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Life & Times of an INDUSTANI: Six Degrees of Separation

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By SHIV KUNAL VERMA

Industani doesn’t depend on the fame of the author’s previous works for its literary place: it is sui generis, defiant of classification. The nearest one can come to is to call it a thriller in the garb of a life story in the first person – for it is Shiv Kunal’s life story. And it reads like a thriller because it is incredible; the more so, because it is wholly true. It is the kind of life most only dream of, and very few (if any) have the good fortune to live and write about. Autobiography? Well, think of it as Alistair Maclean, Biggles, Frederick Forsyth, a bit of William (that schoolboy hero), and whichever other thrill-maker you can think of, and that’s Shiv Kunal Verma’s story. And life. What a life indeed.

KVK Murthy
Literary Critic

The Garhwal Post serializes the second of the six extracts from the book INDUSTANI as a run up to the book’s release on Sunday, 13 November. This extract, detailing events in 1981 when the author was working with Tiger Tops in Kashmir and Ladakh, resulted in the obtaining of a map that showed the Siachen Glacier to be a part of Pakistan.

Chapter – V

The Crossing of Umasi-La

We exited the Kashmir Valley at Banihal, then after crossing the Chenab, left the National Highway and followed the river eastwards, past Kishtwar to the road head at Garah. There were a team of mules waiting for us there, and all the rations that had been pre-packed were loaded onto the animals. The main muleteer was from Hoshiarpur, and his vocabulary was enough to make even the most foul-mouth character blush. What he had to say to the mules, sounded even more colourful and graphic in Punjabi, and for the next few days, as I walked behind him, I couldn’t stop laughing.

After we set up camp on the first day, high above the raging Chenab, the muleteer stuck his head into my tent and asked for a cigarette. As we sat and looked at the river below, he asked me if I knew of the ‘Umasi La legend’. ‘Woh kya hai?’ I asked.

The man from Hoshiarpur cleared his throat and lowered his voice and said anyone who crosses Umasi La, will die!

‘Heh,’ I gulped. I hadn’t heard that one before. Hoshiarpur reached for my cigarettes and helped himself to another one, which he lit by using the earlier stub. Ah! He’s fibbing to bum another cigarette. ‘Phir aap kyon ja rahe ho?’ I asked, cleverly having figured out a way of trapping him.

He looked at me sadly. Then he asked me if I had heard of Maharaja Gulab Singh’s senapati Zorawar Singh. He had crossed the pass more than a hundred years ago when he first went and captured Ladakh, but in the process, many men had died at the Rewa and their bodies were still there, buried in the ice. People from Zanskar, if they had to trade, came to a point and returned, while people from Machail, the last village above the tree line, went from this side. No one crossed over. I’m only hired to go till Machail, he informed me, you have to get porters from there. I thought you had people meeting you from Zanskar on the other side of the pass, but your Tashi says no such arrangement has been made.

I called out to Tashi and Muccho who said they were aware that people from Zanskar did not cross the pass, but they were not aware of the fact that it also applied to the Muslim population on this side, for Kashmiri traders were a common sight in Padam on the Zanskar side. Hoshiarpur looked at the two dimwits and said, those Kashmiris come by bus from Kargil, they don’t walk across Umasi La with carpets!

The muleteer was right, for after we had crossed the Chenab at Atholi and then climbed almost vertically up along the Bhuma River to the tree line, the villagers simply refused to porter for us. We camped there for the night, and I spent hours haggling with the local population the next day. Finally, after agreeing to a rate that was six times what Jeff had told me, I went to sleep with my boots on. My last thought was that if we were going to die in any case, obviously there would be no audit, so why should I haggle at all?

It took us close to five hours to traverse the distance, and at daybreak, we were at the Zanskar end, which was marked by a heap of stones and a few heads of bharal and ibex. The two sherpas offered prayers and green apples, and then Tashi began to unrope himself. There was a clearly visible track going down along the ridge, but 2,000 feet (610 m) below us there was another glacier. Though the rope made the going cumbersome, I insisted we retain it, and said I would now take the lead from Muccho, who in turn would bring up the rear. As soon as we changed positions and made sure the knots would hold, I suddenly lost my footing and plunged down a small patch of snow, coming to a stop just inches from where it was a free fall to the glacier below.

I had partly dragged Tashi off the track, but luckily Muccho had held his position, but only just. I saw a look of absolute terror on Tashi’s face and watched in horror as he produced a Swiss army knife and started to lash at the rope. Muccho, seeing what was happening, yelled at Tashi in Tibetan who then sheepishly put the knife away. Badly shaken, I crawled back onto the track, leaving a trail of blood on the snow for I had cut myself on the abrasive ice as I fell. The Umasi La legend had almost claimed us, but after crossing the Malung Togpo over a perennial ice bridge, we made it to Padam without any further incident.

We set up camp near a small stream and I had sent Muccho to see if he could get some porters from Padam to help recover the baggage we had left behind. The idea of going back up onto Umasi La was not very appealing, but we had to try, nevertheless. Besides, I still had a long way to go to get to the pick-up point near Lamayuru and in Padam we could not get anything to replace our partly abandoned rations. I was contemplating all our options when a foreigner appeared. He was carrying a rucksack out of which were protruding two aerial like objects. The man was French, and he was a tour operator who had heard that we had not only got across the pass but had also survived. After enquiring about my health, he offered to pay me twenty rupees if I’d make him a map of the route followed by us. Highly offended, I told him to take a hike, when my gaze fell on the two tubes and I asked him what they were.

The Frenchman unfolded the two US Air Force (USAF) maps; the first one was of the Northeastern states of India and the other was the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir which included the areas that were also under the occupation of Pakistan. There were some strange-looking grid-like things on the northern side of the map, but I was looking at the sheer printing quality which was a top draw. I told the Frenchman I would make the map if he gave me these two maps. Our barter in place, I then sketched out the route for him, marking out potential camping sites. The two maps, now my prized possessions, were like two fragile babies and I was extremely careful with them. Once we reached Ladakh Sarai, I took a fountain pen and neatly wrote my name on the right-hand bottom corner. Three days later, my father sent a vehicle for me and with my maps in tow, I arrived at Kiari where I was greeted with great glee by Missy and Sher Khan.

My idea of rest and recuperation at Kiari was to take the dogs and flush chukar partridge in the nearby valleys, but they were rather difficult to shoot on the wing, especially since they would run uphill and then hurtle towards you like white missiles after they got airborne. Afternoons would then be spent sitting near the suspension bridge catching snow trout in the Indus. My mother and Teesta had already gone back to Delhi, and it was only on the third evening, I remembered the maps and in the light of a petromax, showed them to my father. Early in the morning, I thought I heard the high-pitched whine and the chop-chop of a Cheetah helicopter but turned around and went back to sleep.

Years later, after he had retired and I was writing my book, The Long Road to Siachen, he told me that the printed notations on the map had been USAF markings and the Americans had drawn a straight line from a place called Chalunka (later it became quite famous as NJ 9842) to the Karakoram (KK) Pass that effectively placed the entire Siachen Glacier in Pakistan’s control. My father, along with the GOC 3 Division had then flown to Army HQ in Delhi along with the corps and army commander, and Mrs Indira Gandhi had been shown this brazen cartographic aggression indulged in by the Americans. Colonel Narendra ‘Bull’ Kumar, who had already done a skiing expedition to the Siachen region, had previously also got a tourist map from a German rafting expedition that showed the same area as belonging to Pakistan. After the USAF map surfaced, Bull Kumar was sent again to immediately scout around for any evidence of Pakistani activity. The race to occupy Siachen, which climaxed two years later, had begun.