The ‘Tricorne’ Hat of LoCs



Rashmi Talwar

GUREZ SERIES…

Gurez wears a strange hat; a unique triangular shape, it’s called – ‘The Tricorne Hat’ worn by George Washington- the Founder President of America. This triangular shape is symbolic and indicative of the connect Gurez has on three sides with the ‘Line of Control’ or the LoC, with Pak Occupied Kashmir. Loops of tall razor wire-walls walk along the entire area, as Gurez sits on the edge, keeping me mindful of trespass in an International Border Area. The contiguous rolls of razor wire, also serves as a wild animal deterrent. However, coincidental as it may seem, Gurez does have a history with America especially its Presidency. Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited Gurez years before he became the 32nd President of America.

Army boots, alert eyes and camouflage uniforms are everywhere. Black and yellow strips on bridges, culverts, road signage of BRO (Border Roads Organization), a wing of the Indian Armed Forces, are on the sidelines in this border sector. The relatively silent border at times witnesses enemy fire from across the border. But Gurez- the Beauty, remains unmindful of manmade borderlines, it continues unfettered and unrefined. It’s a bonnet full of wildflowers, and its vivid colors are God’s chosen prism. A massive natural color palette of petals and leaves; stems and stamens; buds and luscious fruit; is sprinkled carelessly on its grassy slopes. While in the ruggedness of the sloppy slant, flaxen autumnal grass falls like prayers, in sprays of the color of molten coffee. How contrasting that, Gurez is pregnant with greens and blues, it is also bald, bare, and barren; and somewhere it’s a moon-full of snows; in places, she is marshy, grassy, ​​rocky and watered. Birch trees with stark white theatrically twisted trunks stand lissom, like actors in various stages of dialogue and drama. Each floating color is rare, of the bold, the bountiful, the beautiful, and a bellyful; where no one sleeps hungry, no one sleeps in the open skies and no one is left unclothed and cold.

It’s a triangle, where the proximity of the LoC or Line of Control on three sides adds its challenges, with cross-border incidents that locals must adapt to. The untamed area has other issues, including challenges of the wild, where organic waste attracts brown bears, bringing them far too close to human habitation particularly before and after their winter hibernation resulting in man-animal conflict that often causes grievous injury or death.

LoC stop, Sikander Top

A short drive ahead of Achoora is Chorwan- a quaint border village. Huts stand tall, clinging to each other, like whispering women exchanging gossip at a village well. On the way I peep into a closely fenced area, to see lush vegetables of unsurpassed colors swaying delicately. Adjoining it and more tightly wood-locked, it holds the winter gold of Gurez – the massive stacks of firewood –a lifeline of our delicate Gurez when she wears the snow-white veil.

Sikander Top falls on the old silk route to the land of Gilgit Baltistan now on the Pakistan side. Beyond the LoC on Pak side is Kamri village about 9 Kms from the Indo Pak border, even the ancient Burzil pass is so close. As I stand on a rock with a rifled Jawan I feel ‘If I was a whale I could touch the other side of the border with the tip of my nose’ the thought brings a giggle. Beyond that is Astore, Sharda, Gilgit and Chilas, historically prominent sites on this axis falling in the Pakistan side of Kashmir. Incidentally a Burzil tributary from across the border joins Kishanganga nearby Dawar.

Sikander Top is a sharp contrast to village Chorwan, a no-entry zone; the army generously provides me an accompanying Jawan- a kind of a ‘living entry pass cum guide’, followed by satellite or walkie-talkie messages all the way up; where borderlines are drawn, between two Kashmirs of India-Pakistan. En route to the forward areas, huge ringlets of barbed razor wire lace the roadsides, a contiguous reminder of being in a highly militarized zone. The concertina wires run not only as road demarcations, protecting from intruders’ man or animal, but also the metal shine reflects with just pinpricks of light, giving an appearance of a silver snake for greater visibility to helicopter sorties, especially, in snows and fog .

