Conjure in your mind a spectacle of being bunkered at 15,000 feet on a remote ridge and watching the night’s dome. At that vantage, the night is a milky bed or an infinity of twinkling celestial entities. And then visualise three red balls arch across like shooting stars that sear the white sky, turn invisible in the last few hundred metres of descent, and detonate with Ravana flashes and dull thuds on the opposite ridge.
hat “star-watching” would take you to the Kargil War in the Batalik sector. Those red balls were Bofors high-explosive extended-range (HEER) shells fired to soften Pakistani pickets at Point 4100, a strategic gateway to the Pakistan army’s nerve-centre at Munthodalo.
After the Bofors battering, 5 Para launched its successful assault on Point 4100 late in the night of July 7-8, 1999. That night I was atop the Kharlubar ridge in the pug tent of 12 JAK LI’s then commanding officer, Col AS Bhalotia, who was coordinating the artillery-infantry assault on Pt 4100. Only a few hours before, I had become the first journalist to witness the burial of 13 Pakistani soldiers with full honours by 12 JAK LI’s soldiers at 15,500 feet. On July 7 evening, in order to impart credibility to its claims, the Army headquarters’ war spokesperson in Delhi, Col Bikram Singh, who is the army chief at present, announced my name to the national media and stated that the journalist had witnessed the burials.
In the tent, Col Bhalotia’s soldiers attended to us with affection. I was offered rum or whisky or both! Chicken or mutton? The route to the tent had been taxing as I had to negotiate a cliff face of 100 yards on a foothold narrow as two boots. I clung to the cliff for dear life, cursed Col Bhalotia who stood grinning at a safe point, and took two hours to edge across. We were exposed to Pakistani fire from the ridge parallel to Kharlubar and I secretly died a 1,000 deaths. I did suspect in my weak moments that the army wanted the Pakistanis or the cliff to rid them of a pesky scribe.
High up on the ridge, I collected tiny blue and yellow flowers, some that had been trodden under either Indian or Pakistani soldiers’ boots. The soldiers escorting me first thought I had gone mad but then chivalrously assisted me in my task after I informed them that the flowers were meant to impress my fiancee, Hemani. I later posted these flowers to her in letters and mustering all the charm at my disposal, suggested that no lady would be lucky enough to be wooed with flowers from the battle zone. Those flowers got her hooked for life!
Love and loss was certainly on my mind because I had read letters recovered from the 13 dead Pakistanis. One was from a father to his son imploring him to be careful as the Indians were closing in, another from a wife giving details of their toddler’s antics and a mushy scribbling from a pining girlfriend.
PS: I imagine a time would dawn upon us when girls from India and Pakistan would muffle gun barrels with flowers, and be free of the burden of choosing beautiful roses to adorn the graves of dead, young soldiers.