Friday, January 01, 2010

Where Were U on New Year's Eve?

Thank you BlogAdda for choosing this post for your 'Tangy Tuesday Picks'

And thank you IHM for recommending this post for the same.
Where did you spend the 'New Year's Eve' -- the much awaited and much celebrated event, which people enjoy in different ways, at different places, most of the times indulging in fun and frolic, dance and dinners. And why not because the first day of the new year is the culmination of the festival season which starts with Ganesh festival, Navratras, Dussehra and Diwali and Eid in India (depending on which part of India you are) and with Christmas in the rest of the world. It is a day to celebrate and people all over the world do it in different ways.

I have also enjoyed the new years' eves in many different ways and at many different places during various stages of my life. I have fond memories of many of them but i can never forget the night between 31st December 1983 and 1st January 1984.

Ours was the last vehicle to cross the traffic check post (TCP) on the road leading to Changla pass -- the second highest motorable pass of the world after Khardungla. The Indian Army personnel donning the red beret, belonging to the Corps of Military Police (CMP), deployed at the check post, waved our vehicle to move ahead and thereafter dropped the pole barrier not to allow any more vehicles to undertake the upward journey towards the pass.

I had come back after spending a short leave at home with my family which included my parents, my newly wedded wife and my sweet little sister (who now is an ardent follower of my blog and whose comments are frequently found on my blog posts).

Having reported at my Unit Headquarters at Leh, i was further moving to my sub unit deployed on the Indo China border near Chushool. Since no dedicated vehicle was available for going to my company location, i had to take a lift in a vehicle which was moving from our unit to that location, carrying some supplies.

It was a Shaktiman -- a transport vehicle used for transporting troops or supplies from one place to the other-- popularly known as ' Three Ton' in the Army parlance. You can spot this vehicle, with a squarish looking bonnet having sharp edges with "SHAKTIMAN" written on the radiator mesh, plying on the Indian roads in cantonments etc. It is also used some times even in the form of a make shift school bus with chairs or benches fitted in the body of the vehicle, carrying wards of Army personnel. The vehicle has a small driver's cabin with a large body covered with tarpaulin which can accommodate a load weighing up to three tons, as the name suggests. Though the seat in the driver's cabin can accommodate three persons but in any Indian Army vehicle, only one person is permitted to sit beside the driver. The personnel of the CMP are meant to keep an eye on that aspect. They regulate the movement of Army vehicles at various places in the field as well, as at peace stations. In our vehicle, in addition to the driver, there were two more jawans from our unit who were sitting behind in the body of the vehicle.

The TCP was located at precisely the place from where the vehicles had to negotiate a steep zigzag climb to reach Changla pass. The climb takes a few hours, depending on the category and load of the vehicle -- lighter ones taking less time. After reaching the highest point ie., the pass on the formidable mountain range, the road starts its descent which goes down in to the valley on the other side. Both sides the TCPs are located at the similar locations ie., the start and end of the steep ascent and descent respectively.

As our vehicle was winding its way up, we could, at times, have the glimpse of the vehicles on the mountain slope, moving up in a convoy which had left the TCP before us.

Suddenly, our vehicle made a funny coughing noise and came to a halt. The driver got down, opened the bonnet, fingered some parts under the bonnet cover as per the drill taught to him and came back and started the vehicle. We resumed our arduous ascent once again.

After going a few kilometers further, the vehicle again acted in the same manner. The driver once again repeated the action and the vehicle again started its upward journey. The gap between our vehicle and those moving ahead of us, was gradually increasing, owing to our vehicle stopping frequently due to the engine problem. On the way we also met the convoy coming from the opposite direction.

The sky was overcast with thick clouds and in Ladakh one could never predict when snow fall would start, particularly during the winters.

Our vehicle drove smoothly for a few more kilometers up the slope and then again it broke down. This time the driver could not hide the embarrassment on his face. As he got down and went to the front of the vehicle to open the bonnet cover, i got down to straighten my limbs. As i stretched my body and looked up towards the top of the mountain range, i could not see any vehicles on the hill slope. We had wasted quite some time in fixing the engine problem while the other vehicles had continued their ascent and had gone out of sight. Moreover, the mountain tops were now all hidden under thick clouds and perhaps, it was snowing on the pass. The driver fixed the problem and once again we resumed our uphill drive. We encountered the snow fall on the way which kept increasing in intensity as we approached the pass.

