Friday, December 06, 2013

A Forgotten Past: My Story of Time Spent in the Mountains

It is now many years, more precisely over four decades, since I sat down to recall my young adult days as a military officer. For reasons I do not know, I had tucked away those memories as though they belonged to another part of me, except when my two sons or the children of Shanti Bhavan occasionally asked me about my experiences. “Where were you in the Himalayas?” my older son, Ajit, would enquire, or “Did you shoot the Chinese?” the little boys at school would curiously ask. My answers were always brief, as though they were of little consequence.

But now, once again for reasons I cannot really explain to myself, I feel the urge to share my story. May be, I need to explain why I appear to behave like a soldier in their eyes. I need to tell them that there is, I suppose, a stage in everyone’s life that has a greater impact on his future than all others. For me, it was my army experiences that helped shape my outlook on life.

I had seen the poor living conditions of the tribal people in the Northeast frontiers of India where I had served as junior artillery officer, and probably it had affected me emotionally to bring me to the social work I do today. At least for the sake of my children who wish to know more, I want to briefly describe here the place I had served in the initial year of my service in the army, and what had happened to me there.

After four years of training at military academies, I was commissioned as an officer and posted first to the Himalayas near Tibet. The train journey that took me from my hometown, Trivandrum, a quite city in the southern coast of India, was in itself an adventure for an eighteen year old who knew nothing of the world except to be a good soldier. The ride by several connecting trains – from broad-gauge to meter to narrow rails – carried me through the tribal, turbulent Naga Land with armed escorts, and upon the precariously constructed bridge over the mighty Brahmaputra river to the last railroad station – Missamari – on the foothills of the Himalayas. 

From there, the drive along bumpy and rugged roads in a jeep to the base camp where my regiment was stationed revealed a part of the world that had not appeared even in my imagination. For the next few months, I would be in the mountain village of Bomdila, tucked away in a hidden plateau some 8,000 feet above sea level – a place that had lost its clock for a thousand years.

Bomdila is located in the northwestern part of the state of Arunachal Pradesh, in the northeastern region of India. The origin of Bomdila is not known, but was part of the Kingdom of Tibet in medieval times. Local tribal rulers and the Kingdom of Bhutan generally ruled it from time to time, and the rest of India, and in particular the neighboring state of Assam, had little to do with it. The British had declared this area off-limits in 1873, but following the country’s independence in 1947, the Chinese claimed it as part of Tibet and hence, theirs. The Chinese invasion of the border regions of India in 1962 saw its troops close to Bomdila, but later as winter came, it withdrew from the area. After the Indo-China war the entire area remained out of bounds for mountaineers or visitors for a long time.

“You are being sent to Sela. In two weeks, you will lead 800 men to establish the forward post for the guns,” my commanding officer ordered, summoning me to his tent one cold morning. I was surprised at this major assignment, aware that I was only recently posted to the regiment – my first as an officer. I had heard from senior officers a lot about Sela, the high mountain pass through which the Chinese had invaded, and where one of India’s highly decorated officers, Brigadier Hoshiar Singh, had perished along with his men in the conflict. 

The ever-windy Sela Pass, located about 14,000 feet above sea level on the eastern Himalayas, was never inhabited before, except that the Monpa tribe that trekked through the valley from Tibet was occasionally seen. Sela connects the Buddhist city of Tawang with the rest of India, and is surrounded by Bhutan and China (formerly Tibet). Tawang mountains range from 6,000 to 22,000 feet above sea level, and was where the sixth Dalai Lama was born, the thirteenth was hiding in 1911 to avoid the Chinese invasion of the capital city of Lhasa, and the present fourteenth fled his way to India in April 1959 when China took over Tibet. As I later came in contact with the Monpa tribes in their villages at lower altitudes, I began to appreciate their ancient culture and practices, and more importantly, their simplicity.

I vividly recall the day of my arrival at Sela. The men were busy pitching their large tents, each housing a dozen, before sunset in the afternoon. My helper, usually called orderly, set up a one-man snow tent I could barely crawl into to spend the night inside a sleeping bag. All through the night, the constant eerie sound of the wind blowing through the valley could be heard; there was no howling of wolves or any other animal. When sun came through next morning, my orderly couldn’t find my small tent; it was almost fully buried in nearly three feet of snow overnight. The men had a good laugh at what had happened, saying that their saab could breath even underground!



