27 September 2010

Colourless Snow

He stood still for a moment, silently surveying the vast expanse of snow all around. The dazzling whiteness seemed to calm him; slowly he walked down the rocky terrain, his army boots trudging through the thick layer of snow.

Lieutenant Aditya Mehra had spent the past six years trudging through the snowy hill top, following the same routine almost religiously. Posted as a Border Patrol officer, he was in charge of manning the Indian Check post that lay 400 metres in front of him. The rickety wooden construction had been his only shelter during the harsh snow storms that drowned the surroundings almost every day. He held a special attachment towards it.

Climbing up the side ladder, he pulled himself into the cramped room that functioned as his outpost. The wooden walls were decorated with photos of his parents, letters from his wife and drawings of his two little girls. Glancing at them like he always did every morning, a smile formed on Aditya’s face. A smile that’d fuel him for the rest of the day.

Taking off the automatic that was slung across his shoulder, Aditya non chalantly placed it next to the sniper rifle that lay on the floor, near the window. Army protocol demanded that the sniper rifle must be mounted at all times, assuming a threat arises. There were a lot of things Army protocol demanded.

Two minutes later, Aditya was trudging through the snow again, towards a large, almost dome shaped rock formation. As he approached closer, the sound of an ice pick scraping against the rock, became louder.

Saab was early, thought Aditya.

Sure enough, there he was, squatting on a small rock, diligently using his worn out ice pick to scrape away small chunks of ice that had frozen against the massive granite blocks. Without looking up, he smiled and asked, “So, Adi-ji, still having trouble with motions?”

Aditya chuckled, unable to keep a straight face. “I think it’s getting better now, Saab. Two more days and I’ll be fine,” he said, pulling out his own ice pick and sitting down on a nearby rock.

For the next half hour, Lieutenant Aditya Mehra and his Pakistani counterpart, Lieutenant Malik Hussain, chatted joyfully as they scraped bits of ice off the granite rocks. Which was definetly not part of Army protocol.

It had begin innocently enough. The first three nights of Aditya’s posting were the worst. He lay in the cramped room, on a thin mattress, holding the photo of his wife and baby daughter againt the glow of his cigarette lighter. It was too cold to sleep, and the only way he ever closed his eyes was when exhaustion overpowered his body’s icy temperature.

For almost two months, Aditya had diligently stuck to his check post. His instructions had been clear. He was to man the post, and report on any activity in the surrounding area. Five hundred metres away from the post lay the border between two of the most fierce rival nations in the world. And the duty of protecting that border, lay on the partly frost bitten shoulder of Aditya Mehra.

Of course, there was more to it than meets the eye. For starters, the border crossing hardly posed any problem to either country, thanks to the extremely rocky terrain and subsequent forests on either side. Which meant defending that particular border strip, meant more in terms of pride, than tactical advantage.

Half way through his third month, though, things began changing for Aditya. His supply truck, which was supposed to drop by with necessary food and water, got delayed due to the snow storm. Though he had enough food to survive for the next few weeks, he’d run out of water.

Realising that he’d have to search for water on his own, Aditya ventured out into the surrounding rocky terrain, foolishly hoping to find a stream running through the snow clad earth. Just as he’d given up his search, the sound of ice being scrapped streamed across the silent terrain. Realising that it came from the large rock formation nearby, he cautiously treaded forward.

He stopped abruptly, when he spotted a man, dressed in military gear, stooping down next to the rocks. Aditya felt a rush of fear. It was a Pakistani.

Gripping his rifle tightly, he pondered as to what had to be done. Obviously he couldn’t fire at the soldier. What then?

It took the young man almost ten minutes to finally make a decision. With one arm resting on his rifle, he walked forward slowly, making sure that the enemy soldier spotted him first. The soldier didn’t seem alarmed in the least.

As he neared, Aditya understood what the man had been doing. Tiny droplets of water had frozen onto the granite rocks, forming small ice particles. Scraping them into a bucket, the Pakistani was probably trying to get enough water to drink.

Over the years, both of them forgot how their friendship had begun. They talked about it once in a while, trying to trace back to the initial years.

“You took three months to even ask me my name,” Malik commented, as he casually chipped away at the ice.

“What did you expect me to do? Invite you for lunch at my check post?” Aditya retorted immediately.

Malik laughed. He had a open, large hearted way of laughing. It was something Aditya admired. The man’s ease and calm.

Malik Hussain was almost 38 years old. He’d served in the Army for over 15 years, without much success, he added, as he scraped more ice. But he was not a man to complain. It was too much of a waste of time, he said. Instead, he regaled Aditya with stories of his life in Pakistan.

