“Remember us. We guard your borders.” This was a poignant sign put up by the Indian army, along one of the many winding mountainous roads in Ladakh. As one drives amidst the stark, breathtaking and ethereal beauty of Ladakh, for short periods of time, it is easy to forget that the plateau is one of the most militarized zones in the world. Due to its strategic location, the region has witnessed bloody battles and the army has repulsed repeated attacks by raiders through the years.
The omnipresence of the army is evident everywhere. The land is dotted with camps of different regiments, and military vehicles and personnel are common place. Even the airport at Leh is run by the military, and is open to civilians only for a few hours each day.
While the army’s primary role is to defend the region, they also expend some energy in tending to the needs of their civilian brethren. They offer healthcare in the remote locations, rescue stranded people regularly, and provide emergency evacuations. In places such as the impossibly high, motorized Khardungla and Changla passes, they dispense medical aid to tourists suffering from altitude sickness. Best of all, for tea addicts like me , they provide pit-stops, that serve hot blessed tea, for free!
During our stay in Ladakh, we partook of the army’s hospitality regularly. One day, on our way back from the Nubra Valley, we stopped for a break at a military compound. A signboard at the entrance indicated that tea was available at one of the identical looking sheds, but there were no clear directions. As we wandered looking for a canteen, three men in uniform approached us and asked for identification. We had clearly trespassed. So we showed them our pan cards, stated our purpose, exchanged greetings and got talking. It turned out that the men were on their last acclimatization stop before heading to Siachen. We were probably the last ‘regular’ people that they would see for months. From here on, they would spend each day with fellow soldiers, battling tremendous odds in a harsh, freezing and unforgiving terrain. Some may never return home.
Thus, we stood and chatted; three army men from Haryana, Kerela, and Rajasthan and a couple from Assam and Bengal, literally in the middle of nowhere. We were a motley crew, a microcosm of India, sharing pieces of our lives in a land that was ours, and was yet very strange. We must have spoken for about five minutes, about mundane things; the hot weather in Delhi, our homes, and our families. At that moment, it mattered little that our individual worlds were so different. We were all Indians and our national identity was our collective bond.
Suddenly, the spell of camaraderie was broken, as a soldier (obviously more senior in rank) marched up to us authoritatively. In a stern, gruff voice, he asked us what we were doing there. We explained the situation. He apparently accepted our story but reprimanded his juniors for letting us linger. Then he marched us towards the canteen and offered us some tea perfunctorily. We drank it quickly, like errant children, and then drove off in haste.
I was upset that our pleasant meeting had ended so abruptly, and we did not get a chance to say goodbye to the men we had befriended. As our car wound laboriously up the hill, we saw a soldier flagging us for a ride. This was a regular occurrence and the driver slowed down. But the soldier, instead of walking towards the driver, came up to my window and knocked. I rolled it down in surprise, for it was the soldier from Rajasthan. He was slightly out of breath, as he had run up the hill to stop our car. He extended his hand through the window, handed me a one litre carton of guava juice and said, “Madamji, yeh aap ke liye ek tohfa, humarey aur se” (Ma’am, this is a gift for you, from us). Then he turned and jogged away, as I fought back tears.
So, to the men at the borders who ask “Do you remember me?” I ask in return “You gave me love sealed in a priceless tetra pack. Can I possibly forget?”