By the time we reached the pass, it had grown dark and the snow fall was continuing. The pass had already received a few feet of snow as it must have been snowing there for quite some time. The driver halted the vehicle to give rest to the engine as well, as to check the recurring problem before we could resume our downward journey. The snow flakes were getting thicker in size every minute. There was an idol of Lord Shiva, installed in a small makeshift temple hut on the hill side of the pass. It was a custom that anyone crossing the pass would get down and pay respect to the Lord. I also climbed the steps leading to the temple and took a bow before the Lord's idol. Just then the winds started blowing hard and as i was coming down the steps, i was pushed back by the winds, flying snow flakes into my eyes. A full fledged snow storm was building up. As i reached and got into the vehicle, the driver dropped the bonnet cover and got behind the steering wheel. He started the vehicle but it did not start. He made many attempts but the engine refused to crank. He opened the door to get down to look up the problem again but the sheer velocity of the wind did not allow him to do so. I told him to stay back inside.

The snow storm was getting fiercer every minute. The visibility had gone down to zero. The very high velocity winds were making whistling sounds while brushing along the parts of our vehicle.

The driver looked at me with a helpless look on his face. I smiled back at him. The vehicle was not starting. We were stuck on top of Changla pass at the height of 17500 feet above m.s.l. There were two alternatives before us. First one was to leave the vehicle and walk down to the TCP, which would take another few hours, bearing in mind the adverse weather condition. Walking in zero visibility at night during a snow storm on steep hill slope could lead to our loosing the way and fall into some snow cavity. The snow covered hill slopes at times can be very deceptive, showing false surface and one could accidentally step into a deep cavity covered with snow, thinking it to be a level surface.

The second alternative was to spend the night in the vehicle and walk down to the TCP the next day. The risk here was spending almost twelve hours at a place where the oxygen contents in the air were very low, owing to low atmospheric pressure at that height. Also the high velocity winds were tearing into any object that stood there on the pass.

I chose the second one. Howsoever fierce the snow storm was, we were well ensconced inside our vehicle.

I asked the driver to see if the jawans sitting behind in the body of the vehicle were comfortably covered or otherwise call them into the driver's cabin. The driver opened the small window slit, provided at the back of the driver's cabin and shouted in local lingo. Both the driver and the other jawans were Ladakhis as our battalion had local troops. One of the nunnus (the Ladakhi boys are called so), shouted back that they were comfortable. The jawans always carried their sleeping bags issued to them. The back opening of the vehicle was also having tarpaulin cover, which they must have tied in place.

I was wearing the full set of my winter clothing, which included many layers of cardigans like string vest (a vest woven with thick cotton strings to prevent sweating inner wears clinging to the body, which can later cause pneumonia, once the sweat cools down), woolen vest, angola shirt, woolen jersey, coat parka with a hood and a balklava ie., the woolen monkey cap. I also wore snow boots with woolen socks and woolen pants with woolen under pants. Despite all this i could feel that while the upper portion of my body was feeling warm, the legs , particularly the knees were going numb with cold. The driver, who was also wearing the same set of clothing, also felt that our knees needed to be covered. He took out his sleeping bag from the box under the seat and we spread the same on our legs to keep them warm.

After some time, as i started feeling drowsy with sleep, i told the driver that we both could not sleep at the same time and would sleep in shifts, one person at a time. The purpose was to keep an eye that our vehicle, though, having sufficient height, should not get covered under snow blanket. I told the driver that we would open our side doors at regular intervals to jerk away the snow, which was accumulating outside, so that we could open the doors in the morning with ease. The driver told me that he had a kerosene stove in the vehicle which we could light for keeping the driver's cabin warm. The drivers always keep such things handy just to prepare tea etc., on long stretches of drive as well, as to warm their food on the way. I did not allow him to light the stove because, though, it would warm up the cabin but it would also burn up and deplete whatever little oxygen was available in the closed cabin.


The front windshield had become an opaque glass sheet, as the snow and frost had formed a thick film on it from outside. However, the side glass panes remained transparent as we were moving the doors off and on to keep the door opening intact.

