2000, Essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, Kargil

Kargil: An Inch of Metal for Miles of Motherland

A fragment from a long essay on the Kargil War: Part 7 and last. The essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, was published in an eponymous collection on the Kargil War by HarperCollins India in 1999

Mushkoh: Soldiers seldom make wars, politicians do; soldiers perish trying to end them.

In the end they just become dead weights loaded on the backs of unknowing mules, their dignity wrapped in tattered blankets. If they are fortunate, these blankets will somewhere have a little badge of honour pinned, an inch of metal for miles of motherland.

With soldiers returning from the recapture of Tiger Hill
With soldiers returning with Pakistani military ware from the recapture of Tiger Hill

Brigade-Major Rajeev Srivastava was in no mood to receive us. We had arrived at his camp deep in Mushkoh valley uninvited and unannounced. He was busy and he could well have sent us back. But he had ushered us into his tent and ordered tea. He was hard at work on an unsteady little desk piled up with files and papers. The tent was steaming like a sauna in mid-afternoon. “How have you managed to come here?” he asked, scribbling on furiously. “My orders are to allow no media personnel here. If they reach here, I have orders to escort them to Sonemarg, right out of the war zone.” Continue reading “Kargil: An Inch of Metal for Miles of Motherland”

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2000, Essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, Kargil

Kargil: A Hotel, A Hospital; A Birth, A Death

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. Continue reading “Kargil: A Hotel, A Hospital; A Birth, A Death”

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. Continue reading “Kargil: Fire on a Forlorn Frontier with Ishaq and his Ramshackle Jeep”

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. Continue reading “Kargil: Winter Clues to the Portents of Summer”

2000, Essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, Kargil

Kargil: One Side of a Bleeding Fence

A fragment from a long essay on the Kargil War: Part 3. The essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, was published in an eponymous collection on the Kargil War by HarperCollins India in 1999

Among some of the friendliest creatures on the Kargil frontier
Among some of the friendliest creatures on the Kargil frontier

Kargil: For most of us, Kargil was the biggest story we had been on. It didn’t take the daily whoops of the youthful Gaurav Sawant of The Indian Express — “Guys, guys I’m so thrilled it’s my thirty-third front page byline in a row, I have never had it so good” — to make us realise this. War hadn’t ever happened between two nuclear powers. And this war had happened to everybody — the army and the media — quite suddenly, without chance for preparation. Initially, and fortuitously for some of us, the army was too busy getting its act together to bother about the media. They tried to impose restrictions for a while but realised they would be better served by organized media exposure. Kargil became the most freely reported war — and the first televised — on the subcontinent. Continue reading “Kargil: One Side of a Bleeding Fence”

2000, Essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, Kargil

Kargil: A Sky Stunned by Artillery

A fragment from a long essay on the Kargil War: Part 2. The essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, was published in an eponymous collection on the Kargil War by HarperCollins India in 1999.

Sanjak: Batalik is the step-child  of the frontier. Drass gets attention because it holds the key to the national highway, supply line to Siachen and Leh . Batalik’s only highway is the turbulent Indus which carries only silt and anyway flows into the Pakistan.

Leaving Sanjak the morning after the bombing of the skies
Leaving Sanjak the morning after the bombing of the skies

It was only much later that Ishaq would tell us that Batalik was home. As a child he had played in its famed apricot orchards and frolicked in the Indus and the many streams that feed its flow. We had spent too long one evening in Batalik chatting to soldiers returning from the battle for the Muntho Dalo ridge (above Batalik). It was dark by the time we were ready to leave which meant, in effect, that we could not leave. Continue reading “Kargil: A Sky Stunned by Artillery”

2000, Essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, Kargil

Kargil: The Good Soldier on a Bad Night

A fragment from a long essay on the Kargil War: Part 1. The essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, was published in an eponymous collection on the Kargil War by HarperCollins India in 1999.

Under bombardment in the battle for Mount Tololing in Drass with AP photographer Saurabh Das, on belly and Gaurav Sawant, then of The Indian Express (right).
Under bombardment in the battle for Mount Tololing in Drass with AP photographer Saurabh Das, on belly, and Gaurav Sawant, then of The Indian Express (right).

Drass: “Two hundred artillery guns firing across the mountain all night. Will that make a good story for you?”

This officer shall remain unnamed in the story for reasons that have to do with the strange workings of the defence establishment — the games they can play with good officers and the petty wars they can unleash. But if this man wasn’t a good soldier, true to his calling and country, the Indian Army probably doesn’t have any. He, more than anyone else, introduced some of us to the face of the war and  to the life of the man who wages it: the footsoldier. He showed us how spectacular and how sorry war could be, how exciting and spectacular and frightening, how necessary and how utterly futile.

He commanded an artillery unit that shuttled about Drass during the two months of conflict. He wore a colonel’s rank on his shoulders but he had the heart of a jawan. And he had a mind of his own, which is not always a good thing to have. The Indian army was still struggling for a foothold in the mountains when we first met him. We had stopped by his gun area on a rocky hillside near Drass one afternoon and by the time we left half an hour later, he had extended us an invitation to visit again. “If you want to see the war, come and  see it with the soldiers.” Continue reading “Kargil: The Good Soldier on a Bad Night”