Written By: Capt Ali Ahmed Malik
You never seem normal," looking at his impassive face, Sara said in an inquiring tone.
"Because I don’t fit in your definition of normal," throwing pebbles in the water, gazing at the horizon, with his thoughts at unrest, being at par with the oceanic waves in front, his words disappearing in the sound of splashes, still being the only sound making sense to his fiancée’s ears. He continued "Someday I may meet your standards of being normal", as he sat facing her, "Although that is a rare possibility"
"When are you going to return to my life, rather our life?" eyes wide open, focused ears longing to hear the words that were never coming, she gently pushed her hair blowing in her face due to the Shore wind.
"When my battle scars would heal," it was very evident from the tone that he wasn’t exactly present in the moment.
"Why haven’t they healed already?"
"They aren’t meant to."
"You scare me often."
"Don’t you see? While I am talking to you I mostly feel that ...."
"That you are talking to the walls."
"Time, my dear, is the answer."
Gazing at his face with her questioning eyes, she thinks of what she might hear this time as he breaks the silence, "I can’t forget May 13, 2013. We were on the move to reach our igloo before sunrise. It was 0200 hours, six of us, tied together with ropes, battling the harshness of weather, at 19000 feet in minus 35 degrees Celsius outside our windbreaker suits with freezing oxygen rupturing our chests, the blowing wind picking up snow and hitting us hard with it making one or two of us fall every now and then. It was perilous but we were hopeful until....’’ He throws another pebble into water, his face still unreadable, eyes speaking volumes of emotions. She starred at them, wondering what would happen next. He wouldn't speak much but when he did, he wouldn’t let any other sound make any sense to her; waves showing the unrest of ocean, his eyes showing his...
Afraid of what she might hear, she gathered courage to utter, ‘‘What happened there?’’
"We walked on the snow mass, 6 to 8 meters apart tied with ropes, that’s what we soldiers do up there but it isn’t always firm snow. I saw it. The gust of wind struck the one next to me this one time, and imbalanced he fell. As he hit the ground, the snow wasn’t strong enough to sustain the impact. It was a thin layer of ice he was standing upon, which cracked wide open and there he went inside the crevice. Before I could brace myself against the snow, I felt a jerk and followed him through. If it was not for the wits of the ones behind me, I wouldn't be here today.’’ His tone had just turned more magical, she didn’t want him to stop now, although it wasn’t the talk she longed for on this particular day. He continued. "They hit the snow with crampons which is normal practice to cater for such eventualities in the glaciers. Bracing themselves against the snow, they pulled the rope. Luckily, I didn’t go inside deeper, was on the edge and could climb back. My buddy, however, needed to be pulled out. He was 8 meters deeper than me, hanging with the same rope we all were tied with. I made efforts to move out which were successful. It was the resolve which kept us going. We pulled him out. One of his ribs were broken, which was revealed later. He had struck something harder down there or may be it was the jerk he received initially due to the tightened rope. We weren’t even half way to our igloo. It were us, who had to reach the igloo at night to relieve our comrades who were already present there and ready for the move back the next night having completed their tenure up there." Ali looked at the horizon, sun going down among clouds. The sea now becoming peaceful but he isn’t. "In the middle of a place where there are no signs of life, a fallen comrade besides you suffering with pain, others with a dying morale to see him in that condition, looking at each other to do something that would take away the pain. Hopeless yet hopeful eyes starring at you, I can’t tell you how lonely you feel. Imagine the people you never think of living a life without, think of one of them with his head in your lap, groaning, restless and you are helpless. You wait for some miracle to deal with this or wish for being in a dream you would soon wake up from. These moments shape you, whether or not a miracle takes place. When you come out of the situation, you are never the same as you were moments ago."
"What... like... tell me... what happened then," said Sara, failing to utter the right words.
"Some other day perhaps, we should go home now. I have to go meet someone," he said, getting up from the boulders they were sitting on. He always used to say, "Don’t stop me when I have to go. I won’t."
She wished she could just heal his scars, just bring him back to life and stay with him till eternity, in her world... the world he didn’t belong to anymore. He would always tell her, "Soldiers having experienced combat shouldn’t be questioned why they are the way they are." They got up, walked on the shore silently towards parking area where vehicles were parked.
Walking on wet sand, hand in hand, gazing at sunset among clouds, contemplating nature, two other worldly souls though together were miles apart. Waves would come every now and then; touching their feet and making them feel the magic of ocean. The melody of quiet air was breathtaking. They walked slowly, occasionally uttering a word, "Winds up there are not quite friendly," he smiled through the words. She also faked one to hide the pain, she knew he wasn’t with her but with his comrades, the ones he always wished more to be with.