After midnight the snow storm subsided. I opened the door on my side. It opened with a great difficulty as the snow had covered the space outside up to half the height of the vehicle. I had to literally push it with my feet, while sitting on the seat. I made an attempt to come out of the vehicle by removing the snow outside, again pushing it away with my feet. It made some opening for me to crawl out. A little more effort made the opening wider. I came out and had a look around. It was all absolutely calm. There was nothing else visible except snow all around. The temple hut of Lord Shiva had gone under the snow blanket. I dug my feet in the soft snow and went a little away from the vehicle and released my self, leaving a pale yellow hole in the snow, which was now shining bright under the starlit sky. Driver had also opened the door on his side. I went to the back of the vehicle. The jawans inside were snoring away to glory.

Both driver and myself came back into the cabin and closed the doors. We decided to catch some sleep now as the sky had become crystal clear, showing even the tiniest of the stars and there was no possibility of any more snowfall.

We woke up with the day break. I told the driver to stay back with one of the jawans and asked other one to accompany me. I took out my rucksack which, in addition to carrying my essential stuff, also had a packet of 'pinnies' (the balls made with the flour of 'moong' pulse, sugar, jaggery, dry fruits and many other nutritious ingredients, which my mother always prepared and gave me whenever i came back from leave. Two of such 'pinnies', if taken in the morning could see one through up to lunch time). I shared some of them with the jawans, before starting our ghost walk (in six feet of snow, one has to literally walk like a ghost lifting the leg high up before again digging it in the soft snow ). Though, the TCP was visible in the valley but it took us almost four hours to reach that spot. The snow cutters were on the job for clearing the road for traffic, which were expected to reach the pass by lunch time.

The TCP- in- charge told us that they had known of our getting stuck on top of the pass, as the two TCPs on the two sides remain in contact with each other to keep a tab on the number of vehicles sent and received by each of them. They told us that they tried to send a rescue party to help us come down from the pass but that could not go any further than a few meters due to the snow storm.

We were driven to the brigade headquarters where the Regimental Medical Officer (RMO) Dr. Maj Sharma carried out our routine check, like blood pressure etc. He smiled and said "Balli, though, i had written you off but you seem to have emerged as fit as the local Ladakhis"

We exchanged new year wishes, as it was 1st January and i left for my company location to celebrate new year with the jawans who were anxiously waiting for my arrival.

In the Indian Army, when an officer connects with the troops at such special occasions by attending the festivals, their religious functions etc., they are ready to die for you.

And wish you all a very Happy New Year 2010.


This post also forms part of series on my life journey. To read all the posts in that series please click here.



 

39 comments:

Rumi said...

oh my God! uncle after reading the incident only thing comes to my mind is that.......U R A REAL LIFE HERO!!!
If i was there in that position...then God knows what would have happened to me.May b I wouldn't have lived the rest part of my life to write it down in my blog!

Usha Pisharody said...

Balvinder Sir, first of all, the bestest of wishes for the new year!

Great reading here, and being a tale you have lived through makes it all the more fantastic! My father too, has regaled us with ever so many stories of the times when he was in the services, esp. some of the voyages that were rough :) So I really enjoyed reading the post, word by word :) Each day, esp in the lives of the soldiers of the Indian Army, is an adventure I think. I continue to hear of these accounts from my son's colleagues in the army too, and I am as I have been always in awe of you all!

God bless you and your loved ones, this new year!

BK Chowla said...

That is why I always salute the Faujis.
Happy new year

Nilu said...

Balvinder Sir,

That was a gripping story - I swear I had started biting my nails!

I also think its a subtle slap in the face for people who constantly ask what did you do for New Year's in terms of partying etc.

Here's wishing you a very happy and happening New Year!

Nilambari

Balvinder Singh said...

Rumi, thanks for calling me a hero though, i am not and there are many heroes who are manning our boarders braving the weather conditions worse than that i have mentioned here. They are giving their sweat and blood to ensure that we remain safe. And Rumi even if you had been there u would also have emerged unharmed as the human mind and body is capable of bearing a lot.

Usha, welcome here after a long gap. Yes we faujis have a lot of such tales which though, are a routine affair in our day to day lives but sound so fascinating when narrated later on to those who have not undergone such experiences. So i decided to share them on my blog. Thanks

Chowla saheb, thanks a lot. I know u are an ardent fan of faujis. Thanks for keeping up their spirits by your encouraging words.

