That long night, I found myself sitting under a rocky ledge on middle of a mountain trying to protect myself from the rainstorm in progress. Above me were dark clouds which had completely covered the night sky and 2 meters in front of me was a long, almost clean fall to a small mountain stream, 400 meters or so below. That stream flowed down to Indian territory about 3 kilometers from my position as the crow flies. Every few minutes, I tried to move my neck and squint in the general direction of border hoping to catch a glimpse of lights on border fencing. All I could see were flashes of thunder in distance which shadowed massive mountain peaks all around us. It was supposed to be a full moon night 3 days later, but the clouds covered every inch of the night sky. The mountain on which we were went on for another 600 meters or so above from our location but we were not here as mountaineers to climb it. The temperature was just marginally above freezing point but felt like the blood in my body had frozen over already. I could neither see or feel my fingers but I was sure that they must be an odd shade of blue by now, even under the high quality thermal gloves.
The rain was falling as if someone was pouring the water down by buckets and the ledge barely provided any shelter against the downpour. I was a bit careless with my waterproof parka. Apparently it’s good in keeping it’s wearer dry only if the buttons and zips are all tightly fastened which I had neglected to. At one time earlier, I was sweating due to the effort of walking on the mountain, and a few minutes later I was shivering due to cold. Some quantity of ice cold water managed to seep through folds of my clothing down to my spine and I assure you, it isn’t a nice feeling. My feet were still dry and comparatively warm due to those special shoes and socks but a large part of my combat trousers were soaking wet. Every few minutes a strong cold gust of winds blew in my direction bringing a bucketful water of ice cold rain along with it. Couldn’t even get up to piss without getting wet as a fish or worse tumbling down the mountain into the swollen stream below. Couldn’t even sleep even if I wanted to. Certainly not a nice feeling at all.
To make it worse, I couldn’t talk to anyone else. I didn’t knew what rest of men in my team are doing. We were sitting too widely spread apart to hold a proper conversation. Talking loudly or even in a normal way was out of question due to two reasons. First, the rainstorm was too loud. Second, we were on a covert operation. So talking loudly, lighting a match or lighter, checking mobile phone or any other activity that may reveal our presence was not allowed. Talking on radio was also prohibited unless absolutely necessary as we had to observe complete radio silence. Only the Major leading our party could speak, that too only when absolutely required. It’s not that he needed to shepherd us around anyway as we were all pretty well trained or at least I like to think so. We had left our base at 18:45 and were supposed to be on our objective by now. But this rainstorm came out of nowhere and forced us to take shelter right on the face of this mountain. Some of us wanted to press on, but the Major who is a veteran of numerous such missions ordered us to stop and I agreed with his decision. There was no path or even a proper trail on these mountains and one slip could result in a deadly fall down the rocks for hundreds of meters. Pressing on in such lousy weather without any source of light is virtual suicide. Hell, even the wind seemed strong enough to push a grown man off the mountain. Although we had some night vision devices between us, they were not enough for the whole squad to travel safely. We also needed to conserve the batteries for actual combat, if and when it happens. Better to wait out the rain rather than risking life and limb.
My attention was diverted by someone coughing and trying hard to stifle the sound. If I remember and identified the voice correctly it was probably our squad’s machine gunner Bheem. He was stocky, built like a tank but hated cold weather. It was a running joke in our unit that his cough and sneezes were louder than the firing sound of INSAS LMG that he carried. Just to make it clear, I’m using fake names and descriptions of certain people in my story have been changed for obvious reasons. Not mentioning ranks or parent unit of anyone in the squad apart from Major’s, but that may or may not come later.
Somebody close to Bheem, probably Harry threw a rock in his general direction which rolled down the slope and stopped a few inches away from my feet. During flashes of thunder, I could briefly see rest of my squad as we tried to wait out the worst of rainstorm. Subhash and Jaggi, our snipers were furthest from rest of us, but straight in my line of sight. Shanky, our only heavy fire support guy with his Carl Gustav was on my left, probably sleeping as he could manage to do in the most uncomfortable and least likeliest of places. Rest of our 11 man team including me, Major, Vikram, Pandit, Viru and Rana all carried AK-47s as our primary firearms and 9 mm pistols as secondary. We had to travel light, but had to wear heavy combat boots, upper body armour with two plates for back and front, a kevlar helmet, popularly called patka. All of it weighed around 12 kgs plus the additional gear like grenades, knife, water, basic climbing gear, radio, NVGs, utility belts and so on. There were 3 axes, wire and bolt cutters each between us and I was carrying one of the axes. We had very limited time to check all our equipment and had done most of this work while we were in the truck being transported to our staging area. I’d have brought something better to eat than the tasteless biscuit packs that I hurriedly grabbed if I had the time to think about it. But there was nothing better at the moment.
