Have you ever lived through a dramatic transition like in the movies, where after witnessing a certain reality, there’s a drastic change in your emotions? Like one moment you were high on life, beaming in pride for being spontaneous enough to take a trip with your friends to one of the most isolated places of your country, and the next, feeling so little because maybe this was nothing as compared to the men who were here much before you, and gave it their all!
That’s what the Kargil War Memorial did to us.
Just moments before stepping into its sanctum, we were laughing, cheering and merrily clicking away photographs of ourselves, congratulating each other on having reached NH-1! We were patting our backs at being badass enough to make it till here, happy at being away from our mundane 9 to 9 jobs.
And then we halted at this memorial built in remembrance of the soldiers and officers of the Indian Army who were killed during the infamous Kargil War of 1999, fought between India and Pakistan on what seemed to us as one of the cruelest terrains possible.
We had arrived around evening when there weren’t many tourists left and a long empty pathway, rightfully named as Vijaypath, lined by the tricolour on both sides led us to the memorial. The shrine was surrounded by tall unforgiving mountains all around, namely the Tololing Heights, Batra Top and the Tiger hill, as if challenging the mere existence of humans against their immortal actuality. As we approached the giant national flag hoisted at the memorial, fluttering away in full glory, our hearts sank when we saw that what lay in front of it. At the back of the memorial, on the sandstone wall was a brass metal plate with names of all the martyred soldiers engraved on it. Beneath the memorial, were inscribed lines from a poem titled पुष्प की अभिलाषा from one of my childhood Hindi textbooks. It described a flower’s yearning to be spread out on the paths that soldiers treaded, for that was much more gratifying than being used to decorate a king’s crown or a wedding garland.
The poem, the engraved names of the soldiers who had laid down their lives, the cold air coupled with the eclectic emotions of loss, victory, admiration, gratitude, sent chills running through us. We also happened to witness the Flag Lowering Ceremony, a ritual followed before sunset every day, choreographed to perfection by the Indian Army.
We stood there for a long time in silent contemplation before gathering ourselves to walk into a museum by the memorial. Housed in this museum were leftovers of the ammunitions used, photographs of the war, of the soldiers, an inverted flag of Pakistan (flags captured in war of the losing side are placed inverted). The museum retold the story of Operation Vijay launched by the Indian army, to regain the lost territory from the Paki intruders, who were driven out successfully on 26th July 1999, after waging fierce battles for more than two months.
But nothing compares to the anguish you feel while you read the last letters from soldiers to their friends or to their families, glass framed at the museum’s entrance. While they reveal their deepest emotions in these letters, of pride, of their helplessness at saving their fellow mates, of being aware of the death that awaited them in these inhospitable corners of the world, miles away from their loved ones, they were also a sad reminder of the suffering wars left behind. The letters left all of us choked up. We felt helpless, powerless, and ashamed of our inconsideration to these people who fight off wars on our behalf.
And so on our way back, the group was mostly silent. We didn’t utter anything much to each other. As I glanced back to the memorial and the tall mountains that surrounded it, I could feel several souls peeping down on us. Souls that had made these mountains their home. Souls that I never knew were guarding us in eternal selfless love.