Nilu, yes indeed this sounds like a gripping story and as i was typing it down i was feeling as if i was again going through the same experience.

No Nilu, my writing it here on the New Year's occasion is not to taunt anyone. Every one has a right to enjoy his/her life the way they want but yes we must remember those who are spending their festivals and functions at such places just to ensure that rest of us enjoy ours without fear.

Harpreet Kaur said...

Hi Bhaji, it is thrilling/exciting and scary also, maybe being Shimlite also helped you to cope up snowy problems. Milky is all wow by this article and seeing my name mentioned in such a wonderful way (Thank You). Wish You Very Happy New Year 2010 to you and all your blog followers.

M.G Suresh said...

Dear Sir, It’s a wonderful post. I could picture all that was said in this post.

Dear Sir, I’ve a question. Currently I’m working as a software engineer in Bangalore, could I join the Territorial Army and experience all that said in your blog.

Happy new year 2010.

Suresh.

Indian Pundit said...

Balvinder Sir

This is really fascinating stuff......wow....very good description of that night at the mountains.

really these are the events that one never forgets.....

Cheers and am following u

Balvinder Singh said...

Happy, yes u are right , my having been born and brought up at Shimla helped me a lot during my Ladakh tenure. Have you told Malvika that u were almost her age when i was in Ladakh. Yes and i have correctly used that adjective for you, u will ever remain my sweet little sister.

Wishing u too a happy new year once again on this blog.

Suresh, yes since u are gainfully employed, u can certainly join the Territorial Army if you are below certain age. For that purpose u will have to contact the Director General, Territorial Army, Army Headquarters, West Block, RK Puram, New Delhi. But i can't say whether u will be able to live the same experience as described by me above because Territorial Army has different role from that of regular Army. But no harm in checking up from the address that i have given above. And i appreciate your liking for tough life.

Alternatively, you can go trekking to ladakh through some sports body. Search the same on the net for finding out more details.

Wish u too a happy new year.

Indian Pundit, thanks for the visit. Yes there are some moments in one's life which one can never forget which one also enjoys sharing with friends. Thanks once again.

J P Joshi said...

Balvinder: Enjoyed reading every word of this beautiful post, and could visualise each scene; hats off to you and all the others in OG who do so much for us.

Happy New Year to you and your loved ones.

Balvinder Singh said...

Thanks JP, you must have flown over this pass during ur Ladakh stint. Thanks for the compliments. Yes the men sitting on the frontiers deserve to be remembered at such occassions, if not more.

Thanks for the New Year wishes.

indianhomemaker said...

What an experience!!! Narrated so well, I didn't pause till the end... A very happy New year to you! This must have been some experience!! This one could be published in 'Drama in real life' in Reader's Digest!!

My favourite post on your blog!

Balvinder Singh said...

Wow!! IHM, that's a huge compliment from a blogger friend for my post. Thanks and wish u too a very happy new year.

Gopinath Mavinkurve said...

Balvinder Singhji, you have narrated your experience here so well! We always hold our folks in the services in high esteem, but this post make us civilians realise how you need to deal with the dangers of nature even in times of peace! You brave the hazards of biting cold during heavy snowfalls, storms, rains, lack of oxygen - all to protect our great nation! Congratulations for featuring on Blogadda's Tangy Tuesday picks. Do come over and read my blog whenever time permits!

Doli said...

wow this is the first time im reading a fauji blog :) kudos to the good thinking that you had that day!

Harpreet Kaur said...

Big Congratulations, on appearing on Big Adda's Tangy Tuesday. Keep it up.

Dreamer said...

Congrats on the Tangy Tuesday pick. What an experience! I expect it was really nerve wracking at that time. Extremely vivid narration!

lostworld said...

What an experience!!! This ought to be published as a short story :-) First-time here, came from BlogAdda.. Enjoyed reading this a lot Sir.

Balvinder Singh said...

Gopinath, thanks, yes to keep the flag of the nation flying high, the comforts have to be sacrificed sometimes. Thanks for the compliments. Yes surely i will visit ur blog.

Doli, thanks, yes that was the most appropriate decision which i took to stay back, otherwise i would have endangered the lives of the jawans along with mine if i had decided to walk down in the snow storm.

Happy, thanks for putting the link on the facebook.

