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A fragment from a long essay on the Kargil War: Part 6. The essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, was published in an eponymous collection on the Kargil War by HarperCollins India in 1999

Kargil: “So this is our Hotel Saigon, isn’t it?”

Jaffer, second from left, and Ali, beside him in blue turtleneck, with journalists in my room at Siachen Hotel

Jaffer, second from left, and Ali, beside him in blue turtleneck, with journalists in my room at Hotel Siachen

Jaffer had again promised water but as usual it hadn’t come. I hadn’t bathed in eight days. I was just back from two straight nights in bunkers in Drass and Jaffer had probably taken pity at the horror of my appearance. He had offered two full buckets of it, and hot to boot. But Jaffer’s promises were like birds in the bush. He would make a good politician. He was a scoundrel, but an utterly lovable one. He took my carton of cigarettes away one day saying I smoked too much. “I will ration them for you,” he said. He also smoked them for me.

The only way around him was to call Ali. Ali himself wasn’t the ablest or the most willing bellboy but if you gave him a job Jaffer had failed to do, Ali would most certainly do it. “This is something beyond Jaffer,” you had to tell him and Ali could work the magic of Aladdin’s djinn. And if you called Ali up for jobs too often, it would hurt Jaffer’s pride just enough to get him to work.

Mohammed Sadiq Rahi, doughty owner of Kargil’s Hotel Siachen and, consequently, employer of Jaffer and Ali, probably played similar games with their egos to squeeze the best out of them. To Ali he gave the honour of being personal valet in addition to hotel bellboy; he cooked his master’s meals and slept by his doorstep. Jaffer was the major domo at work, keeper of hotel records, minder of the shack that had the distinction of being labelled the hotel’s reception, and scribe of bills and expenses.

Half the problems of staying in Hotel Siachen were solved if you had Jaffer and Ali at your beck and call; the other half even God’s angels seemed incapable of doing anything about. Like bugs in the bed that set off such violent itches nobody was embarrassed about scratching in public after a while. Or, the two phone lines that would either not work or were so overworked they frequently collapsed. At any hour of the day, there was someone either dialling a number from that phone or waiting to receive a call. Writing the story of the day was never the end of the job. It was only the beginning of prolonged telephonic agony. And when you did get through, the story had to be screamed out on a line as faint as an eye surgeon’s thread.

There were days when one paragraph of the story would go to the Delhi office, another to Calcutta, then one to Delhi again, torn as the frontier itself. I had been reading Ryszard Kapuscinski’s ‘Another Day of Life’ on the Angolan civil war. He had had trouble filing to Warsaw for the Polish News Agency from the depths of Africa but even he seemed better off than some of us in Kargil.

Hotel Siachen is a bed-and-nothing place. Cigarettes and water were not the only things you didn’t get there. You didn’t even get tea. But for a long time, it was the only place to report the war from. It stood in the pit of one of the many lanes that ran down Kargil’s main street, a three-storeyed  wood and concrete structure shaped like an inverted L. At the centre was a little patch of soil that was once a garden. There was even a distended sprinkler pitched in the middle.

So many cigarettes had been thrown into the garden from three tiers of balcony around, it had actually become a huge ashtray. The joke was cigarette trees would sprout from it the next spring and Sadiqbhai would have another shop in Kargil’s main bazaar. Other than the hotel, Sadiqbhai owned a shoe store, a stationery outlet and a sports goods shop. Jaffer and Ali had a cricket bat. On lazy forenoons, we would bash the ball about in the little courtyard by the phone room — Asociated Press (AP) photographer Saurabh Das and I. Saumya Bandopadhyay of Anand Bazar Patrika would often take a break from his frustrations with the phone and join in. Jaffer shanghaied kids from the bylanes to do the fetching. I broke a few of Siachen’s windowpanes. We later bought a football and Saurabh unleashed his magic foot. I was never any good with it. I broke windowpanes again. I suspect that charming rascal called Jaffer worked the cost somewhere into my bills.

Mingee: At the flyblown bus halt in Trespone was a huddle of displace children, the pink of their cheeks smudged by the dust of travel, their clothes ragged and torn, their little bare feet shrunk on the cold earth, their eyes vacant and askance. What a pretty little ugly war this is.

A war-displaced family along the road in Suroo Valley

A war-displaced family along the road in Suroo Valley

Ali had his own ways of squeezing money out. Jaffer was an unapologetic grabber who went straight for the purse. Ali went to it through your heart. “My parents and sisters are all very ill, why do you think I am working in the middle of this war? Allahkasam, I would have runaway if I could, just give me a little change if you can.”

We never got Ali’s whole truth but he was probably not entirely lying. He came from Kaksar, which fell in the direct line of fire. Settlements in Kaksar had had to be abandoned; they had all moved, like thousands of others, to villages in the safer Suroo valley south of Kargil — Mingee, Trespone, Pannikhar, Tresgam, Sankoo. There were two reasons why Ali, and most other Kargilis, would always lace their references to Pakistan with expletives: unlike the Valley Muslims, they were Shias who had problems with Sunni Pakistan and who looked to Iran for spiritual and temporal sustenance, and, in the immediate sense, they blamed Pakistan for so horribly dislocating their lives. Kargilis would never lose an opportunity to underline the difference between their and the Valley Muslims’ attitude towards Pakistan. The night India beat Pakistan in the cricket World Cup, they went out and burst crackers. Kargil came under spiteful shelling from across after the match ended but the Kargilis kept up the celebration.

