By Paresh Tiwari
Snow. All around us. A thick blanket of barren white broken by faces of rocks that dare to peek out. In this snow cold grows fangs and fingers and a snaking tongue. The tongue slips under the collar of your parka, the fingers slide down inside your shoes, freezing, and the fangs rip through your wretched bones.
The land is so barren and the passes so high that only the best of friends and the fiercest of enemies ever come by. The latter is what we are. On the opposite side of the barbed wires. The hundred twenty metres of frozen land between us is riddled with mines. Barring the days of blizzards, we are able to see each other. It’s what keeps the status quo possible. Today, I see the bearded one clearly, steady as a rock behind the butt of his machine-gun, a standard issue Rheinmetall MG3. There are four other soldiers in his bunker, three more than the usual manning.
The change raises my hackles. I watch on as one of the new soldiers slides a grenade from his belt, pulls out the pin. I can hear the slink of metal scraping against smooth metal. Or can I? Do I imagine sounds in this isolation? I watch his hand move in a semi-circle. It’s like watching a slow-motion video. His fingers open a moment before the palm crosses his right ear. The grenade soars and lands into the no man’s land.
The blast sends shards of ice flying.
As a child, father taught me how to measure the distance of a storm. “Count your breaths between the lightning and the roar.” I count four breaths before firing into the thin mountain air, making sure to angle the barrel towards the wounded red of the sun. The bullets mark a faint parabolic trajectory against the sky. That’s how we say hello — a friendly exchange — or as friendly as we can hope to get in the circumstances.
If they had meant us harm, they would have fired right at our bunker.
Unfazed, my partner, Chand Singh, is cutting open a tin of stewed apple. It will take over an hour on the flame to thaw. And even then, it will be the most miserable apple we have ever tasted. The dog is snoozing at my feet, snoring gently. His shaggy body under the spare parka heaves every now and then. There are flecks of snow on his muzzle, and when I wipe them away, he shifts slightly, nuzzling into my palm. I don’t think he likes stewed apple any more than I do. But he would make do. We always do.
It’s been thirteen days since our company climbed the Himalayas to this outpost. We were a hundred and twenty soldiers and fourteen mules. Two soldiers to every bunker along the Line of Control. The mules are essential in this part of nowhere. They haul rations, ammunition, and provisions from the base station to the outposts. Often, they need to carry dead soldiers back. It’s a seven-day trek if the weather remains kind. On the fourth day of the trek, a dog slunk out from under a ravine and joined the group. He wasn’t a wild one by the looks of it even if there was no collar around his neck.
“He’s a Bhutia,” Chand Singh told me, “quite common in the lower regions, unheard of at this altitude. He must have belonged to a Sherpa.”
I wonder what happened to his master. When we stopped next, I emptied my tiffin in front of him. He finished every last morsel.
Early on the seventh day Chand Singh and I relieved the two men who just wanted to get back to the base station. To a hot bath and a warm meal.
“And a warm pussy,” Havildar Thakur had said shouldering his backpack, “don’t you forget that.”
It’s surprising how basic ones needs really are. And how clear ones priorities get after a month or so here. There are small bunkers like ours dotting the line of control — one of the most volatile borders in the world — each manned by two soldiers for six weeks at a stretch.
I wake up in the middle of the night. Chand Singh is whistling. A curious tiny sound escapes his puckered lips and hovers around before deflating into meek silence. I look at my watch, the numbers take a moment to come in focus. It’s twenty-five minutes past twelve.
“Oh, you are up,” he says, relief flooding his voice. “The dumb dog has decided to take a walk.”
I prop myself up on my elbows. Still groggy.
“Shit,” is all I can say. It’s all that makes sense.
“I tried to stop him. He wouldn’t listen.”
The dog is roughly at the mid-point between our bunker and theirs. A black wraith moving deeper into the darkness, he stops for a moment to sniff something, then takes a few more tentative steps. It’s a miracle that he hasn’t stepped on a mine yet. A floodlight comes on from the other side. It hovers over the night for a few moments, unsure, unsettled. And then bathes the dog in white.
“Come back, idiot,” I holler standing up, “here boy, come back Bhairav.” I scarcely believe that the name I gave him a few days ago would make him turn around. But I try.