"I would be leaving tomorrow," he spoke again.
"I am aware."
"I confess that I am going to miss you."
"Can’t... you stay?," she said, well aware of the answer she was going to receive.
(After a pause) "I just wish I could!"
"We had promised to be together, no matter what happens."
"I remember and own my promises."
"Stopping you would be selfish, I know. I just wish things were different."
"But they aren’t...."
"But, what about me. When would I come to know your depths? Loving a soldier is a terrible mistake they say, I think they are right."
"You think or you want to think like this?" He smiles back.
"Not telling someone who wishes to know every little thing about you, not letting someone heal you as they can’t just see you hurt, leaving them to wait for times that may never come. Isn’t it unfair," she pauses and looks down, "I shouldn’t be saying this," she murmurs.
"You can have my diary, I am somewhere in the entries and blank pages. I will give it to you before leaving. I need not say that I trust you."
A smile rips through her eyes brimming with tears as she says, "You are my favorite mystery; I bet I will crack you one day." Both laugh.
(Two Days Later)
She sat in her room with a diary in her right hand opened across her eyes covered with glasses. She had already opened the entries written in the month of May 2013.
"Naik Ikhtiar Shah has always been one of my bravest soldiers and best companions of this journey to Siachen. His sense of humor, encouraging words to his fellows and his juniors and his dedication towards his military service is something I shall always remember. When I go back from here, I believe I will always cherish my memories of these lifeless glaciers capping Himalayas. Naik Shah was a tall man, measuring more than 6 feet in height. Whenever there was snowfall, I would always see him with a shovel in his hand, removing snow from the door of our igloo at a mid camp where I stayed with him for about a week or so before I could finally move further up. This snow if not removed in time can turn out to be a death trap. If a part of body gets exposed to the same snow, it can result in frostbite which can ultimately result in imputation. Life up here calls for iron nerves."
"He was lying with his head in my lap. Above 19000 feet, in the vast mysterious glaciers offering no mercy to anyone, temperature nearing –50 degrees, cold winds gusting past us, a few among us reciting verses from Holy Quran, wishing for a miracle to rescue us as I could see him fading away in my arms. I have never had such a situation in my life before. Military life can really challenge you in ways you can never expect. A few were rubbing his chest, putting pressure on his chest to make sure he kept breathing. We had no doctors to help him recover. All we had with us were life saving injections and an unparalleled faith in Almighty. We injected him with the hope of keeping his blood circulation active."
"How is he feeling now Ali?," called Capt Irfan, the sub-sector commander, on wireless.
"Sir! He will make it Insha Allah," I replied.
"Be aware of the deteriorating weather, a snow storm is expected soon, you have to make up to your post before first light. All the best."
Half-an-hour passed by, feeling like a century. He opened his eyes gently. It was as if life was returning to all of us. I still wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t survived.
"Shah, wake up buddy, lets do it again," his mate, Naik Irfan spoke with a determination.
Shah looked at our faces, most of which were grim by now, however, smiling at their buddy with whom they had already lived so many stories of valor and devotion. I waited for him to show some movement. He lifted himself up with difficulty as I helped, and he hugged me as he got up, "Thank you sir for not giving up on me."
"I am so proud of you Shah! Now brace yourself, you have to reach back to your camp before weather gets worse," I could not utter one more word.
He looked at me, the expression was priceless.
It was his turn to speak, "Irfan, I will lead on the way back."
"You stubborn idiot, obviously you will," Irfan replied smilingly.
"We lifted our packs, the journey of our guides from mid-camp ended here. We were to meet guides coming from our next destination who had to escort us there. While we were helping Shah recover, the guides from our next post had alread reached our location having heard our conversations on wireless. We hugged our buddies, said our goodbyes, waved and moved on."
"Ikhtiar Shah and his comrades made to their camp successfully while we also reached our destination before the first light. I was informed on wireless that he was taken to CMH Skardu the following morning on a helicopter where he was treated for a fractured rib and many bruises. However his life was out of danger. While I write these lines, I am accompanied by a section of soldiers, hailing from different regions of Pakistan, who are up here at Siachen with the sole purpose of serving Pakistan against all odds."
And the mystery started to unfold onto her as she continued to read through the pages. The reason why he was so different started to become clear. His experiences were not that of an ordinary man and so wasn't his courage. Every word she read made her more proud of the man; the soldier of this country, the guardian of this motherland!