Dreamer, it was the kind of an experience which one can never forget. Thanks for the compliments.

Lostworld, yes it would make a nice short story. Thanks for the compliments.

sartaj singh said...

papa reading ur post along wid monty bhaiya in hardcold night in shimla... really interesting n nice way to enjoy new year... one thing, which i need to clear is that in such type of wheather u must be having rum :) or ur driver or nunnus which keeps u warm in cold... ne ways really lucky to enjoy rest of life wid u...

Balvinder Singh said...

Hi Sunny, after reading this post, the Shimla cold must have vanished.
Yes, the Army jawans in the high altitude and hard field areas are issued with their usual quota of xxx rum. But firstly, it is not a daily affair and secondly, the same is given to them under proper supervision by a JCO, while they go to have their food in the unit ‘langar’ (cook house). Sometimes they are issued a tot of rum each during ‘bara khana’ (the community feast) even in the non hard field areas also, on occasion of some festival or function etc.
Similarly, the officers have their drinks in the Officers’ Mess. In addition to that the Unit Doctor can prescribe a peg of Brandy in the form of medical comfort to such personnel who may be requiring the same based on the nature of their illness.
Under no circumstances the drinks are supposed to be consumed by the Army personnel (officers or jawans), while they are travelling. Moreover in such adverse weather conditions, the influence of liquor can affect the decision making of an officer who can jeopardize the safety of his life as well as those of the jawans accompanying him. This can also result in exposing their bodies to the extreme climate due to false sense of warmth of the body.

I love that “Lucky to enjoy the rest of life with you”

And PUTTAR jee visit here more often.

Anonymous said...

I was touched by your blogpost "Where Were U on New Year’s Eve? I congratulate you for the crisis you managed and for displaying such a high sense of courage.

Capt Jaswal

Balvinder Singh said...

Capt Jaswal, I know u are a regular reader of this blog as u told me the other day and finally u have been able to put a comment here. Will be looking forward to more from you.Thanks for the encouraging words.

Renu said...

Congratulation on tangy tuesday pick, havent read the post will come back later.

Balvinder Singh said...

Renu, i was wondering where have u gone. waiting for u to come back :-))

Renu said...

wow..what a journey ! your real life is so full of adventures, that nobody needs to read any fiction..I have always admired army men, and with your posts it keeps on increasing.

Balvinder Singh said...

Renu, thanks for congratulations in ur earlier comment.

welcome back, yes the journey was thrilling. I was lucky to have served in such areas where adventures is way of life. And some of my experiences are stranger than fiction. So i keep sharing my memories with friends. And blogging has made it so easy.

Thanks for the admiration for the Army men.

Smitha said...

Belated wishes for a Happy New Year.

Wow! That must have been some experience! This year we had extreme snow - for our kind of weather and we felt all helpless - so I can't even imagine how you must have felt there.

I can only salute the spirit that our forces have in the face of such conditions!

Reflections said...

U have narrated this so well, I cd imagine every scene so clearly, thank U for sharing it with us.

And congrats on the tangy tuesday pick:-)!!!!!

Balvinder Singh said...

Smitha, yes that was a great experience and that is the very reason that i remember it so vividly even today and there are many more like that which i will keep writing in my blog as and when i find the correct words which could capture the spirit of the experience.

Smitha, thanks for new year wishes and i reciprocate.

Nancy, thanks. yes i have tried to explain the minute details just to take my blogger friends with me to the sight of the incident. Thanks for the compliments and for the congrats :-))

Shail said...

First and foremost Congratulations on the Blogadda pick. Though I had been here earlier I wasn't able to leave a comment, my apologies.
Such a vivid account of events that it comes to life in front of your eyes. Shaktiman that all too familiar vehicle and so many memories! Thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. That was a memorable new year's eve for you.

A belated Happy New Year to you Balvinder.

Balvinder Singh said...

Thank you Shail, for the congrats. Yes, some events remain so fresh in the memory that one can play visuals of the same in the mind after so many years, so i tried to convert the visuals into words to share the same with friends.

Thanks for the new year wishes and i wish u the same.

Unny said...

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Amruth said...

Hello Balvinder sir... Its always inspiring to go through your blog. Iam a software engineer and I have great interest towards Army life. My father retired after working Army. Can you tell me how can I help the Army people being a civilian. Whatever from my side?

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