but we also agreed we were being realistic. “You will be back soon,” Qayoom had told me that night, “Ominous things are going to happen in Kashmir.”

Part 1: A Good Soldier on a Bad Night

Part 2: A Sky Stunned by Artillery

Part 3: One Side of a Bleeding Fence