2000, Essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, Kargil

Kargil: Fire on a Forlorn Frontier with Ishaq and his Ramshackle Jeep

A fragment from a long essay on the Kargil War: Part 5. The essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, was published in an eponymous collection on the Kargil War by HarperCollins India in 1999

Humbotingla: First light has just broken and the mountains are ringing with what is now their routine wake-up call: the report of shells being fired and shells landing. From a distant meadow, two Bofors guns are tossing lead into the sky and the counterblast is peppering the surrounding hills, columns of smoke and dustcloud lazily rising in the wispy morning light. This is almost too beautiful to be a war.

Attempting a satphone connection atop Ishaq’s Jeep in the Sindh gorge near Batalik

It was my second day on the front, yet I had seen very little of the war. The road up from Srinagar had been a portentous preview, nothing more. Beyond Sonemarg, National Highway 1 A, the roadlink the intruders were trying to snap to cut Kargil, Leh and Siachen from the rest of India, was a winding ant crawl of troops. Every little clearing beyond Matayen had become a troop bivouac, camouflage netting stretched across tents and ammunition dumps, artillery guns sunk in freshly dug pits, soldiers busy bunkering. Some guns were firing but most were yet to be positioned. Drass was being mercilessly pounded and military convoys were having to race through the devastated town centre. “We are just about settling in,” a field major near Drass had said, “this is going to be a long haul.” The war was on, of course, but even from the shuddering Drass-Kargil frontier, war, as most of us had come to imagine it, seemed a long, long way away.

I had gone out to the cab stand in the Kargil bazaar looking for a driver who would take me closer to the front, to Batalik perhaps. There wasn’t a driver ready and I was just hanging about when a dilapidated Mahindra rattled in belching smoke. The driver peeped out and smiled. “Kahin jaayenge?” (Want to go somewhere?) he asked. I said Batalik and he said yes. This was going to be the first of my many memorable journeys with Ishaq.

The shortest route to Batalik from Kargil was through Humbotingla, a barren pass 13,800 feet high. The road climbed steeply from the Brigade Headquarters, wove past the military helipad and emerged onto a sprawling plain they call the Khurbathang plateau. It was lush with ripening barley and around the plateau’s greenery rose high mountains, like forlorn skyscrapers. We were chasing the war but all we saw was beauty unfurling. If Zanskar, just south, was ever the abode of the gods, this would be its gateway: vast, spare slopes, some burnished rock, some unwrinkled, like sheets spread out, some the soft brownness of chocolate cake. The valleys vanishing below were emerald and streaked with milky streams.

Humbotingla’s only inhabitant was a howling, freezing wind. We passed a few artillery positions where Bofors and 130 mm guns had been positioned. A few were booming, and a few were being cleaned with brushes so long they looked like they belonged to Godzilla. The rest was gorgeous desolation.

From the top of Humbotingla we plunged headlong into the Indus gorge via Lalung. Lalung was a quixotic sight: an ochre cluster of cavernous dwellings, worked into the hillside, a patch of ancient Judaea transplanted. The terrain changed quickly and in no time we were in the midst of dense apricot forests. We passed orchards of the Silmoo countryside and through more of extravagantly beautiful terrain. Still no signs of the war. When Batalik was just three kilometres on the milestone, I began to suspect that it was all a big lie. That there was no war, no intrusion, no fighting, no death. The road wound down into the craggy gorge and then Ishaq suddenly braked and said “Batalik, sir.”

I wondered if it was some other Batalik we had reached. This couldn’t be described in New Delhi’s surcharged briefing rooms as the fiercest battleground of Kargil. There wasn’t a soul around and the only sound was of the Indus cutting through the rocks a thousand feet below, and of ravens cawing. But Ishaq was smiling the smile of a man who knew better. “Right place but wrong time, sir, the gunfire begins by afternoon and goes on through the night.”

Much later, after the commanding officer had let us in and given us what he had promised — “Hot tea and nothing else”— we got our first glimpses of the front. Soldiers wounded in the battle around Jubbar, one of the three embattled ridges above Batalik, were being driven in for air evacuation to Kargil. They were ragged stretchers, wrapped in bloodied bandages and gunny. Some of them were in rather a bad way, their mates held up intravenous drips as they waited for a chopper to take them away. It had clouded over; it was beginning to snow in the upper reaches. Finding a landing site was tough. The soldiers rushed about as more casualties arrived in ambulances. There were only basic medical facilities available at the base; there was little to do but unload the wounded and wait for the chopper.

Columns of soldiers were leaving for the front, slowly inching up the hill tracks in their heavy battle gear — guns, sleeping bags, ammunition, stoves. More batches, grim faced and introspective, were preparing to leave. They had seen the shape of returning parties; they were coming back from the front dead or wounded or scarred. The first waves that went up suffered the worst losses; they had no idea where the enemy was or what he was equipped with. “They had mined the place and they were firing rockets where machine guns would have done,” one junior officer said, “God forbid, if this lasts till the winter, we and the enemy will both be buried by nature.”

Army trucks groan up the Humbotingla mountains
A lone passenger bus groans up the Humbotingla mountains

The Batalik command post had taken heavy shellfire. The pucca barracks had been blown to shreds and the unit had had to scatter itself in the mountain’s nooks. Tin and tarpaulin quarters had been erected in  narrow rock shelters where the cold wind was a brazen and constant infiltrator. Batalik village — a straight row of homes clinging to sheer mountain face — was empty. Some villagers had padlocked their doors before fleeing to the safety of Silmoo and Lalung; it didn’t strike them that artillery never knocks, it just blows through.

Ishaq was right. The shelling began late afternoon on our way back to Kargil to file the day’s story. It was mostly blind fire, what the army calls HF, harassment fire. We were stopped at a Bofors position near Apati by a gunner. He was irate. He pulled Ishaq out of his seat without feeling the need to explain himself and began checking the Mahindra’s rickety dashboard. We protested about being legitimate people but he had already begun a summary trial.

“Do you have a radio set here?” he asked.

“No, sir.” Ishaq was trembling.

“Why do you have tapes in the car?”

“Only to listen to songs sir.”

“Are you Shia or Sunni?”

“Shia, sir.”

“You don’t have a radio set?”

“No, sir.”

I asked the soldier what this was all about and he said someone had been radioing gun area locations to the Pakistani side. “This is a new gun position and we are already under fire, the bastards have been told. I’ll let you go, but be careful with these fellows. We distrust Sunnis hundred percent and Shias ninety-nine percent.” (Most Kargilis are Shias). He waved us off. I was too embarrassed to even look Ishaq in the eye. It was getting to be a stormy afternoon; dark clouds had gathered and they were bursting with the guns. Ishaq was quiet and nervous. He drove the Mahindra down to Kargil as if he was riding a toboggan and was in urgent need of beating the world mark.

Part 1: A Good Soldier on a Bad Night

Part 2: A Sky Stunned by Artillery

Part 3: One Side of a Bleeding Fence

Part 4: Winter Clues to the Portents of Summer