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”

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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: 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: 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”

1999, Kargil, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Kargil: Man Behind the Enemy Mask

A FRAGMENT FROM MY REPORTAGE ON THE KARGIL WAR OF 1999
This piece was first published in The Telegraph in July 1999

In Mushkoh Valley with Neelesh Misra of AP (left, in flak jacket).
In Mushkoh Valley with Neelesh Misra of AP (left, in flak jacket).

Mushkoh Valley, Drass, Kargil: Here is a little glimpse into the man we describe by that disliked anonymous noun called The Enemy: Captain Imtiaz Malik of the Pakistan Army’s 165th Mortar Regiment.

Captain Imtiaz perished in the fierce battle over Point 4875 on the night of July 7. But if he knew how to fight, he perhaps also knew how to love. In his breast pocket was found a letter from his wife Samina. It was a crumpled sheet of blue and spattered with the dead captain’s blood. The post mark on the envelope showed that Samina had mailed it in Islamabad on June 14, probably the last letter she sent to him.

There were also other missives from his wife Captain Imtiaz had kept on his person through to the end: two postcards, for instance, of the kind young lovers are wont to write to each other. It would seem too indecent an invasion of a dead man’s privacy or a young widow’s grief to reveal their contents. Suffice to say that Captain Imtiaz was a man well loved by his dear ones. And perhaps he loved his dear ones as much; else, he wouldn’t have bothered strapping his wife’s letters to his heart in battle. Continue reading “Kargil: Man Behind the Enemy Mask”