Sunday, 4 December 2016

Teatime Tales.............the Third Tale.

Try telling your wife that the best cup of tea you ever had in your life was prepared not by her but by somebody else. Most likely, thereafter, you would end up brewing your own daily tea. But there are moments in everyone's life when one has a cup of tea, outside home, whose taste lingers on forever. I'm the fortunate one to have had such tea, not once but on three occasions and at three different places, separated by hundreds of miles. Their taste is still so fresh in my mind, in my heart. And I wish to share this with you.

Third Tea

      The prospect of a visit to the second largest glacier, the Siachen, could bring delight on a climber’s face; curiosity on a geologist’s face and excitement on an explorer’s face, but it brought a simple interest on mine for two reasons. One, I wasn’t a great enthusiast as far as the glaciers are concerned. Two, my stay there was going to be a prolonged one. Thought of living under sub-zero temperatures could send chill down the spines of the bravest soldiers. So the posting for a soldier at the Base Camp, located at the snout of the glacier wasn’t a cherished one.
       As luck could have, my stay at the Base Camp turned out to be quite short, just over four months. I was delighted at the thought of returning to Kathua, my regiment’s permanent location in the plains. Fortunately, the relieving unit had arrived in time and we were busy in handing over the stores, equipment and other responsibilities to it. Somehow, new unit’s attitude was far from being positive. At times, I was worried that if things got unduly delayed then we would be forced to stay there for the whole winter because the bridge at the Khardungla Pass, 14200 feet, the highest in the world, would break like chalk due to extreme cold.
       It was September and I had started getting hallucinations. A month was at our disposal to complete the formality and move out of that place. Only I know what all tricks I used to hand over and with great difficulty started back. When I stepped on the Khardungla Pass I felt the bridge would collapse anytime. A day later it did cave in.
      Two days later with dozens of vehicles, carrying tons of load, we halted at Dras, a small hamlet in Ladakh, the second coldest inhabited place in the world after Siberia. In the transit camp I spent a sleepless night because in the evening the news came that Zozi La (Pass) was closed due to heavy snowfall. Some optimists told us the GREF people were trying to clear the snow and hopefully the Pass could reopen by mid-day and the convoys would be allowed to cross through then. No new convoy was being permitted to enter Dras as the place was overcrowded.
       After breakfast I roamed around in the camp to get any good news but in vain. At noon I heard the movement of vehicles on the road to Zozi La. I almost wept in joy and had a quick lunch. I ordered the drivers to line up and after reporting to the military police we moved ahead. The men couldn’t control their emotions and began shouting ‘Durga Mata ki Jai, Bajrangbali ki Jai, etc. They kept shouting until they left the camp. The columns, expecting a smooth passage, pressed on. The hot water and food awaited them at the transit camp in Srinagar. Every halt stopped my breath, every move increased my delight. Hope and despair visited my heart in turns. And every heart on that road went through the similar emotion.
        At about four in the evening the convoy ahead stopped for longer than usual. I got down and moved ahead to inquire. Wherever my eyes went I saw snow and more snow. I felt as if I was in the North Pole. Minutes later the news filtered in that the Zozi La had closed down due to landslides. Though soldiers were clearing it, there was little hope that they would succeed before the nightfall.
      The thought of spending the night in sub-zero temperatures in that desolate place, surrounded by tons of cold ice all around, brought gloom on every face. My heart sank. I returned to the jeep. The men began to prepare for a long night ahead. Without food, water and proper bedding it would be tough to face an icy cold wintry night; no one had a doubt about that. For dinner we all had biscuits and then improvised beds to sleep on.
       In the front seat of the Jeep, whose doors were too weak to protect me from icy winds, I shoved my legs into a sleeping bag and pulled it over my ahead. It fell a few inches short forcing me to crouch inside it. When legs started to ache I unzipped the bag for the briefest possible time within which waiting icy winds crept in and made the bag colder. It took me hours to warm it again. After a while the aching limbs forced me to unzip the bag again. And this exercise went on. Each time the cold seeped into the bag, it sent me into the depths of despair. The temperature dropped with every passing hour. During that horrendous night many times it occurred to me that I wouldn’t survive the ordeal. And I know several soldiers would have thought the same. In that several-kilometre long convoy there wouldn’t have been a single soul who wouldn’t have remembered his God that night. It was a Diwali night and brief dreams of lights, good food and sweets added to our agony.
      The wait for dawn in my life had never been so long, I guess it would never be. Suddenly I heard someone knock at the door. Initially I thought it was wind but then heard a voice say, “Sahib, open the door.” And when I opened it I saw a hand with a steel glass before me, “Sahib, chai.”
       After the night of despair that piping hot tea in a steel glass brought me hope. Thanks came straight from the heart and a dumbest question from the mind, “Why are you offering me tea?”
       The soldier, wrapped in coat parka and balaclava, replied shivering, “Sahib, the truck in which we are traveling is parked behind you. In the morning when I saw a jeep, I thought there must be some officer in it and so I brought you tea.”
        I thanked him once again. As soon as the first hot sip trickled down my esophagus, I felt life returning into me. In the morning quiet, I relished every sip. After a while I requested my driver to return the glass.
        It was a life-giving tea whose taste is still so fresh in my mind. In the moments of despair, rare in my life, I do crave for such a tea.

 *      *    *

Related Posts with Thumbnails