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A belated Merry Christmas and Seasons’ Greetings. How have been your vacations and life?  On Christmas evening this year as I was lighting up the fairy-bulbs at home, was led through the memory lane to those days in the past when grandpa used to create a special bonfire for us on Christmas eve at our backyard and we had stories to read, and hear by the fire. Those days as kids we were enamored by stories of Army life, Police heroics, etc. They were like thrillers and suspense sagas that created an aura of mystery and magic.

Many of you who have celebrated Christmas during school days will remember the calmness, the silence, and the beauty of evenings by the bonfire. Stories added to the charm of these winter evenings.

Since it is the Christmas week, I thought of keeping-up the tradition of the oral narratives that have been the heart of cultures for centuries. Today’s story comes from the mountains. The story was narrated to me  by an Army Officer who has retired from his services in the Infantry Battalion of the Indian Army . The story is part of his personal experience and personal diaries.

The year is 1981 and the place is Mana Pass (also known as Mana La). Mana Pass is just beyond Badrinath town.It is roughly 18,400 ft above the sea level in the state of Uttarakhand. It connects India and Tibet through the Himalayan mountain range of Nandadevi.  The Saraswati river has its source in Mana Pass, and as the connecting link between India and Tibet, the pass is a sensitive army camp. The roads through this pass are extremely narrow, prone to landslides. If one lost even a slight balance  on the mountains, they will land-up in the gorges of Saraswati river thousands of meters down the slopes. The pass has been notorious for deaths, ambushes, and accidents.

This officer was sent to Mana Pass as in-charge of a sensitive army post across the Indo-Tibet border.

A young infantry officer, 27 years at  the time, Maj. R.N. was known to be a stubborn, but responsible person. He had got married recently and was given quarters at the army base area of Mana town. It was R.N.’s habit to travel across the Mana Pass everyday to inspect the camps of that area and come back to the town once in every two-three days to make sure he gets time to spend with his wife.

One October evening it got particularly late for him to return to base camp. The camp inspection took longer than usual and it was beyond the usual hours of descending through the mountains to the town. However, R.N. was determined to walk back to the town, because it was a clear moonlit night and the visibility was very high on the mountain pass.  The Jawans who were with him tried to dissuade him from traveling through the pass, they requested him to spend that night at the camp since it was already late. He refused. As per protocol, they could not say anything more to stop him from leaving the camp.

It was a full moon night and the valley shone like a pearl surrounded by the black oyster of the Himalayan nights. The moon light on the rocky mountains and on the snow covered peaks creates the feel of a huge crystal blazing in the darkness. The riverbeds blaze like steel in the moonlight.

R.N. began his descent downhill with a high-spirit. Since it was later than 7.oo PM, he was sure he would not meet any villagers or shepherds on his way. His life in the Indian Army had taught him to be vehemently independent and a loner by disposition. Moreover, his habit of reading English novels and watching Second World War movies had kind of made him an idealist and a romantic.

He started walking humming some Mohammad Rafi song, confident that if he kept his regular pace, then he would be at Mana town within an hour and half.

After leaving the camp and crossing the first kilometer through the pass, he stopped for a moment to take a breath and light a cigarette.  Then again he began his descent. About half a kilometer later, he heard someone’s footsteps following behind. Very confident that local villagers are afraid of the Army uniform and are terrified to approach an Army officer, he decided to turn back and find his fellow traveler, so that he can strike a conversation and get company.

When the Major turned back, he couldn’t find a soul in the valley. In the clear moonlight it was tough for someone to hide in the rocks of the mountains, so he was even more intrigued. R.N. was sure that if it was someone from the other side of the border, he will either attack him or take him as a captive soon. However, since it was peace time, the chances were less for such an event.  He started walking the mountains once again, but now with his hands on the loaded revolver in his uniform pocket. The moment he started walking, the sound of the footsteps resumed too. He stopped and looked back again, there was not a soul. The Mana Pass is so narrow that it is tough for two people to walk without being cited by one another. This happened several times, the moment he stopped, the footsteps following him stopped too.