Sikander Top is a mini army encampment, a contrast of sorts. It is disciplined, regimented, uncluttered, wooded, shady, with bountiful apples peeping through branches. Clean lines, strokes of white paint geometrically defined areas, neat brick-edged, well-kept, even at 8000 feet of river-land, and I wondered if I was on a ground army cantonment of Srinagar’s Badami Bagh or a Pathankot or an Amritsar one, and not in an Upper Himalayas unique expanse of flatland of remote Gurez.

Alongside, the forward areas, the azure waters of Kishanganga change colors with seasons and lights, and the theatrical little water-body, swings to “Jhanak Jhanak …. Baje Payaliya….” in Indian classical dance, grandly crosses the border into Pakistan administered Kashmir, without seeking any man’s permission. Its name changes in the neighborhood, of no consequence to its flowing charm, its beauty. I am told not to take photographs because the Sikander Top of the fair lady –Gurez, is on the edge – an edge of a border and a photo could spell a thousand words, Yes Sir! Rightfully so.

A strange contraption catches my eye –it’s a Kerometer, the commandant tells me, it’s a large kerosene stove that burns and heats an outer metal rim exuding warmth to soldiers living on the edge, in the biting cold. Sikander Top is an eyeball to eyeball position, of round-the-clock vigilance, alert, and caution, with Pakistan. “We also place a saucepan of water over the flat top of the Kerometer, a soldier tells me with a twinkle, so the heater is “shooting two birds with one missile” we all laugh. “The kero also acts as a ready kettle to cook something as simple as tea, coffee, Maggi, soup, quick water-boiled meals”. He shows in the stockpile of supplies; I see rats having a free run. Do you know how important is the “Danngar Brigade” here? He takes me by surprise, catching my attention. “Dannagggggar!” They laugh, seeing my confusion – “it’s the ‘animal brigade’, a Sikh jawan conspicuous by his turban tells me in Punjabi, and a Punjabi to Punjabi connection is instantly sealed. Those mules or danngars perform multiple ‘sorties’ bringing noodles’, he smiles-‘I mean -goodies for us’. A soldier lifts up one ear of a mule singing – “Coz, He’s a jolly good fellow, and he’s a jolly….we all join the chorus.” I mimic a scene from a movie – like a mule or ‘Khachar’ may say: – “Hume dangar nahi, Sher hain, aur sirf Sher hi nahi, Babbar Sher hain!” (Mule: I am not just an animal, I am a tiger, and not only that, I am a Lion!) And another round of laughter hangs among the apple trees.

They take me to see the lower bunker picket, equipped with high-intensity binoculars and machine guns peeking out of a tiny window heavily sandbagged, and weighed down roofs to bear wind and snow intensities, besides insulation from winter chill”. The army bunker is replicated on the mountain peak too and correspondingly a crow’s throw away, the Pakistani army too, is entrenched on mountain peaks. “So they look at you and you look at them, all day-all night long..? like “Aankhoo, Aankhoo mein…” I sing a popular tune from a Bollywood movie …and blurt out –“You should try Bhangra, it will add a lot of pep and warmth in this cold and add color to this monotonous picket, besides you could enjoy international spectators from across the border”, I twinkle. The Sikh soldier adds – “Aap ko pata hai, duniya ke kissi bhi kone mein ek aloo aur ek Punjabi milta hai” (You know, one can find a potato and a Punjabi in any remote corner of the world), we merrily laugh.

The visit sheds new light on the life of army men away from families, warmth, duty-bound in below minus temperature stationed in Gurez, where cows as feeders and mules as livelihood transport for man, goods, wood and food, from times ancient, the live transporter are revered each and every day; even, in this day and age, of world-wide internet, deterring youth from adopting old norms. These were but a moment of merriment in a highly volatile station where an accidental burst could trigger a war. The commandant of the mini encampment tells me “We sit here in the coldest of times with -20 degrees even as most of Gurez migrates to Bandipore or Srinagar, we lose our fingers in frostbites despite being well equipped, but we hold the weight on our shoulders as the country’s guards”, I bend low with folded hands as a ‘shukriyaa’ in utter gratefulness. I take home this feeling of monumental gratitude with me, on seeing army life in the inhospitable snows and multiple challenges in the most trying circumstances.

Pics and text by author who can be contacted at: rashmitalwarno1@gmail.com


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