“We, the willing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much, with so little, for so long, we are now qualified to do anything, with nothing.”
This quotation was written diagonally on the first page of his diary as he showed me his poems. My host is a young man, whose spirits are still volatile despite the sub-zero temperature of this place. It is our first meeting. He does not know that the quotation is by mother Teresa, he does not know mother Teresa at all. He thinks it was said for him, dismissing any reason for researching its origins. The young man got engaged recently, the reason for an occasional blush whenever the subject of his future comes up. I only reached here the night before, but we are close friends now. There is something in the wind, with flakes, that urge people to speak in never-ending monologues. Discuss emotions, exchange secrets, talk about themselves – things they do not talk about ‘normally,’ not the least when they are engrossed in the workings of the ‘civilised world.’ I asked him about the quotation on the wall and he said let’s call it a day.
My room, call it my studio apartment, is a typical bunker, built on self-help basis, thanks to our meagre resources. Carved out from a hillock, it is a classical one-window room of 14×10 feet. The 10-foot high ceiling had 70 girders. Trivial information, you say? I count them every night before I can sleep. No, I have not grown insomniac, but I dare not venture out to count stars in this part of the world.
On one side, the empty cartons have been arranged, covered by gunny bags, only to be topped by the prayer mat. I have a lot of time to pray and reflect, probably since I am the closest I could get to Him. The other wall supports the bed (an arrangement of empty cartons) upon which lies an air mattress, along with our sleeping bags. Tastefully, the big-flower-print bed sheet does not permit the attention to drift to the poor structure of the bed. The dark toilet is an extension of the same room. An old cough syrup bottle has been modified with kerosene oil to serve the purpose of the lamp which practically lights up nothing.
The empty ghee cans are our makeshift geysers. Basic instinct is the best aide when it comes to anatomy in the dark bathroom. The room décor is an artistic arrangement of the empty containers of food, fuel and fire. Food cartons serve as tables, fuel cans as stools and empty (fired) cartridges as bedside teapoy items. The most decorated table has boxes of chicken cubes, noodles, egg biscuits, brick-game and yes, our window to the world, the radio. Other inhabitants include a Fujika (a kerosene-lit heater), petromax, the books that you have sent and the military phone – this masterpiece of technology which connects me to you, remains silent. The weather, the snow, the wind, the electric power everything conspires against our probable communication. Reminds me how Shah Latif narrates the plight of Sassi after she had been robbed of Pannu:
Our high point of the day arrives when we sit down for dinner. Fresh vegetables are a luxury. We have to live on roasted onions and tomato puree, which is canned. The weather denies us the luxury of fresh vegetables, and much more. After getting over with dinner, we gather around the radio and switch it on. This really is the world on our finger tips. There is no FM here, only the BBC and loads of incomprehensible regional channels. The alternative to BBC is Radio Pakistan, which runs the night-time transmission. About the night-time transmission, it is the radio’s revenge from the television for morning shows.
Another day has gone. The vigilant sentries change over their duties. Far from home, away from gatherings, phone calls, SMS-es, these men, I think, are doing something which can never be monetised. Purposelessly, looking against the ravishing snowstorms, their biggest foe is the weather. You can never predict its move. It sulks within and you only realise how loosely you hang between a life and death when it hits you. A minor headache turns into cerebral edema and a man full of stories, intentions, commitments and emotions becomes, what they call, a ‘causality.’
The radio is tuned up and we start receiving our dose of military bashing. A whole lot of qualified individuals start describing us as a merry-making mob, with no clue about how one can party at 20,000 ft above the mean sea level. My mind races. Huge chunks of budget for tomato puree and canned vegetables. Power hungry for morally supporting everyone that we have, people who love us and people who are the reason we live to guard this piece of land. Luxurious lives in a make-shift room with empty cartons. I think the quotation on the wall is not so over-rated.
Hope to hear from you soon…
(The author, who wishes to remain anonymous, served his tenure at Siachen with the men who were trapped under an avalanche on Saturday.)
The letter was first published on Dawn.com