“They are riding their horses with the speed of the wind!”
The baritone of the lean commentator in dark glasses echoes on a microphone across the mountainside ground, as a small crowd — dominated by women and children — wildly cheers for the men on ponies streaking across.
“The ball is stuck in the drain … for two-three minutes, we shall take you back to the studio.”
|A polo match in progress in Goshan village. The polo-crazy village was the deepest point that Pakistani forces had penetrated to during the war. Virendra Singh Gosain/HT Photo|
Far away from the imaginary television studio, this is polo-crazy Goshan village, located near the Tololing peak that marked the deepest point in Indian territory that Pakistani forces had penetrated during the 1999 Kargil war.
The village was smashed by shelling, killing 10 people and numerous cows, sheep and horses that are central to its livelihood, and the entire village fled the next morning.
So when I trudged up to Goshan one afternoon during the war, I found no one — except an old man who had stayed back to protect his home from thieves.
Ghulam Rasul, then 67, sat on a wooden bed all day, soaking in the sun, looking at no one in particular.
The Kargil invasion was not the first time that raiders had come to the region, he told me.
He was 15 when, in 1947, shortly after thousands of attackers raided the Kashmir Valley, some had come here too on a reconnaissance mission.
He was 15 when Pakistani raiders had walked in through these mountains, walked up to Goshan, and asked him for some noon chai (salted tea), a staple for Kashmiris.
Ten years after the war, I am back at Goshan, looking for Ghulam Rasul. He would be 77 now.
Instead, I find polo. Goshan’s team is facing Drass town. Drass scored in the first five minutes.
“Polo is not just a game here. It is part of our cultural heritage,” Mohammed Amin, the commentator and himself a famous local player, says during the intermission. “We are crazy about it — you have no idea how much women love polo here, they lock their homes and leave everything and come to watch.”
Player Mohammed Yusuf, 40, pipes in. “1999 destroyed everything for us,” he says.
“We have no sheep, no cows, we just make a living somehow, and mentally we could never heal — even if we hear a tyre burst, we get startled, we are back in 1999 again.”
“But we have polo, it’s entertainment and it can revive our region with tourists — and we want our children to play it.”
Polo came here in the 17th century when the king of Ladakh, Singye Namgyal, married a Muslim princess from Skardu, now in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. The princess brought with her new fashion (a long flowing tunic), musical instruments
(Surma and Daman), and polo.
“The army is trying to revive polo here. But we get no support from the government,” says Mohammed Ishaq, 40, secretary of the Polo Promotion Committee of Drass and Kargil. “If we did, polo could become a huge attraction for tourists, especially foreign tourists. We play every other day.”
The game resumes.
Two deadly brothers from Goshan, Mohammed Hussain and Jafar Ali, who have played at a national championship in Patiala in 2006 — are on the rampage.
No luck. Soon after, the game ends. Goshan has lost 1-3.
Meanwhile, my old acquaintance Ghulam Rasul is nowhere to be found.
“There must be thousands of Ghulam Rasuls here.”
“He died a few years after the war.”
“He is totally fit, he has a shop near the police station.”
Someone promises to find him the next time I come.
“Hopefully not in war,” I tell him.