The bullets cut open the darkness along its seam. Liquid gold pumped into the night. These are warning shots, meant to scare the animal. They haven’t decided to take out the dog, which is a surprise, given that he is trying to cross over.
People have been killed for a lot less.
“Just a dog,” I shout and wave, hoping that my voice will carry over. Praying that it does. For all they know, the dog could have a bomb strapped to his chest. Fear is a powerful motivator. Distrust, even more so. In this valley, across this border, both fear and distrust are in abundance.
It’s late in the afternoon; more than sixteen hours since I woke up. I haven’t slept a wink since. Add another six hours of the watch before that. With the oxygen levels at this altitude, it’s like going without sleep for six days in a row. Fatigue settles over my muscles like snowflakes, each bone a different crystal of sleep deprivation.
Bhairav crossed over to the other side at a little past one last night. Somehow, he knew the path to take, weaving through the barren snow-laden land, as if he could smell the mines, stopping for minutes on end before moving ahead stoically. He looked back a couple of times, but never once turned around. When he reached the other bunker, the bearded man came out and sat on his knees by his side. He ran his hands all over the dog’s body — to check for hidden bombs or wires, I presume — and then took him inside.
Would they split him open to send a message? His warm blood soaking into the snow in front of our eyes, a slowly expanding patch of red turning black. I have heard that it’s the metallic stench of death that gets you. Like a disease. I cock my gun, the trusty MAG 58.
“You are not doing that,” my partner says without looking at me. “Do you realise how quickly it will escalate to war?”
As the sun begins to dip behind the mountain face, I see the dog’s heavy shape reappear at the mouth of their bunker. I close my eyes in relief.
And then he begins his walk back, slow and deliberate, just like the night before. My partner puts a kettle on. He needs his evening tea.
Subedar Chand Singh, was my gunnery instructor at the Academy. He is a simple man. A good man. He has taught me everything I know about war. How to kill and to be killed. Or at least what those are supposed to be like. He has been through three postings in the valley, seen death in the eye. War is a lot of different things different people. For him it is purpose. I, on the other hand, have been commissioned as an officer six months ago. I am yet to fire on a man and watch his legs collapse under him.
When Bhairav reaches back, I bury my face into his fur. I don’t want Chand Singh to know about the tears welling up in my eyes. Bhairav gives my face a long, languorous lick.
There’s a small packet tied to his neck. Four Gold Leaf cigarettes tied up in a biscuit wrapper. The bearded one is standing outside his bunker, waiting, I believe to see what I think of this little gift. I put one of the cigarettes to my lip and strike a match. I have never smoked a Gold Leaf. I take a long drag, feeling the taste of unfamiliar tobacco in my throat. The cigarette burns up with a soft crinkle, licking up the dry paper.
The bearded one turns around and goes back inside his bunker.
Chand Singh comes over with a mug of hot tea and I offer him a Gold Leaf. “Who would have thought the dog would come back alive?” he wonders looking at the bunker across.
“I would have pumped them full of brass.”
“I don’t like this cigarette,” he says, crushing the half-smoked Gold Leaf under his heel. “It tastes like death.”
A day later, I wrap some almonds and walnuts in a strip of flannel and tie them around Bhairav’s neck. He is eager to set out on his little adventure again.
On his way back the next afternoon, he comes bearing dried dates.
“Could this really be the answer, Chand Saheb?” I can barely keep the tinge of hope from my voice.
“What this is, is gone to the dogs, Lieutenant Saab,” he uses my rank, and I know he is upset. This fragile warmth goes against his very nature. I do not hold it against him. How can I? His misgiving is but a lasting legacy of how our country was ripped apart more than seven decades ago. We have forgotten the colour and taste of peace. I don’t think anyone even wants it anymore. And when it trickles down like a rill, we recoil and revolt, lest a river, is born.
“Those enemy are treacherous,” his eyes are laced with red. “You haven’t seen what I have. Come to think of it, how many years have you even lived, sir?” He spits out the honorific, making it sound weak and spineless.
“It’s above you and me, Chand Saheb.”
“It hasn’t even been two years since they chopped the heads of our brave brothers.”
“And we gunned their men down.”
