Tea and Halwa ‘till the Next Round!

Preamble. LOC Kashmir will offer autobiographical short fiction in one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints, the 740 kilometer Line of Control dividing the Pakistani and Indian parts of Kashmir. Approximately 500,000 Indian and 300,000 Pakistani armed and battle-hardened troops face each other across their gun-sights. Both sides indulge in infiltration and aggressive patrolling. Exchanges of fire occur with regular frequency. This is where and how I spent my late teens, as a young officer in the wake of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War, before having to enlist in the French Foreign Legion. I wish to see peace in beautiful Kashmir during my lifetime, even though I am not very hopeful.

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Tea and Halwa ‘till the Next Round!

It was late and only two officers remained at the folding metal mess table. They were humming to the faint sounds of the regimental song Badlu Ram ka jisam zameen ka neecha hai, aur hamko uska ration milta hai, drifting in from the men’s bunkers. The field mess of the Assam Rifles battalion deployed on the Kashmir Line of Control (LOC) facing the Pakistan army was a large underground bunker about eight hundred meters behind the front line.

Major Manjit Singh Chander, holder of the second highest gallantry award, the Maha Vir Chakra, yawned. His Company Officer, Second Lieutenant Albert Bajwa, fresh out of the Indian Military Academy, snorted. “Sick of this shitty meat, sir,” he retorted. “But there’s nothing to be done except survive on scrawny local goats.”

“Don’t ever say that, young man. There’s always something to be done.”

Albert nodded. That attitude had earned his Company Commander a Maha Vir Chakra.

“So what should we do sir? Go on patrol and nick a couple of chickens from a farm?”

Major Manjit Singh stood up and snapped his fingers. “You got it! Fresh meat. There’s plenty around without raiding farms!”

“Oh yes, sir! There’s game but with our 7.62mm SLR assault rifles there won’t be anything left of a partridge!”

Ohé k’hughoo k’hordhé — hobby horse — I’ve got a shotgun!”

Albert’s eyes glinted.

“So tomorrow, 06H00, after stand-to, in front of my bunker.”

“Shouldn’t we inform the Pakistanis, sir?”

“No problem — they can tell the difference between the sound of a shotgun and an assault rifle!”

“What if we drift into their area?”

“Why the hell should we?”

Both Indian and Pakistani army la’angree cooks served the same breakfast of hot, sweet, milky tea, deep-fried puris and semolina halwa or chick-peas. By the end of the morning stand-to on the LOC, jeeps snarling on high revs rushed breakfast containers to the platoon headquarters where a jawan from each rifle section brought them through the crawl trenches to the bunkers.

That morning the Pakistani puris had been especially delicious, with halwa to match.

Due to the layout of the terrain, two-striper naik Ilam Din, Punjab Regiment, Pakistan Army and his two jawans, Karam Ali and Ghuncha Khan were in a bunker well forward of the line of deployment. It allowed the platoon to cover most of the dead ground in front although the rest of it sloped into Indian territory. After a clear field of fire of fifty metres their combat vision had to contend with man-high reeds on sandy soil. Which meant hard to see and hear. So they had to be alert at all times. It was thus.

Ohé chughad, you’re writing poetry again?” Naik Ilam Din asked with a playful slap behind Ghuncha Khan’s head.

“No Ustad Jee”, he replied, using the respectful ‘teacher sir’ form of address used for a two-striper. “I’m writing to my uncle. Look!” He ducked a second slap.

Naik Ilam Din couldn’t read.

“So what’re you saying to him?”

Ghuncha Khan grinned wickedly.

“That I’m in the best rifle section of the Punjab Regiment and commanded by its best naik —”

Ustad-jee!” Karam Ali’s urgent whisper from behind the MG-1A3 7.62 machine gun arrested Naik Ilam Din’s raised hand.

Ilam Din turned his head and Ghuncha Khan put his writing pad down, picked his G-3 7.6mm assault rifle and sighted along the barrel, index finger outside the trigger guard, thumb over the safety catch. Ilam Din cranked the handle of the field telephone and spoke in a rapid whisper.

The partridge were sprightly that morning and Major Manjit Singh a perfectionist. He wanted them from where he could get a decent shot. But they decided to move tantalizingly in short hops — birds do have their little ways. 2/Lt Albert Bajwa walked a little to his left, his 9mm Sterling sub machine gun slung casually over his right shoulder.  The worlds of both officers had shrunk to the sight of hopping partridges.

They ignored the gentle rustle in the reeds but stopped dead in their tracks at the harsh command of “Rukk – hath uppar – ta’ali bajao” — halt, hands up, clap your hands. The last to ensure against a clutched grenade, pin out, ready to be thrown.

Both officers stood deathly still, then slowly turned left.

Naik Ilam Din and Ghuncha Khan had sprung up from the reeds, their G-3 rifles rock steady, bayonets fixed, fingers on the triggers, first pull-off, eyes professionally focused.

Albert’s glance went to his superior, ready to unsling his Sterling and blaze away. A casual gesture from Major Manjit Singh stayed his resolve.

“We are officers! We were just hunting.”

“I can see that Sahib! And welcome to Pakistan!” Ilam Din added cheekily.

“Is this how you treat an officer?”

A Junior Warrant Officer suddenly loomed into everybody’s vision, though out of his men’s line of fire.

“No, like this, Sahib!” he declared with a parade-ground smart salute.

Both Indian officers replied in the same manner.

“Naib Subedar Ashiq Bajwa, Punjab Regiment, Pakistan Army!” he said, moustache and voice bristling.

“Major Manjit Singh and 2/Lt Albert Bajwa, Assam Rifles!”

The hard planes of Ashiq Bajwa’s features cracked open into a smile, teeth shining whitely. A low, rumble rose from the bottom of his belly, became a chuckle and exploded as laughter. His men were expressionless, eyes on the intruders, fingers steady. The Indian officers grinned.

“What’s funny, Sahib?” Albert asked. Regardless of rank, Indian and Pakistani officers and troops alike address a warrant officer as Sahib.

“Two Bajwa Jatts, on opposite sides, respecting our contracts. But what’s funnier is —” and he paused for a loud giggle — “that young officers of the Indian army are as foolhardy as our own — good news for the next war!”

This time they all broke into laughter even though Ghuncha and Ilam Din’s gun barrels remained rock steady.

“I reported to our Adjutant Sahib. He says to turn you back!”

“Good decision. Thank you,” Manjit Singh said.

“But I’m not going to. I have a condition.”

Both Indians were suddenly back on their guard.

“You come with me, have our tea and halwa and then go.”

“Otherwise?”

“My men will cut you down.” His eyes were pitiless.

The Indian officers exchanged looks and nodded.

“Well then, halwa and tea win, Sahib! You and your adjutant are gracious.”

The smiles were back.

“God in His majesty, Sahib. Come. Time for tea and halwa. Then go back and prepare for the next round.”

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