A pleasure trip to Jammu? That’s how most people reacted when I decided to go for a holiday in this frequently-in-the-news town. Wise cracks like: “Don’t fall for an LeT guy,” to safety tips like: “Don’t travel in the green Army convoys,” from well-meaning friends and relatives poured in. It also didn’t help that the hanging of Mohammed Afzal — main accused in the attack on Parliament — was hot news during my visit.
In need of the much-required break, I didn’t budge from my plans. And as luck would have it, it turned out to be one of my most memorable holidays, though not the usual touristy type.
Soon after I reached, a hurricane played spoilsport, uprooting trees and plunging the town in darkness for more than 24 hours.
With barely a handful remaining of my whirlwind six-day trip, my hosts (my friend and her army Major husband) were at pains to ensure that I was able to do some sightseeing at least.
It was then that my friend’s husband suggested that I take a trip to the border (‘forward area,’ as he termed it). He didn’t have to say it twice. I was all packed up and ready to go.
Being in a newspaper’s production team (the breed of journos who are always obsessing over commas and headlines), I shall probably never get a chance to experience the thrills of a war correspondent — the kind who can even walk through fire to capture images of a raging battle. So the unforeseen offer to see the international border up, close and personal seemed like the best way to spice up my tour.
The trip to the border from the BD Bari cantonment, where I was staying, took about 40 minutes by car. We passed through the town of Vijaypur — largely inhabited by Sikhs and Hindus who had crossed over from Pakistan after Partition. We then crossed a couple of small villages that seemed pretty prosperous (none of the thatched huts one associates with rural India) — with the one and two-storey houses interspersed with small fields sown with yellow mustard crop. The reason for the prosperity, I was told, is that most people residing there were either serving Armymen or ex-servicemen.
Soon, we reached our destination. But the car couldn’t go all the way till the stretch where the border begins, as the road leading to it was not in a motorable condition. “If you see carefully, you will notice safeguards like camouflages and embankments,” said my Major friend.
The tent-like quarters of the jawans — with asbestos sheets on top — stretched on one side of the road. There was an embankment on the other side. As we approached, I could see jawans going about their daily routine — some washing clothes, some cooking... It was, however, difficult to imagine that the tiny camp housed about 50 soldiers.
We were now in a wide, open space. The sight that greeted me was awesome. The long row of barbed fence shaped like the letter L, fitted with floodlights at intervals (you can actually imagine how it would look all lit up at night) and the sentry posts. Amid all this, the India flag flutters in the breeze. Next to it is boldly written in Hindi — Mera Bharat Mahan.
Adjacent to the Army camp, is a post of the Border Security Force.
The jawans, who clearly seemed amused at my eagerness to explore the area, were only too happy to give a guided tour. A junior commissioned officer (JCO) brought out a pair of binoculars and began pointing out places. “The post there is an enemy one.... the bush-like thing there is our men,” he explained.
Standing on an elevated platform — covered with asbestos sheets — that is used to conduct important briefings, the sense of pride and patriotism I felt cannot be explained. Besides chairs and a table, there is an India map specifying actual positions of roads, rivers etc. that lies hidden under a large tin cover on the platform.
Suddenly, I saw a pit-like thing. On enquiring, I learnt that it was a bunker.
“Wow, can I take a peek?” I asked.
Permission was granted and my excitement knew no bounds. I got into one of them and began clicking pictures. “This is a 3MPT (three men per trench) bunker,” said the JCO.
He took me to another one meant to house a machine gun and two jawans. The commander’s bunker — a bigger one with two rooms — was next in line. “That’s going to be my room if a war breaks out,” my Major friend joked.
A hydrema (a mine detection machine that looks somewhat like a white bus), battle tanks and a tent housing video recording equipment completed the security tour. It was time to leave and I was filled with an overwhelming sense of achievement. The jawans, of course, wouldn’t let us go without a plate of pakodas and a cup of chai.
Bidding adieu, I realised that this was indeed the high point of my Jammu tour. Nothing else matched up to the feeling of being on the border.
Sea-person in green valleys
Not even the trip to Patnitop (where I went later) — a breathtakingly beautiful tourist place high up in the mountains, on the road to Srinagar. Though a self-confessed sea-person as opposed to the kind who drool over mountains — the ride through the green valleys made me fall in love with the heights.
About three-and-half hours away from Jammu, the shift in temperature, as one approaches Patnitop, is remarkable. We had to put on our jackets and switch on the car’s heater to keep warm. The sky grows misty and the vegetation, too, is different. First, pines and deodar trees dot the mountainous landscape. Even the clouds seem within the reach of your hand.
Besides several hotels and resorts, there are these quaint green cottages where tourists can stay. The drive was delightful and I was glad I chose Patnitop over Vaishnodevi. Don’t mistake me for an atheist. It’s just that the duration of my trip was too short for the arduous trek that a visit to the revered shrine would have entailed.
My tour was complete. But all said and done, the experience wouldn’t have been the same without the border trip.