The Siachen Rescue (An Excerpt from Insomnia by Rachna Bisht Rawat)

On the Siachen glacier—named after the pink sia blossoms that bloom across Ladakh in the summer months—another long winter had fallen. Movement between the Siachen base camp and Point 4212 had ceased and would resume only when the summer sun melted the snow next year. No flowers bloomed in Siachen. A perpetual blanket of thick snow ensured that all life lay smothered.

At this time of the year, the blanket got thicker, hiding the mouths of crevasses and obscuring the edges of precipices to the extent that it became impossible to tell where a man could step safely and where the snow would give way under his feet, sending him hurtling down to a painful death.

Point 4212 was a winter-cutoff post, which meant that it got snowed up during winter, and even helicopters could not fly there to drop rations and medical supplies. Every September, food, and kerosene were stocked up at the post, emergency medicines distributed and emotional hugs exchanged between the soldiers stationed at the air maintained base camp and those who were to man Point 4212. A team of seven would then begin its long journey across the icy terrain, walking for nearly six hours, to reach the small fiber-glass hut that was going to be their home through the rest of winter.

For these soldiers, it would be the longest six months of their lives. The falling snow would completely cut them off from the rest of the world. Only when the snow melted in March, and a new lot was here to replace them, would they trek back to the base camp and eventually head home. During these lonely months spent in subzero temperatures, the soldiers derived warmth from two sources: a kerosene Bukhari that burnt inside their fiberglass hut 24/7; and Madhuri Dixit in a yellow sari, smiling at them from a poster on the wall. The vagaries of the weather had caused the sari to fade in places, but the magic of her smile was intact and it still possessed the power to take the chill off frozen hearts.

The only visitors to Point 4212 during this lonely stretch were Pista and Pisti, two large and friendly Gaddi strays, who lived in the base camp, camping near its cookhouse most of the time, drawn by the aroma of fresh Rotis being tossed on the heavy iron griddle and cauldrons of meat simmering in the langar. Over the years, they had been trained to carry letters to Point 4212 for a reward of fish and meat. Having completely adapted to the hostile weather, they were light-footed despite their size and experts at navigating surface ice that could easily crack under a man’s weight.

Every week, when a friendly Cheetah helicopter dropped down parcels of letters meant for the soldiers, along with gunnysacks of food and medicine at the base camp, the mail for Peak 4212 would be carefully sifted out and tied around the dogs’ necks. The two would immediately head for the post, knowing that tinned meat and a warm welcome awaited them there. After spending some time with the soldiers at 4212, they would return to the base camp, making another trip only when the next consignment of letters arrived.

Lately, a new canine companion had started accompanying Pista and Pisti on their weekly forays. He was a big dog, with a lush coat and a muddy whitetail that curved like a fat cashew nut, which was why the soldiers had started calling him Kaju. While Pista and Pisti would jump on the men, lick their faces and arch their backs to rub against the soldiers’ trouser legs, Kaju would not indulge in any such crass displays of affection. He was a loner who kept to himself and stepped cautiously closer to the men only when food was offered.

Otherwise, he would just sit at a distance in the snow, tightly coiled up with his big black nose tucked under his tail to avoid the chill. Any attempts at familiarity were rebuffed with a deep growl. Kaju was doing the long trek only for the meat, and he made no . . . well . . . bones about it. Kaju had also started making the occasional lone trip to Point 4212. The men would sometimes find him outside their hut, where he would be barking gruffly to make his presence felt. Desperate for company, they would greet him with exclamations of joy. While he would stolidly ignore the soldiers, Kaju would devour food offerings in large, greedy mouthfuls and lick his white enamel plate clean.

He would then shake the snow off his matted fur and make his way back to the base camp. So far, he hadn’t brought any letters, but his visits were still welcome. For the lonely men ticking the days off in their minds, he was a sign that life awaited them across the frozen glacier. One morning, the men were shaken out of their ennui by their young Company Commander, Captain Ranvijay Singh, a handsome Sardar, though now sporting a beard that looked like an overgrown forest. ‘Khadehojao mere Sheron. Let’s complete our patrol before the weather packs up,’ he declared, thumping the slim and slightly-built Rifleman Ranjit Rajwada hard on his back. With that, Ranvijay moved out of the fiber-glass hut, adjusting his snow goggles over his eyes.

Rajwada quickly put on his snow boots, reached for his own goggles, and stepped out after him, surveying the sea of white all around and the sky that appeared to be slowly turning grey. He marveled at the world of sharp contrasts that the glacier was. Just this morning, the sun had been so intense and fierce that he had gone out of the hut in his combat T-shirt and returned with sunburnt arms. Soon after, clouds had started gathering and the temperature dipped to below freezing point. Everyone on the glacier knew that clear skies were invariably followed by blizzards and snowstorms, when the wind screamed at 150 kmph, capable of dismantling communication antennae, overturning unanchored snowmobiles, and ripping off the door of their fiber-glass hut. And before every impending storm, the soldiers had to perform a compulsory drill. A patrol would go out to check if the communication wires—their lifeline—were in order.


Excerpted with permission from Insomnia: ARMY STORIES, Rachna Bisht Rawat, Penguin Random House.

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