A FAINT SCENT OF WAR
Twenty years back on July 7, I was trudging up the Khalubar ridge with soldiers of the 12 JAK Light Infantry to Point 4812 (15,880 feet) during the Kargil War. Pakistan intruders had targeted us with heavy artillery, 81 mm mortars, rockets and machine-gun fire from the flanking Kukarthang ridge where they still held firm. We would take shelter amid rocks, move forward for a few minutes and then again duck into whatever cleft we could find in the western cliff of the Khalubar.
In those under-fire moments and during lulls in shelling, I would take solace in collecting tiny flowers sprouting miraculously from barren Batalik massifs. The soldiers had shaken their heads in disbelief. But on my forthright explanation – I was going to send the flowers to my fiancee, Hemani, in Chandigarh – their hearts melted. The hardened soldiers promptly got down to gathering tiny blooms of yellow, lilac and blue, the same ones their boots had trampled upon in the heat and charge of battle.
Six days before that, I had gone up the Bhimbet nallah (Drass, flows north-south on the eastern flank of Tololing) to 16,000 feet with the 18 Garhwal Rifles whose troops were to assault the incursion on the LOC feature, Junction. Exposed to Pakistani artillery observation posts overlooking the nallah, we were pounded by mortars and mountain guns. Air-burst shells shrieked and showered splinters on us as I lay down flat and buried my face in stone and gravel. Tiny blooms stared me in the face as I lay praying for life and waiting for the sky’s hellfire to abate. I cautiously moved my hands, plucked those precious flowers and buttoned them in my shirt’s upper pockets. I survived and enclosed those little symbols of good fortune in letters to Hemani from the battlefront.
“Which fiancee has flowers sent to her from the battlefield?’’ I had written. Many wars ago, a young Englishman, Charles Bridgen, serving with the Shiny Seventh or the 7th (City of London) battalion must have had similar sentiments crossing his mind. His granddaughter and author, Anne Louise Avery, put up a picture and wrote recently: “A perfect red rose gathered from between front line trenches on the Western Front (Loos-Lens, France, WWI) in August 1915 by my 19-year-old grandfather, Charles, was sent home to England to his sweetheart, my grandmother May. It still has a very faint, sweet scent.”
I am back in Kargil, participating in a pilgrimage to times past. Veterans and troops have gathered here from July 5 to July 8 as part of the Army’s 20th Anniversary remembrance events and “walks up’’ to the battle sites: Tiger Hill, Tololing, Khalubar and Point 4875.
I still endeavour to collect all the flowers I see on odysseys of reportage or voyages more serene. On a Manali trek of 21 km to and from Chanderkhani Top (12,078 feet), there were wild blooms that sprung everywhere. I picked each species, except some daffodil-like yellows jutting high from a pounding waterfall. I could not have reached there without loss of limb and more, as like eagles only honey bees could dare there.