Last night I dreamed of Khunmuh. Of the clay basha walls topped with olive green canvas roofs, of the almond orchards in bloom in the spring, the pi dog puppies in the muddy lanes and the tracer bullets hissing towards our homes, prettily flashing against the dark night, with deadly intent to kill both soldier and child in the unprotected countryside of rural Kashmir. In the nearly 50 years since that time, nearly everyone who served in those lonely army units is gone; either dead, or maybe too old now to do more than murmur weakly against the injustices of inadequate pensions, or to stay silent with an old soldier’s honour. This is my story of a child’s view of the 1965 Ops, that’s what we called it the 1965 war with Pakistan. “War” was always a word that real soldiers avoided, because when you’re in it, you don’t see it, only the little episodes that impact you and follow you all your life.
I was 7 when my Dad was posted from Bangalore to Khunmuh, some miles outside Srinagar, and we kids revelled in the long languid journey by coal powered train, bus and jeep that took us from the lush green south of India, up to the marvellous magical Vale of Kashmir, and it was still as a Mughal emperor intoned, “If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.” The first months of the posting was paradise, for children. With 2 companies in the camp, there were other children to play with, and at picnics and parties with other units, even more children. It was a surreal experience, the small closed community of the camp, and the wide spaces of the valley with the snow covered mountains of the Himalayas around us.
It was here in Kashmir that I had my first awareness of religious and cultural diversity. Our units had both a small mandir, where you went for prasad (very good) and hindi tuition(not so good), and a gurudwara, where you went for guru ka langar(excellent). In addition, we went for wedding feasts at the Muslim headmen of the neighbouring villages, where all the wedding food was vegetarian, and delicious south indian breakfasts at a Jewish officer’s home. We accepted without demur that Hindus worshipped many gods, Sikhs venerated ten gurus, Muslims had only Allah, Jews had the same God as Christians (but not Jesus), and Jesus and Mary were equally venerated by Muslims and Christians (and most Hindus willing to accept enthusiastic expansion of their pantheon). The idea of anyone wanting to live in a single religion country was a source of much ridicule, especially to my little sikh friends who taught me a lot of very rude sardarji jokes..go figure.
We all went to school in Srinagar to the Presentation Convent School, with delightful Irish nuns, who for some reason taught us how to dance the Scottish Fling, and for the first time, taught me my catholic catechism, as well as how to confess your sins. “Go through the 10 commandments and check, except for the seventh one, that only applied to adults”. I must admit that sin and guilt did not figure largely in our carefree wanderings out of camp, playing with the village kids in the poppy flecked saffron fields, searching for lost almonds in the undergrowth, and climbing the surrounding hills looking for precious stones in the rocky stream beds. Until they were suddenly stopped, with our weekend excursions picnicking, exploring and trout fishing. Our well explored camp became our sole playground, where we wandered unhindered from guardroom to langar, joining enthusiastically in all the trench and bunker digging. Climbing up an A tent and sliding down the other side was a favourite occupation, not much liked by the jawans residing in the tents, though. By night, the mums card games (rummy and paplu), moved to underground bunkers, and we planned where to hide so that we could never be sent away to relatives and friends outside the Valley. An additional benefit was that going to school had also stopped, as there was no longer any way to get there, hiding at the back of the army jeep. The Military Police had become far too vigilant checking for Pakistani infiltrators. At that time, army families were never (officially) allowed to ride in army vehicles, whatever the occasion, and our dislike for the infiltrators who had interrupted our picnics and wanderings was nothing compared to our hatred and loathing for the red capped military police who threatened our journeys and blighted our picnics.
It was less fun by night when the incessant firing started, from the villages around the camp, though by morning the headmen and villagers hotly denied it. The trenches were filled with the night duty platoons in tin hats and ancient rifles, and I’d hear my Dad swearing at the cowardice of Army command, and the idiocy of politicians. Finally tiring of the trenches we moved back home for the nights, staying out of line of blacked out windows. Lying awake at night, I could hear Dad on the wind up field phones calling HQ in Srinagar for permission to return fire, or a platoon of infantry to flush out the attackers. I think they finally decided to let Dad handle it as he chose, as they said they needed the infantry elsewhere. I can remember Dad out every night, and by first light the firing would stop and the infiltrators melt away into the countryside. The other officers shipped their families out of the camp, but after two interminable days in Srinagar cantonment, my Mum decided that we were better off in Khunmuh with Dad, rather than being possibly blown up, bombed or bored to death in Srinagar. It was like that in our family; Dad would take care of everything, we never had anything but scorn for the cowardly infiltrators who only fired from a safe distance with plenty of human shields in between.
The undeclared war spluttered along for weeks, and the populace didn’t rise against India and join the infiltrators, but with the porous border, the Pakistani soldiers disguised as Kashmiris continued to sneak in with increasingly better firepower. Finally, it was a rocket attack on an army camp, that persuaded Dad to ship my elder sister and me out to Delhi, to another officer’s family in Dhaula Kuan. It was a problem getting into Srinagar, but a jeep with a machine gun mounted on it, was very interesting , though we had to still lie down in the back of the truck in case the MPs saw us. Maybe the MP story was’nt so true at that time, at least we weren’t afraid of MPs shooting us.
At the airport, there was the rare delight of Cadbury chocolate bought to sweeten parting sorrows, and a few nervous civilians waiting for the last flight out of Srinagar. The Indian Airlines flight was delayed so many times that we finally got into Delhi late in the evening, where everyone had been told that Kashmir airspace was closed to all but military aircraft. So there we were, two girls stranded in a darkening Delhi airport, when it was little more than a shed, and the staff were going through telling us to leave. Being army brats new places weren’t terrifying, but I think my elder sister, saddled with the more knowledge of the world, and the responsibility of a younger sister may have been more concerned. I was distraught only with homesickness.
Dad had asked a bank official on the same flight to keep an eye on us and ensure we arrived safely. After waiting with us, this good man took us home where his wife and mother fed us hot milk and pakoras while he tried to contact the family we were supposed to stay with. It didn’t help that the ladies spoke only Punjabi and they were ‘civilians’. Finally, when all calls failed, the bank officer reluctantly drove us to the address we had in Dhaula Kuan, where after a long time, we finally found our destination and went to bed in floods of tears.
Our Kashmir war was far from over though, as every day, with no war declared, we begged to go ‘home’, and no number of outings and ice cream were of any use. ‘My Fair Lady’ is forever tinged with the desperate fear and longing of an 8 year old, and some parts of Connaught Circus can still occasionally send me into an irrational panic. Finally, the formal declaration of war meant that Mum and my brother had to leave the valley, and we were reunited in Delhi, and continued on south to Bangalore where my unwilling brother was promptly admitted into boarding school at St Joseph’s, as he was perilously near to the end of school examination.
In later years, we heard more of what happened in the ’65 Ops, and the politics behind it and the rage of the Army at the weakness of Lal Bahadur Shastri’s Tashkent ceasefire when we were at the gates of Lahore. In our army circles the main target of military hatred was political betrayal and weak leadership, not Pakistan.
As for us, we returned to Kashmir, to find the trenches in our front lawn filled in and the roses replanted in winter in readiness for summer.