I was so sleepy that I’d have fallen asleep immediately if it weren’t for rain. Since I couldn’t sleep my brain was playing games by running images of my thoughts like a dream in my head.
As I fought the urge to doze off, my thoughts were diverted to my life before army. My parents were from a small mountain village in Garhwal region but I lived almost all my life in Pune where my father worked in a small factory. I was the younger of two children, my sister was 5 years older and a second mother to me. Living so far away from our native place, we didn’t have many people who shared most of our festivals, language or food habits, but we adjusted somehow. I was born there, so it wasn’t any difficult for me unlike my parents. My father often spoke of settling back in his village after retirement and living off his share of farm back there. Considering that he had two brothers, I doubted that our whole family could survive on that. Although I liked the mountains, school wok and distance prohibited me from visiting often. So inspite of having pahadi ( पहाड़ी ) genes inside me, I hardly had any exposure to mountains. During my annual visits, I was a source of amusement to my cousins and temporary playmates in the village who could run up hilly paths without any trouble while I huffed and puffed my way much behind them. I wasn’t fat or unfit, but it was just too difficult for a plains dweller like me
With time, these visits got shorter and more rare as school and other stuff took it’s toll. Things changed a bit when my sister got married to a armyman from our village when I was 16. I visited the village after a long time for the wedding ceremony and observed the simple but hard life of people there. It was not like we lived a life of luxury ourselves, but you had to be strong as well as hard working to live in a mountain village. At first, I wondered if my sister could adjust to the new life as she was as clueless about living in mountains as I was. But later I realised that she’ll be living with her husband wherever he was posted which happened to be in Rajsthan during the first year of their marriage. Things changed for me too as I finished school and enrolled in to a college for my graduation.
It was during the 3rd year of their marriage when tragedy struck. My brother-in-law stepped on a land mine while on a routine border patrol and got severely injured. I took leave from college and visited him in the military hospital in Delhi along with my parents. By the time we reached there, doctors had already amputated his left leg just above the knee. He had sustained injuries elsewhere too and most of his body was wrapped in bandages and plaster. His left arm was broken in three places, four ribs were fractured and had shrapnel wounds all over the body. Although my sister’s in-laws were there, my mother stayed with my sister to help her through while I and father came back after a few days. My college and his work couldn’t wait. Even after returning, I couldn’t stop thinking about my brother-in-law. His discharge from army was certain, he had lost more than half of his left leg and even with therapy and an artificial limb he’d never be able to walk as well he used to. I wondered how he would manage to move around in his village with an artificial leg. Army did gave him some monetary compensation, but was it enough considering that he wasn’t even 30 at that time ? He wasn’t that well educated or sophisticated to land a job in either private or government sector easily. Working in his family farms wouldn’t be an easy job either. They had a baby girl just about an year before that. What was her future in such a situation ?
It took 4 months for him in hospital to recover from his injuries after which he was discharged and fitted with an artificial leg. Training to use it and therapy took almost as long. He was finally able to go back home 9 months after the incident. Slowly he recovered and started to move around on his own with help of a walking stick. He also bought some land from the money that he had received from the army and started to work in the fields trying to rebuild his life. Although he couldn’t wok the way he used to earlier, it was still something. His strength and power of will never ceased to amaze me.
Life went on as usual for me in the meanwhile. I had appeared for my final year exams and was waiting for the results when I faced the worst day of my life. An out of control truck rammed the cab my parents were traveling in, killing them both on the spot. I was completely numb from the shock and hardly knew what was going on around me. My sister and brother-in-law rushed in as soon as they heard the news and after rituals were over and done with, took me with them to their home. It was a good change for me and I slowly started to recover from the grief. My uncles from my father’s side lived in the same village but I had only limited contact with them. They tried to help in their own ways and slowly things started to get back on track again. We didn’t have any property of our own in Pune except for some basic household possessions. My father’s meager salary hardly allowed for any luxuries or even a house of our own. Only property we had was the partial ownership of ancestral farmland in the village which was tilled by my uncles jointly. They generously offered to take me in, but it was obvious even to me that eking out a living just by land wouldn’t be enough. Besides they had children of their own. I needed a job fast.
