This summer I got the opportunity to taste the air at 14,000 feet. Highest literally and figuratively I’ve ever been. The scenic drive to Nathu La is about 96 km from Gangtok which might take anywhere between 5-10 hours making it the poster boy for the unpredictable link between the mountain distance and mountain time. Only 70 cars are given permission everyday to visit Nathu La where the oxygen is 13% compared to the 21% of the good old Delhi plains. On your way to the pass you can see tourists riding beautifully decorated yaks enjoying the magnificent views of the Tsongmo Lake. Untouched and pristine, reveling in its holiness. The drive is extremely gorgeous across make shift bridges, over waterfalls, through the clouds with no signs of any real civilization. However, a chill runs down your spine when you cross the 17th Mile and are told to smile because it is at this point that you come under the Chinese observation for the first time.
Earlier the border between India and China didn’t have a well-defined boundary which led to frequent arguments between the two sides. This lay the groundwork for the violation of the cease-fire between the two in 1962 which erupted when the Indian army was erecting a fence to demarcate the border between India and China which was of extreme strategic importance. Within the first 10 minutes of the scuffle almost 70 Indians lost their life. However, Indian soldiers fought bravely against the Chinese and the conflict ended with the death of 400 Chinese soldiers by China’s estimate.
After visiting the pass with my phone’s GPRS set at China time, I visited the bunker of Major Harbhajan Singh. Major Harbhajan Singh was patrolling the border when he slipped and fell into the river and died. After a couple of days he came into one of his friends dreams and told him about the location of his body and asked the army to build a shrine for him. His body was found in the exact same location as his friend had told and his bunker was covered into a shrine. Today, thousands of visitors visit the shrine every year.
On entering the tiny bunker, you can see the weight of the visitor’s most intimate wishes, hopes and dreams scribbled on notebooks being borne by Baba Harbhajan’s office desk. You can also see a tiny Indian flag and map propped on the table next to an empty office chair. The small office enclosure leads to another enclosure which has the baba’s bed and his uniform carefully starched and pressed hanging on the wall (fabled to be dirty by the end of the day). To the room’s right, there are trunks with baba’s belongings carefully stowed in them. There are frequent complaints by China about sightings of a man on a white horse patrolling the border at odd hours and is believed to provide intelligence about Chinese activities to on duty army officers in their dreams. Earlier when baba was given a holiday, his trunk with his belongings was sent back to his village and the security was tightened at the border in his absence.Who was this mythical person protecting my mystical land? Who was this godly soul protecting my country which was already under the protection of 6,00,000 gods?
Even today a seat is kept empty at the annual Indo China strategic meetings and has been allotted a driver on payroll who drives him to his meetings. Breakfast and dinner are prepared for him before he leaves and comes back from a hard day of work. How do you decide to give not just your life for your country but declare your soul as its? How do you father such a passion towards the land you’ve been taught to call your mother but don’t wish an acquaintance beyond that of a distant cousin? Why is it that you travel to seek clarity of mind and answers to questions which are yet to be articulated but come back with a hundred more; well-defined and underlined, begging for reason.