From Pandrass to Kargil, the entire stretch of villages had been uprooted by the invasion; villagers had fled, old men and women who had lost the comfort of their beds and hearths, children who had been snatched away from school, farmers who had been driven from their land. In Pandrass, the Indian artillery had moved into their and dug guns in their courtyards and lanes. In Drass, the homes, had all been destroyed, their roofs torn and their walls flattened by shellfire. Only the horses were left, freed of their masters and restored, if only temporarily, to the pristine freedom of open fields.

One morning at a nowhere spot between Mingee and Sankoo village,  we stopped the car to meet a cluster of refugees. They turned out to be one big family — Bairam Khan, his three veiled wives, the eleven children he had sired, two frazzled cockerels, three cooking gas cylinders and an eddy of satchels. They were waiting to be picked up but who would host a family so large? Bairam Khan looked distraught; he was cursing the war but he was also probably regretting he married thrice.

Mingee’s one-street bazaar was like a crowded railway platform. Both sides of the street were strewn with trunks and holdalls with their owners perched on them. Buses came packed with people from Kargil and beyond, disgorged some and rolled on to off-load remnants of their confused human cargo at points further along the refugee trail.

The Suroo valley stretched miles on the river’s spine, bedraggled and bewitching at the prime of the summer bloom. The river’s flanks were a procession of flowers and above loomed the shimmering snows of Zanskar. But it was a stained paradise. If the valley was ravishing, it was also ravaged, with thirty-five thousand refugees left wandering.

***

I went one morning to the Kargil district hospital, up a steep and narrow lane off the bazaar. Shaggy dogs barked from dark nooks beneath shuttered shop shacks; hospital effluents trickled down in thin rivulets and there was something in the flew that interested the hungry dogs. Blood, perhaps, it was tough to tell. I climbed up the portico, and then the empty staircase to the wards.

The baby was born dead. It’s mother, still unaware the love of her labour was lost, lay on the edge of the rusted, rickety operating table, slowly bleeding into a green plastic bucket. The gas stove they had used to boil water for the delivery was still burning beside her and the potassium drip had fallen to the floor. It’s tube was twisted and the needle in her wrist must have hurt. She looked drained and she was sighing in that large, bare theatre; she sounded louder than she could have been. The door to the labour room in Kargil’s district hospital was ajar and I had strayed in accidentally looking for a doctor to talk to. There was pain in her eyes and shame in mine. She needed help and I was frozen and inadequate.The lone doctor and the lone nurse had probably been trying to revive the baby but they arrived shortly. In the cold corridor outside the theatre, there were three more women in the throes of labour, their crying children and their worried husbands, a man with a broken leg waiting for the technician to arrive and open the X-ray room, a young girl wrapped in rags and shivering in fever, and another waiting for a glimpse of her mother, the one who had just lost her new-born and didn’t even know.Most patients weren’t even bothering to ask when they might hope to get attention. For them it seemed solace enough to just be in a hospital and know a doctor was somewhere around. “We have now got used to little consolations,” said an old man waiting with his pregnant daughter-in-law. “The hospital is still functioning and we have managed to get here from Kaksar in the middle of this shelling. Isn’t that great?”The backwash of battle had invaded civilian life all along the frontier and left everything disrupted in its wake: essential supplies, transport, schooling, medical care and much else that goes with normalcy. At any given time the Kargil district hospital had only two doctors and a handful of nurses on duty. The administration was having to fight its own little battle against opportunistic absenteeism and laggardness. Not just in the hospitals but in other district establishments as well. “The shelling has become a convenient excuse for people not to report to work and most of those who do are only marking attendance. You can’t argue too harshly against their concern for safety,” a senior district official told me.They had suddenly found themselves engaged on too many new fronts. Large-scale migration had opened a whole catalogue of logistical problems which they couldn’t even begin to address. People were unhappy and protesting about lack of sanctuary and rations.

But civic problems were taking a backseat as Kargil turned into a novelesque crisis-ridden frontier town buzzing with profiteers fleecing people in distress, and enemy spies and double agents feeding information to people across. “Trouble brews on every front and we have too much to cope with,” the district official said.

But at the hospital a doctor complained of not even receiving basic support from the administration. “The one thing we desperately need here is a psychiatrist because people are developing mental disorders from the months of unabated shelling. Children don’t sleep at night and wake up with terrible dreams, men come crying, the rate of premature deliveries and abortions is on the increase. We had several stillborn babies because the mothers have been traumatised. But for months they have ignored the request for a psychiatrist,” the doctor said.

The small labour room had an excuse for an operating table. Needles and syringes lay distended on a bare shelf. Water, which they used for deliveries, leak from a canister and surgical masks and gloves lay in the grime on the floor. The window had no glass panes and it was shuttered against the wind with ragged strips of gauze.

The place looked more readymade for death than births, though the labour room records, miraculously, say otherwise.

***

The auxiliary hospital at Mingee was deluged with the ill and the injured, mostly unattended. The staff had either decamped or were on furlough. They had run out of essential medicines. The drains overflowed and refuse piled on the street corners. The exhaust of battle was  blowing misery into life’s humdrum. But for all the tales of woe and anguish that lay strewn in the Suroo valley, the refugees remained a fallback beat for most of us; we would rush to Mingee the day the front did not offer a story.

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

Part 5: Fire on a Forlorn Frontier with Ishaq and his Ramshackle Jeep

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