I wrote a longer version of this over a year ago, but I can't recall if it was published, and can't find a clipping in my disorganized files. One of the "two sturdy Army officers" I mention is "Harvinder" in this essay.
Your comments welcome.
As a final note, some of what is in this piece always reminds me of a poem which I shall put up in a post by itself in a few minutes.
The walk is long, brisk and steep. The two sturdy Army officers I am with make no compromises for traffic or turns or slopes. They simply go at it, walking their fastest, never slowing. I try hard to keep pace, falling behind by a few metres only at the last, particularly steep slope. But I am inordinately pleased that my effort earns their respect. "He's tough, yaar!" they tell the officers we leave in our bustling wake.
We stop to catch our breath. From a little booth, an armed guard looks out at us impassively. Sprawled on the hillside above him are the gardens and memorials of this little complex. At the very top, a squat building with four wings: a memorial to men who have died fighting Pakistan.
"Hall of Fame", it's called.
Yes: this spot, this whole town, is chock-a-block with plaques and memorials. The triangular memorial to three soldiers -- Subedar Surjit Singh, Captain Gurprit Singh and Lance Havildar Badridan Bharat -- inscribed in Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit and Marathi. With this quote, attributed to "Napolion": "The noblest death is that of a soldier dying on the field of valour." (Was that mis-spelled "Napolion" deliberate? Or inadvertently appropriate?)
Nearby a tower remembers Lt AS Dixit, Nk Baban Chawa, L/Nk Dattatraya Matkar, SPR Sarjerao Salunke, SPR Shivaji Rao Shinde and SPR Vishwanath Wanargi. All killed in December 1971 "while breaching a mine-filled lane." Another tower is captioned "Padinale Po Munnale" (Tamil for "Go forward, 14th") and remembers Hav S Shabiyullah and L/Nk K Balaiah. The latter name is followed, inexplicably, by the word "posthumous." He died in a "militant encounter"; Shabiyullah died while "laying a mine field during Op Vijay."
Mine field, mine-filled lane ... I remember the road sign only minutes away, which advises: "Aage mine sadak hai. Dekh ke chalen." ("The road ahead is mined. Watch how you go."). Sometimes, in these parts, mines kill you because you stumble on them. Sometimes they kill you while you are laying them. Watch how you go.
Carved in stone at the entrance to the Hall are these words:
- This temple of prowess [commemorates] the supreme sacrifice of those who laid down their lives in the defence of the motherland since 1947 in this sector.
Words, words, words, Eliza Doolittle might have said. I am grateful for them, because they tell me of the bravery and commitment of soldiers I didn't know. Yet I am also so saddened by them. I'm so sick of words, as Eliza might have said. What I wouldn't give to have those warriors here, instead of words to remember them by. Those warriors alive, to make their destinies. Alive, to find their particular doors to heaven. Thrice blessed or not, supreme sacrifice or not, but alive for sure.
How much more blessed would a motherland be for having them so?
Futile questions, of course. I carry on, to learn why the Hall has four wings:
- Hall of Fame is the memorial to honour the brave soldiers [who] liberated and defended the sector against Pakistan's aggression in 1947-48, 1965, 1971 and since thereafter.
Who knows where the fighting might end?
I'm here with a few jawans from the regiment I'm visiting. In many ways, I admire these men and the job they are doing. I understand the tension that they live with. At a post down in the valley two days earlier, sharing chai and biscuits with me, some spoke freely about that tension. It grows from their disaffection for the people here, from having to serve among them for months on end. Come from small town Karnataka and Haryana and elsewhere in this country they believe they are defending, they cannot identify with the locals. Alienated themselves, they cannot begin to see where the alienation comes from that they find in these hills. And they talk to me because surely I -- outsider like them -- will understand.
It's a few such men who accompany me to the Hall. As we stroll through, I get the odd sensation that they feel a detachment here too. I hear it in what they say, see it in their body language. Yes, they feel for the men who once breathed through these names. Sometimes, they can even tell me what happened to them -- the stories get told and retold, after all. But nobody knows what happened to Lt Dixit and his men back in '71. After a point, despite memorials and words of glory, these are simply names.
Rising from the manicured grass outside are several large black granite panels. From the left, they list soldiers killed in fighting in this sector, every year since 1948.
169 dead in 1971. 16 in 1991. 28 in 1994. 44 in 2000. 52 in 2003.
The number strikes home: One soldier dead for each week of 2003. What happened to Rajinder Singh? Nissar Ahmed Rishi? Raghothaman C, Surinder Dattarwal, Sheik Akbar? Standing before the granite, I try to imagine life behind these letters, imagine how these Indians died whom I never knew. The soldier with me looks on curiously as I write their names, then reads others off with me, lips moving silently.
To the right of 2003, there's nothing. Well, there is an expanse of blank black granite panels. Blank, and ready to be engraved. For 2004. 2005. 2006. 2007. Since and thereafter and on and on. Blank black space for more chiselling, waiting for soldiers to die. Knowing they will die.
The soldier beside me points. "My name's not there," he says.