I was getting more depressed when my b-i-l noticed it and asked me about it. He started taking me along to the farm to divert my mind. It was only then that I observed him closely for the first time. He had been really different in our previous meetings. First was during the wedding, a person hardly looks like a human being in an Indian wedding. Second time was when he was wrapped in bandages in hospital. Hardly normal on both occasions. So it was only after I had been living in his home for a few days, I realised what kind of a person he really was. Like most pahadi people, he woke up at th crack of dawn and performed pooja after bathing. After breakfast, he left for his fields nearby and sometimes came back for lunch or at other times it was carried to him. He did a lot of work himself but had hired some labourers to do the manual work which was no longer possible for him. He’d have needed labourers anyway even if he was totally fit. He came back home in the evening sometimes accompanied by a few friends and they had long chats, a lot of time over drinks which extended till sundown. He rarely if ever watched TV and went to bed early. In between, he found time to play with his daughter and help her with whatever little schoolwork the primary school entailed. Overall, a pretty normal life. Once over dinner, he told me that this was the life he actually wanted after retirement. Then laughed over the fact that the retirement had come too soon. I wondered if there was some regret in that laugh.
He was not only cheerful and happy with his life, but also was much fitter than me. Even with his artificial leg, he could walk faster than me even on inclined rocky paths on mountains as I struggled to keep up with him. Although he carried his walking stick all the time, it’s use was down to a bare minimum. It wasn’t like he was completely fit. He had suffered some hearing loss in one ear and his left arm and ribs were still not 100% healed. According to doctors, he needed therapy for full recovery. But that meant leaving his home and fields for 2-3 weeks every 3-4 months and live in a hospital 100s of KMs away. He once said to his wife who kept pestering him to go for the therapy, “I’ve had enough of those fancy doctors making me walk in water, do silly exercises and what not. All I need is weekly massage from the village barber and I’ll be fine.” He never complained about the pain and discomfort to anyone though. He patiently taught me the basics of farming, tending to animals and lots of related stuff. With him, I started to get over my depression but the question of what to do with my life was still there. One day while working on the farm, he was telling me an anecdote about his life in the army when I hesitantly asked if I could join the army.
His expression grew a bit serious at the question and he thought for a while before replying. ” I’ve thought about suggesting you to join the army, but you know what happened to me. Sure, there are lots of good things about the army, but theres always the chance of things happening.” He grew silent for a few seconds then said, “Do you want that risk ” ?
“Tell me one thing that’s really safe . My parents died just like that while traveling in a taxi. You can’t really control such things.” I replied.
“You’ve started talking like an old philosopher” he sighed. “Have you talked with your sister yet ?”
I shook my head to which he replied, “Your sister loves you more as a son than a brother. Although we were virtual strangers before, I too have grown to love you like a younger brother. You don’t have to do anything under the assumption that you are a burden to us. If you want to study more, sit in a competitive exam, anything you want, I’ll be happy to support you. You can go to Delhi, Pune whatever place you like for your studies. I’ll be even more happy if you stay here with us and help me with farming. I already have more land than I could manage anyway. ”
I didn’t know what to say so I kept quiet. Observing my silence, he asked me to think about it and we went back to our work. He must’ve told my sister about our conversation. She came to me next day and repeated whatever he had said, but in a more womanish way. But she didn’t seem too enthusiastic about me joining the army.
After a few days, I came to know about an army recruitment camp about to be held near our village. I made up my mind and announced my decision to join the army as we were all having dinner in kitchen. On hearing this, my sister dropped everything she was doing and walked away from the kitchen with teary eyes. He nodded once at me and then left to look for her. I went to bed soon after but couldn’t sleep. Next morning everything went on as if nothing had happened. Once in the fields, he called me over for a talk and told me about his conversation with my sister. At first she had opposed but reluctantly acquiesced. Then he said that I needed to improve my stamina in order to increase the chances of getting recruited and from that day, I was supposed to train for the physical test instead of working on the farm. So, my initial training began right there and then. He made me run laps around the field, do chin ups and push ups till I dropped and much more. When I reached home that evening, covered with even more dust and dirtier than usual, my niece laughed at me. Sister didn’t say anything. Slowly I started gaining strength and stamina needed to pass physical exam but I was always worried if I’ll be able to pass competing against rest of the locals.
Soon, the army setup their recruitment camp in a village not very far from ours. I took the overcrowded bus and attended the camp along with thousands of other young men who had gathered from perhaps hundreds of villages. Luckily, I cleared all the physical and written exams and was shortlisted . My brother-in-law who didn’t care to leave his farm even for his physio-therapy, came to see me off till Delhi as I left for my training in Mhow. Although he had prepared me for it, the training was still hard, mentally as well as physically. But somehow I managed to keep my wits around me. After completion of training, I was assigned as a Rifleman in Garwhal Rifles, same regiment as my brother-in-law. Even my sister who seemed unusually pensive ever since I declared my decision of joining army seemed happy when I broke the news to her.