                       River flowing through Sela Pass 14,000 ft above sea level

“The weather keeps changing every five minutes. It is like a wind tunnel,” anyone arriving at Sela would say. It is snowed in most of the year, with temperatures frequently falling below zero and oxygen in the air running short. From mountain tops well above the clouds, the heavenly view of the ranges below and beyond was simply breathtaking. One hundred and one lakes that exist in this high altitude were frozen most of the time, but the river that flowed through the Sela valley offered a soothing sound that contrasted the constant hissing whistle of the wind. It was by this river that I chose to establish the camp for my men, and later, it was on those mountain tops I would sit alone to contemplate my future.

The next six months were rough in the terribly cold and windy conditions, with all daylight time used for moving large boulders and digging into the rocky ground to make room for bunkers. Ground was leveled on the slopes of hills to serve as platforms for guns, shielding from direct frontal view. Chipping away at the Himalayan mountains was no easy task; without heavy equipment, the only way to dig into the ground was by blasting huge rocks with gun cotton and plastic explosives. We were provided fuse wires and detonators, and were taught how to handle various types of explosives. Within a few days, the team responsible for the task had become pretty good experts in unearthing mammoth rocks and cutting into the hills.

Communication with the base camp in Bomdila was dependent on new telephone lines that were laid along the road side on the ground. For one reason or the other, these lines would end up cut, and there was no communication for days, sometimes weeks. I was happy to be left alone from my superiors, to set my own rules and do my own things, without having to report to anyone. The men were equally happy at short work hours that started only when the sun had risen and ended before sunset, and to get back to their tents early enough in daylight. With dinner each one would have a glass of rum that I had specially arranged to bring with us in large quantity. Despite all these, work moved on at rapid speed, and one bunker after another was built to be ready for housing the entire regiment.

The time had come for me to return to the base to escort the medium-heavy guns pulled by 18-wheel Mack trucks. The infamous road from Bomdila to Sela was newly carved into the side of mountains, with tight hairpin curves and steep slopes. I had heard that the engineering battalion had lost a few of their men constructing the unpaved road, part of which would periodically disappear in rock and mud slides.

I remember one of our trucks coming too close to the edge of the road – dangerously close that a slight miscalculation or mistake would mean falling off several thousand feet below. Without power brakes and power steering wheel, it was indeed very difficult to maneuver these heavy vehicles along the treacherous road that offered no mercy. Three men would pull the steering wheel together, while eight men would walk alertly on both sides of the truck all the way with stoppers to be put behind the tires whenever the truck stopped, in case it started sliding back. Calming down the agitated head- driver, I worked with the team to develop a strategy to escape the danger we faced, and fortunately, the decisive directions to the team saved the situation.

Guns were placed on platforms, ammunition moved into underground storage, and some of the men shifted their residence to the bunkers. News had arrived that I was awarded a field promotion to the rank of a full Lieutenant. Joining the soldiers for the celebration, I asked one of the seniors to pin the second star on my shoulder collars. The men sang prayers for me in Marathi, their mother tongue.

Blasting continued for more bunkers. Fuse wires were running short, and I ordered that their length be reduced to six inches from twelve, the length as dictated by the rules. When supplies didn’t arrive as promised, I decided to cut the fuse length to three inches. Afraid that the men might make a mistake and get killed, I took on the task of lighting the fuse. I would carefully watch when the fuse wire lighted up, offering enough time to turn around and jump flat on the ground with face down. The helmet and several layers of winter clothing would protect any rocks rolling over, while shrapnel flew well above me at an angle. With each blast, I gained more confidence that I would not make a mistake.

It was when the process had become more or less routine that I made my first and last mistake at this task. I had failed by a few seconds to detect that the fuse had already lighted, not leaving enough time to jump to safety. Rock shrapnel pierced my thick jacket but fortunately nothing hit my head. Finding me covered with rocks and dust, and bleeding through the jacket, the men were terribly worried. They hurriedly carried me to my jeep, and instructed my loyal driver to rush me to the field hospital below. I received emergency treatment, and was sent home the next day on medical leave.

While recouping at home, I received the order to report to the Jammu-Kashmir sector following the move of my regiment from Sela. I was told that another regiment was coming in to complete the work I had left behind. But to my dismay, word reached me that I was informally credited with establishing the first medium-heavy-gun position at the highest altitude anywhere in the world.


In my next blog, I will briefly share with you my experience in the Kashmir sector.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This has always has been an incredible story to hear. All great men and women have had birth from great strife and sacrifice. As your admirer I've always wanted to retrace those exact steps. Considering I'm in a different circumstance from what you were four decades ago, the closest I've wished to share your experience is to sit on those same mountains, above those clouds and reflect on what I hold for this world. The good news is I'm VERY close to doing that. Thank you for being an inspiration Dr.George!