After a while…a voice started speaking to him. He told him loudly in Hindi, “Kya dekh raha hai Kudd Jaa” (What are you waiting for jump down)! The officer turned back to see who it was calling out to him — there was no one behind. Again the voice called out and continuously spoke to him in Hindi “I told you to jump down, just jump down”.  This time the officer retorted back with the choicest slang and asked firmly “who is it who wants me to jump down”. He kept walking with an increased pace, faster than it was before. The voice kept telling him “Kudd Jaa” (jump down). The voice was testing his patience as well as starting to make him nervous. However, he knew clearly that if he lost patience even once or did something out of impulse or anger, he would fall down the mountains into the river. R.N. decided to keep silent and not speak back whatever may come. Therefore, he just kept a brisk pace and kept ignoring the voice that followed him.

There is one juncture at Mana Pass where the mountains are connected across each other. The point is extremely steep and narrow, full of dangers. One wrong step can throw you down into the core of the earth, into the river bed. The moon shone even brighter, and the voice started growing stronger as the Maj. approached closer to this narrow connecting link of the pass.

He was getting more nervous every moment. The voice told him once again “What is this? Jump soon” .R.N. could see the lights of Badrinath now. He suddenly realized that the voice was only motivating him to kill himself, it really didn’t have the power to manually push him down the mountains. He thought for a moment that a high-point in this drama will come when he needs to cross the narrow bridge between the two mountains. He stood at the opening of the bridge for a moment and gathered all the strength that he could muster. The voice was still nagging him, at times laughing, at other times whistling and motivating him to jump. The officer decided to keep his cool and not get disturbed.

He looked across the bridge and felt as if the warmth of Badrinath town was inviting him to cross the bridge. R.N. knew that his wife was waiting for him in the town, possibly she was worried about his safety. He took the first step on the bridge and the voice behind hissed loudly, “now is your time (mauka aagaya!). Jump down!” The Maj. took a deep breath and decided to avoid the voice, not look behind even once until he crosses the bridge.  He started to walk on the bridge with a quick, steady pace. The voice kept calling. When he was right at the middle of the bridge, the voice loudly shouted “Maan jaa! kudd bola na!” (Listen to me and jump).

Finally, he could walk across the bridge and the moment he reached the other end, R.N. turned back to see once again for the last time, who this person was. There was no one on the other end of the mountain, but the voice loudly laughed out, “bach gaya” (survived)! A moment later everything went lull and all that he could hear was the gurgle of Sarasvati river, the deafness of the rocks, and see the glow of the full moon on the snake-like valley.

Being in a safer situation, fear overcame his patience now. He ran towards the town with full strength.

When the C.O.  (Commanding Officer) and other officers of his regiment heard this story the next day during camp inspection, they were perturbed. They told him about the deadliness of the pass, and how many officers and Jawans had succumbed before him to the call of death that rings through the pass in the evenings. The Jawans indicated that was the reason they had stopped him from traveling at late hours from the camp….

You might name the voice as a self-doubt that drives you to kill yourself, you may name it as ghost or spirit, you may call it a nervous projection of the mind, or a psychological breakdown, I have no definite answers….

If you observe the current Google Map of 2011 (30 years later) to calculate the distance between Badrinath town and Mana Pass, Google Map shows two poles ‘A’ and ‘B’, one at Badri and the other at Mana,  with a statement that: “We could not calculate directions between Mana Pass and Badrinath, Uttarakhand.” Surprising na? 🙂 However, it’s the Defense forces that exist in these unreachable coves of the Himalayas.

Imagine, that  people walk or cover that distance to protect the borders. ‘Enemies’ across the borders are not the only adventures that they encounter, there is much more to life than lines drawn on the face of earth and people visible to human eye ….

A very goodnight! Take good care of yourselves.