A day after the Nepal earthquake, we set off to see Nathula Pass on the border with China. A few army officers have agreed to take us around.
Roads are buried under heaps of snow. It is being shoveled away. Not to worry, our hosts inform us.
I was watching the rare snow leopard and the snow-white Himalayan wolf in the Darjeeling zoo the day before when earth moved beneath my feet, like someone pulling off the plank on which you stand. Men cried and animals growled. Vehicles rattled in the parking shed at a distance. People ran to the safety of an open space. What if the cages are broken and animals freed, I amuse myself after the shock.
About a kilometre away, in Nepal, the shocks were tragic. The country was shattered in the earthquake and the people scattered.
In the evening, we drive up to Sikkim, to the heights of Nathula, without knowing the magnitude of the Nepal earthquake.
Roads are comparatively deserted. Suddenly people scramble out of their houses, like ants from a disturbed hole. A few women carry a pregnant woman out of her house. She is crying. Someone is massaging her feet. The car driver stops and makes some calls. That was an aftershock, he confirms.
The Nepali driver is restless even as we continue our journey. He frequently stops the car to call up someone, as if he suddenly remembered someone back home. A third of the population in Sikkim is Nepalis.
We have to drive up hundreds of feet to reach our destination. The driver explains the dangers of the trip.
We stay at Pelling, a small town 115 kilometeres off Gangtok, Sikkim’s capital. At 7,000 kilometres from the sea level, the town is a favourite base for travellers to the Kanchenjunga Mountain. The sun rises at 4 in the morning here. The weather is beautiful. The mountain reveals itself in the golden light of the morning sun.
The young man who runs a tea shop near our hotel is checking for signals on his mobile phone. The connection won’t be restored any time soon, he tells me, pointing to a device kept inside the shop. This was thrown off the nearby mobile tower in the earthquake, he says. Don’t know when someone will come to repair it.
He became friendlier when he was told that I am from Kerala, where he has worked for four years. Malayalis are friendly but the manager at the construction company in Kochi would swear at him always. He repeated the cuss words as he placed the glass of tea in front of me.
He continued his flashback. His girlfriend called him after her father died. He had to return from Kochi to take care of her and the tea shop her father used to run.
We proceed to Nathula. Snow has slid on the road at many places. At 11,000 feet above sea level, I shift to a military vehicle, relieving the taxi driver.
Temperature stays between zero and two degrees. Trucks shovel away snow with their mechanical arms. Vehicles are in danger of sliding on ice and veering off the narrow road to the deep gorge.
At a huge gate with India’s name on it, the country’s territory ends. We are 14,200 feet above sea level. Foreigners are not allowed here. Indians have to take a permit from Gangtok. There are agents to facilitate this.
This is Nathula. This pass remained closed for 44 years after the India-China war of 1962. It opened only in 2006, when China recognised Sikkim as part of India and India recognised Tibet as an autonomous region of China.
The border gate is closed. A barbed wire on the snow-covered mountain divides the two Asian giants. On the other side of the barbwire, there is a stone building that resembles the Great Wall of China. Something is flickering like a television set. Soldiers are monitoring footage of the visitors on the Indian side.
Indians are also well prepared. A ropeway brings supplies to soldiers from mountaintop to mountaintop. The highest golf course in the world is a stone’s throw away from Nathula. This belongs to Indian Army, which may have other uses for it.
Indian army has recently built a building on our side. Tourists are not allowed here. It has a well-furnished room with the flags of both India and China. This is where the representatives of the armies of India and China meet once a year. Both sides also meet in Chinese territory once a year. The Indian room is kept spotless. A glass jar with toffees and bottles of water are placed on the table.
A small path goes upwards to a gap in the barbwire. An iron rod at a feet and a half demarcates the border. China’s outpost on the other side can hardly house a man.
“We have a guest,” Indian officers shout across the border. A young Chinese soldier gets out of the post with a camera in hand. He shoots our pictures without a word. Later he obliges our requests to pose with us. The young Chinese has a serious expression on his face.
Officers say that soldiers on either side of the border have an understanding between themselves. They respect each other—the respect of equals. However, they are always prepared for the worst.
The attack in 1962 was unbelievable. The mines the Indian side left behind before they withdrew are still strewn below layers of snow.
China became belligerent again in 1967 with their construction plans along the border at Nathula. But they had to face a different India this time. As many as 110 Indians were killed or injured while China’s casualty was four times greater. Peace prevailed.
As we descent, soldiers start talking about the severity of the Nepal tragedy. It is not easy to gather news at Nathula. Mobile signals are weak. Soldiers point to a rock. It is named after a mobile phone company, whose signals are stronger in Nathula.
The army, however, relies on its own signals. This line of communication has to be kept even in the severest of snowfall.
Back in Gangtok, the Nepal tragedy suddenly hits us. “Save Nepal,” boards are hung at many shops. We eat tupka, a noodle soup and look at the promenade through the glass façade of the restaurant. Shoppers stroll along the road closed for vehicles while elders lounge on the benches.
Suddenly, the building shakes. The sound of shattering glass. Cooks and waiters shoot out to the street, where people are scrambling for safety. The power goes off.
Soldier’s ghost protects Nathula
Sentries do not sleep at Nathula Pass. They are forever in fear of a deafening slap from honorary captain Harbhajan Singh. They can’t even complain to their superiors of the high-handedness. Nobody can take action against a dead soldier!
The ordinary sepoy was elevated to the status of a demigod after his accidental death at Nathula about 50 years ago. Now he is the divine protector of Indian soldiers in one of the most difficult posts along the border with China.
Singh was born in Punjab in 1946. He joined the army as a sepoy when he was 20 years. After two years, he fell into an icy stream while he transporting supplies to soldiers.
After two days, he appeared in his colleagues’ dreams and told them where to look for his body, the story goes. He also told them to build a temple where they find his body. The revelation was exact. The body was found. Someone scooped out Singh’s photo and got a statue done. In no time, Baba Harbhajan Mandir was a place of worship.
His boots and luggage are still kept in the Baba’s bunker in the temple. The pilgrims can visit those and pay their obeisance. The legend is that the Baba comes every night to sleep in his bunker. Temple keepers claim that they find sheets crumpled and stuff misplaced every morning. Baba sleeps here, they say.
This local lore is a source of inspiration to the soldiers braving the cold and solitude of the Himalayan heights. That is reason enough for the army to perpetuate the legend of Harbhajan Singh. The sepoy’s name is still in the army’s payroll, but with a promotion. He has posthumously been made an honorary captain.
Singh is granted two months’ leave every year. “He” will be accompanied by two soldiers on the way to Punjab. The army books a birth for him on the train, where his trunk and boots are kept. When the Baba’s spirit comes back after the annual leave, the army repeats the ritual by carrying the trunk and boots with reverence back to the shrine.
Travellers to Nathula never miss Baba’s offerings made of raisins. Military’s protector is a protector of the people too.