They were quaint, warm hearted stories, told in short episodes of thirty minutes, over the span of six long years. Aditya remembered almost all of them : the goat Humzah that was almost like family, his two sisters who were now married and settled in the States, his grandmother who was surprisingly still alive.

“So, saab, is that enough colourless snow for you?” Malik asked as he stopped scraping.

Inspecting his bucket, Aditya nodded his head. He’d once asked Malik why he referred to ice as colourless snow. Malik merely grinned and replied : ‘Green for me, Saffron for you, colourless for snow, no?”

And since then, that’s what they called it : colourless snow.

Aditya walked back towards his post. Gathering enough fuel and wood, he started a small fire and began melting the ice. Carefully, and quickly enough, he transferred the water into a bottle, and climbed back into his room.

Three hours later, his radio crackled loudly.

It was a short, sharp message, delivered with military-type precision. India and Pakistan were on the verge of declaring war. All border areas were to be on high alert.

Aditya felt a sharp prick in his stomach. Realising what the order meant, he got onto his knees, and began mounting the sniper rifle. The thought of having to use it, sickened him.

The next few hours passed by in deadly silence. Aditya watched quietly as the sun sunk into the horizon, and the familiar noises of the night took over. At around 12, just as the Lieutenant began feeling exhausted, the radio crackled to life again.

Shoot on sight.

It was true, then. His worst fear had come true. It had happened, what they’d always assumed would happen someday.

Maybe today, maybe next week, maybe ten years from now

The words of Malik seemed oddly prophetic now.

Gripping his sniper rifle, Aditya, for the first time in six years, took his position. He slowly surveyed the surrounding terrain, checking for the slightest signs of life. Finally, his cross hair rested onto the check post that stood about 800 metres away. Malik Hussain’s check post.

As his finger slowly gripped the trigger, he wondered what he was supposed to do. Was he supposed to kill the enemy soldier that was almost surely residing in that post? Or should he spare the life of his friend?

Before he could decide, the top of a helmet came into sight. A sudden chill ran through Aditya. He knew it was possible. Two shots and the enemy soldier would be mortally wounded. Two shots and he’d have nothing to worry about.

The last thing that crossed Aditya’s mind before he decided to pull the trigger, was the thought of Humzah. An image of Humzah trotting through the courtyard, with an arrogance found only in goats, filled his mind.

His grip on the trigger slackened. The night continued in silence.

The next thing Aditya remembered was waking up suddenly, his arm still wrapped around the sniper rifle. Realising that he’d fallen asleep, Aditya frantically looked around. It was about 7 in the morning, and almost everything seemed normal. Until he peered at the opposite check post. Malik Hussain wasn’t there.

Something was wrong. As his heart began beating faster, Aditya tried to think what to do next. He knew that Malik Hussain was supposed to stay in his outpost. Conditions were hostile between the two nations. Enemy soldiers were to be killed on sight.

And then he realised what was happening.

Wild with fear, he grabbed his automatic rifle, and decided to face Malik Hussain head on. Slowly climbing down the side railing, Aditya surveyed the area, looking out for any signs of the enemy soldier. It was completely quiet.

I should have killed him when I had the chance.

Aditya felt sick with regret. As he carefully trudged through the snow, gripping his rifle, Aditya knew how precarious his situation was. A shot could ring out from anywhere, one shot to kill him.

Just as he finished climbing up the terrain, Aditya heard the familiar sound of ice being scraped. Cautiously, he moved towards the rocks, until Malik Hussain came into sight.

The Pakistani soldier, squatting on a rock, continued scrapping ice into a bucket. Without looking up, he smiled and asked, “So, Adi-ji, still having trouble with motions?”.

Aditya’s grip on the rifle immediately slackened. His face broke into an embarresed smile. Looking at Malik to make sure he wasn’t being watched, Aditya quickly took off his rifle and placed it against the rocks, away from sight.

“Nothing like that, Saab. Just woke up late,” he said, as he sat down on a nearby rock.

Malik Hussain chuckled lightly, but did not say anything else. Aditya wondered if the man knew the truth.

As though to cover up his guilt, Aditya asked Malik to recount some anecdotes about Hamzah, the family goat.

For the next half hour, the two men committed treason as they together scrapped ice off granite rocks, while their nations decided whether or not to wage a war...

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  1. I thought it'd end in something better!
    Amazing narration none the less :)

  2. Wow! The thought of the never-ending hostility between India and Pakistan, once one nation, has had a great effect on you. This is the second post on this topic I think. The first one was Four Wars...and Counting. This really was a thought-provoking story. Keep it up! :D

  3. The ending could have been better.

  4. @Sanjana and Anonymous: Thanks, could you suggest what you had expected for the ending?

  5. Actually it is not bad at all but as the others said , the ending could have been better.