The wind howled, its cries echoed across the mountains and the clouds overhead rumbled ominously. As Lieutenant Amit Singh swerved the truck over yet another curve, he glanced at the steep fall that awaited him if he faltered on this precarious route. So accustomed he was to the mundane routine, freezing temperature and rugged existence that he seldom allowed his mind to wander. Behind him were thirteen other army trucks, also carrying supplies to the next base camp.
Scores of tourists frequented these routes every summer. For them, it was a dream vacation to experience the biting cold, to endure high altitudes and travel through rugged terrain. He smiled to himself at the irony; his ideal vacation was to spend a week in the hustle and bustle of his hometown, Kanpur with his family.
His reverie was clouded by the looming mist and only the headlights of vehicles shone through the foggy veil. He switched off the engine and embarked from the truck. About 100 metres away, was yet another vehicle that had lost control on the road and was now stuck in a pit. Vehicles from both sides could not move both ways even as the driver struggled to get the wheel out of the trench.
As his colleagues also arrived to find out the cause for the commotion, the crowd became noisier, the honking grew louder and they anticipated a quick fix to the situation. Tourists were impatient and wanted to reach the highest point. Together, they moved the vehicle out of the pit and the road was once again cleared.
As they approached the camp, the supplies were unloaded and he then made his way to his deployment for the next month. By far, the most favoured among his colleagues, being posted at Nathu La Pass was something he looked forward to experience.
The rain did not seem to daunt the tourists as they braved the hail and snow and began the uphill ascent. At 14200 feet above sea level, one can have very few things running in their mind. The body has not adapted to the extreme climate so most of your energy and thoughts are focused on self-preservation. He watched as young men and women climbed eagerly in anticipation of the Indo-China border.
An elderly man hobbled through the snow, unsure of his next step. He extended a hand to the old man to help him proceed further but the old mans stopped short and gave him a quick salute and continued onwards. Such was the sincerity in his eyes that Lieutenant Amit Singh was startled.
As he made his way further up, a family of three was making its way to the pinnacle even as they were soaked completely by the rain and snow. The little girl’s teeth chattered and she shivered violently with every gust of wind. Her hair was tied into pigtails and drenched in the rain, but she continued to plough her way through the snow.
It was at that precise moment that Lieutenant Amit Singh understood why every soldier returned a happy man after their deployment at Nathu La Pass. Maybe it had something to do with how the mind plays tricks when you are subjected to extremes, but as he looked into the big brown eyes of an unknown girl saluting him, he saw in her, his very own Anjali. Although she was far away from him and anticipating his return, he knew how she often told her friends with pride, “My Papa is protecting our country!”.
The little girl shook hands with him and trudged along with renewed determination but Amit Singh stood rooted to the spot, dazed momentarily by swirling emotions within.
True, tourists might seem as an unnecessary responsibility at an International Border but it is during days like this that you realize how it is also a good thing.
The little girl walked away with the memory of an Indian soldier, but the Lieutenant was consumed by the familiar ache, the unquenchable longing for a home he barely frequented, for the family that was fast becoming accustomed to his absence and for his children who were growing up faster than he could keep pace with.
That night, as he lay in his bunker, he opened the letters from home and began reading the untidy scrawls by his Anjali progressing to legible sentences and now, a well-articulated letter. Tears welled inside him as her remembered her first footsteps; the only milestone that he had witnessed.
True, it was a hard life and many continued to question his decision but he believed in what he was doing and he was proud of his choice. He was a soldier of the Indian army and he knew that despite everything, his family was equally proud of his decision to serve the country.