“Those bastards started it,” he says, standing up. He is an impressively built man. One that I wouldn’t want to cross paths with in a battle. And he fears little in life. “You are a disgrace, sending gifts to our enemies. How can you betray your motherland? I am reporting this to the base unit.”
“You will do no such thing,” I try to keep my voice level.
“Try and stop me.” His eyes flash in defiance, hand hovering over the radio set. But I also see his body contort with the struggle of going against an implicit order. The years of training locked head to head against a lifetime of conditioning.
“Chand Saheb,” I push further, “If it ever comes to it I will not hesitate to take them out. I promise you that.”
“If you do. If you hesitate for one moment, I will slit your throat before I kill those bastards.”
It’s been thirty-six days out here at the Line of Control. Winter has eased up a bit, the days are longer and brighter. Bhairav has been to the other side eleven times. Each time he brings back a small gift. He seems happier after the visits. Sometimes at night, he barks at the moon and the valley answers back.
On the ninth trip, Chand Singh insisted that we send them a tin of stewed apple. “Why should only we suffer this shit?” he had said shrugging his shoulders.
The base station has confirmed that our replacements have begun their trek. They will take seven days to reach us. Both Chand Singh and I are looking forward to the first hot meal in what feels like forever. We are waiting for Bhairav to return again, hot mugs of sweet milk tea in our hands, cigarettes dangling from our lips. I have gotten used to the Gold Leaf from the other side. It’s pretty much all I smoke these days.
Bhairav returns with a packet, as usual. It’s wrapped tightly in a brown paper — a perfect small rectangle. There’s a slab of chocolate and a slim book of poetry within. Neither I, nor Chand Singh know how to read Urdu, but I do know that it is read from the last page to the first, from the right margin to the left. And that’s how I trace the alphabet, running my gloved fingers over the words that snake over the page.
The last page of the book has a small note written in a blue pencil.
“By the grace of Allah, I have been blessed with a daughter. The mother and the child are well. I leave for my village tomorrow. I wish I had a picture to share with you. Will keep you in my thoughts. Khuda Hafiz.”
– Rub Nawaz
I pass the book to Chand Singh and step out of the bunker. I am sure that Rub Nawaz is packed and ready to leave. It will be a long impatient way back for him to the base and then to his little village, wherever it is.
How long should a father have to wait to hold his new-born child?
I raise my hand up in the air, and he mirrors me. I hope he will tell tales of the dog and the friendly soldier on the other side of the line of control to his daughter. And she in turn will recite it to her friends, who will then tell the tale to their friends. I hope the story will go bigger with each telling, that eyes will go wide in surprise when the villages, the towns and the country hears it.
The sun has been getting pleasantly warm. Chand Singh and I are having our afternoon tea out in the open. It’s been three days since Rub Nawaz left for his village. Three days since Bhairav visited the other side. He is getting restless.
I wrap a pack of Four Square cigarettes. I believe it would be a perfect first gift. Whoever thought a dog would be the most welcome emissary of peace between the two nations?
He sets off at his gentle pace. The valley is changing face every day now. The snow has begun to thaw and dead trees have started to reappear like skeletons long-buried, their twisted arms raised in supplication.
The bullets are fired without any warning. It happens in the blink of an eye. One moment, Bhairav is peeing on a rotting log. The next, he crumples over it. As if a rug has been suddenly and unexpectedly pulled from under his feet. His blood soaks into the melting snow — a slowly expanding patch of red turning black. But it’s the metallic stench of death that gets me. It’s like a disease.
Count your breaths between the lightning and the roar.
I don’t. I can’t even breathe. I cock my MAG 58 and aim it at their bunker.
Paresh Tiwari is a poet, artist and editor. He has been widely published, especially in the sub-genre of Japanese poetry. A Pushcart Prize nominee, his work has appeared in several publications, including the anthology by Sahitya Akademi, ‘Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians’ released to celebrate 200 years of Indian English Poetry. ‘Raindrops chasing Raindrops’, his second haibun collection was awarded the Touchstone Distinguished Books Award in the year 2017. Paresh has co-edited the landmark International Haibun Anthology, Red River Book of Haibun, Vol 1 which was published by Red River Publications in 2019. He is also the serving haibun editor of the online literary magazine Narrow Road.