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The Baby from the Skies!
|by Col. Gopal Karunakaran|
Kashmir wasn’t always like what it is today.
In the early eighties, many army units sought the Valley as prized field tenure; it provided soldiers a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of peace stations and the opportunity to be deployed on the borders of our country. There were then many field locations in Kashmir where the family could stay with the officer, provided they were prepared to face up to the vagaries of the weather, uncomfortable modes of transportation like the bouncy one ton trucks and be prepared to endure some very basic toilet facilities. Kashmir was breathtakingly beautiful then, as it still is today, but without the tensions of an insurgency or the dangers of an attack on an Army convoy.
My infantry battalion had moved to an idyllic location called Chowkibal in 1983 after a wonderful tenure at Bangalore. The unit was earmarked as a reserve unit for battle contingencies, and therefore not deployed on the Line of Control. Across this little village, on the extreme western edge of the Kashmir Valley, is the Shamshabari mountain range and across it was the township of Tanghdhar. The people of Tanghdhar were not predominantly Kashmiris, but Punjabis and Gujjars who were more friendly to the Indian troops but yet held a grouse against India. During the 1948 campaign to oust the Pakistani Army and irregulars who attempted to capture Kashmir, the Indian Army was stopped from going beyond Tangdhar towards Muzzafarabad, (now in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) by the hastily agreed ceasefire.
The township of Tangdhar, which before partition, was an important stop-over when moving by road from Muzzafarabad to Srinagar, was now without a lifeline for six months of the year when the heavy snowfall on the Shamshabari Range cuts off its only road link to rest of India. The entire thirty thousand strong civilian population and the army brigade located there, were then supplied only by porters, or by a rare military helicopter. Soldiers and civilians alike, who chose to leave Tanghdhar, had to undertake a long treacherous avalanche prone 12 hour trek between Chowkibal and Tanghdhar over the Nastachun Pass at an altitude of over 9000 feet.
I was a young Lieutenant with a couple of years of service and apart from the usual responsibilities of a company second in command, I was deputed by my Commanding Officer to be the Station Staff Officer. This appointment carried with it certain responsibilities towards the units in the Tangdhar garrison including the requisition of porters for the weekly trek across the pass.
One day, I received an unexpected call in the afternoon from the Staff Captain of the Tanghdhar Brigade saying that a “packet” would arrive by the returning helicopter at around 4 pm and I was to take care of it till the next morning when Major Bali, the DQ, would collect it from me. Major Bali was apparently walking across the pass that night. Wondering what this mysterious parcel might be, that couldn’t be carried by porters across the pass but required a helicopter to transport, I made my way to the helipad. Soon I heard the whirring of the chopper. The pilot landed and without switching off the rotors, waved frantically at me to come to him. He seemed in a hurry to leave! I ran towards the door, he pulled me by the collar and shouted into my ears so that he could be heard over the sound of the engine – “Talk to the Staff Captain he shall explain everything!” - saying this he thrust a blanket wrapped bundle into my hands and waved me away - he was really in an awful hurry to take off! A bit flabbergasted at his unusual behavior, I turned away and waited for the helicopter to take off before having a closer look at the bundle. Burying my hands into the blanket I felt soft warm skin! Quickly uncovering the bundle, I couldn’t quite believe what I saw - it was a tiny little baby - crinkling its little eyes by the sudden exposure to light. The little one seemed a bit annoyed at her rough treatment, but soon gurgled back to sleep. I decided that the Staff Captain had some explaining to do and soon got him on the line.
Apparently, the Brigade commanders wife and their two teenage daughters stayed on in Tangdhar till October, expecting the snowfall to ease one last time to allow the snow dozers to clear the road for the final road convoy out of Tanghdhar for the year. Weather is fickle and unpredictable in most parts of the world, equating the weatherman to the status of a madman – never ever sure of what he is saying. It is particularly applicable to this part of the world. The snow never eased and the pass was declared closed for the winter with the Commanders family now firmly stuck across the pass!
When the General Officer Commanding of the Division came to know of the situation at Baramulla, he promptly threw a royal fit and ordered everyone to just walk across the pass and get back from the Tangdhar Valley. Little did the General know that it was not just the Brigadiers wife and two daughters you were stuck by the vagaries of the weather, but there were two other pregnant ladies and a tiny six month old baby of the DQ too! While the prospect of walking across the high altitude pass was a terrifying prospect for the ladies, it was still possible with a bit of resolve and a great deal of pushing and cajoling by the men folk. However, carrying the six month old baby across the pass for 12 hours in sub zero temperatures was impossible to even contemplate. Talking to the livid General was quickly ruled out as an option – he would probably have a heart attack!
What could they do?
Without consulting the hapless Commander, the Staff Captain decided to ask a young pilot, the maverick Capt Gill, who came to tanghdhar on the weekly mail ferry, if he could take the baby across to Chowkibal. Crazy Gill had recently been punished with a loss of six months of military seniority for ferrying a dead body of a Border Security Force soldier from a high altitude post without authorization from his higher ups. He heard the young Staff Captain out and then summed it up- “Oh well, six months or one year loss of seniority, how does it make a big difference- I’ll do it! Don’t you worry!” It sounded positively heroic, especially when he added his favorite Punjabi swear words!
Now the story told, the Staff Captain said I was to take care of the baby till Major Bali and his wife, who were walking across the pass, arrived the next day! And what a night it was! The baby was a delight for the first few hours – then she bawled and bawled and drove all the bachelors of the Fierce Fifth crazy! We tried making clucking noises, whistling sounds, singing songs, clanging cutlery but to no avail; all the poor angel wanted apparently was milk! How were we to know?!
Fortunately for us, one of our Majors wife was present at Chowkibal, and while she was very suspicious of our story, she took good care of the little one till she was handed over to the grateful, but very exhausted mother the next day!
The baby, who virtually came to us from the skies many seasons ago, must now be twenty seven. I wonder where she is – she wouldn’t quite remember us or the brave pilot Gill!
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