Friday, 17 March 2017

BHARAT DARSHAN TRAVELOGUE: WARRIORS OF WALONG

Tucked away in the north eastern most corner of north east India lies a natural paradise that has witnessed one of the bloodiest battles fought on the Indian soil. A battle in which the greatly outnumbered Indians refused to bow down to the Chinese. A battle of grit, tenacity, and determination. A battle whose story remains forgotten in the annals of history. As we embarked on a journey with the Army (to Walong in Arunachal Pradesh) revisiting those episodes in history, we got a glimpse into the life of the indefatigable Indian Jawan. 

By the time, we reached Walong, the sun had begun to recede its long rays casting a pall over the entire town. While the rest of the town had retired into their homes causing an eerie emptiness in the place, there was a buzz of activity in the army camp. Guarding. Patrolling. Surveilling. Drills. Exercises. Sports. The Jawan goes on about his duty meticulously day and night like a well-oiled machine.

Our first visit was to a newly constructed memorial on top of a small hillock overseeing the air-strip, commemorating the martyrs who had laid down their lives in the Battle of Walong in 1962. There were helmets. Guns. Photographs. Bullets. Poignant tales. More helmets. Remainders and reminders of those who defied all odds to fight the Chinese till their last breath.

A tall statue of a soldier, aptly named the ‘Soldier in Silence’ stands overlooking the valley where the battle was fought. There were names inscribed over the walls. 6 Kumaon, 4 Sikh 4 Dogra, 3/3 Gurkha rifles, 2/8 Gurkha Rifles and 2 Assam Rifles. Martyrs reduced to mere names.

As we stood there paying our respects, the flame in the large urn kept flickering in the blustery wind, refusing to die out, just like those soldiers. On the wall, emblazoned in large white letters were the words “LEST WE FORGET” – a grim yet telling reminder of the historical amnesia that the nation suffers from.



Before the break of dawn, we made our way to another memorial, ‘The Hut of Remembrance’ in the Namti Plains, where the Indian defences withstood the Chinese onslaught for 22 days.

Ensconced on all sides by the snow-capped mountains dotted with pine trees lie the idyllic Namti plains. The auburn grassland carpeted over the undulating plains that looked straight out of Van Gogh masterpiece. As the sun peeked out of the clouds casting a glow on our faces, the army men recounted the tale of the Battle of Walong.
On the fateful 26th day of October in 1962, the Chinese had launched an offensive against the Namti defences with the aim of capturing Walong. The Indians had everything going against them- freezing weather, inhospitable terrain, limited resources, outdated weapons and a powerful enemy. The Indians were heavily outnumbered with just 3000 men as opposed to the 15000 on the opposite side. But what they lacked in numbers, they more than made up for it with courage.

The Chinese sent troops after troops but the Indians offered stiff resistance with all that they could muster. Armed with aggression, valour and obduracy, they defied all odds to stop the Chinese juggernaut. The Sikhs, Dogras and Kumaons fought and fought. Even after they had been struck down. With their very bare hands, refusing to throw in the towel. Eventually, the Chinese broke the Indian rear-guard but by then, they had lost 5 times the men India had.

Such was the tenacity with which the Indians fought that the Chinese, even today, refers it as “Tiger’s mouth”. It was fitting that the Time Magazine had remarked “At Walong, Indian troops lacked everything. The only thing they did not lack was gut.”

Today, in the Namti Plains, there lives a solitary man in a solitary house with the serene Lohit gliding along gently, a silent witness to the ravages of time.

The high point, literally and metaphorically, of our journey was the trek to Hill 90, India’s eastern most border point. Starting from Kibithu, we were accompanied by a brigadier and his young son who put us to shame as they raced along without breaking a sweat while we were drenched profusely in the cold weather.

As I huffed and puffed my way on a winding path that seemed to go upwards and upwards, I just had a single thought plaguing my mind- the difficulty that the soldier has to face while carrying weapons and supplies to the post.

As I reached the top, I knew that I would not mind trekking again and again to reach here. Several thousand metres above sea level, there were several Jawans tirelessly guarding our borders unmindful of the adverse conditions that they had to put up with.
From the vantage point, we were able to see the infamous Line of Actual Control with our naked eye. Surrounded by hills, valleys, and ridges, we saw the contested pieces of land that has led to disputes between the two neighbours.  

On the other end, we could see the extensive road network that China had built right till the border and the new settlements that are being installed aggressively by relocating people. On the home front, the army men elaborated lucidly the high level of preparedness, robust infrastructure system in place and the strategy deployed in case any eventuality should arise.
As we walked our way down Hill 90, reassured that India is in safe hands, I was reminded of the solemn pledge inscribed in the memorial in Namti Plains- Walong will never fall again.  







Wednesday, 8 March 2017

India shows intent...finally

In the 33rd over of the first innings, Lyon ambles up and pitches the ball near the off-stump. The ball hits the rough, bounces and turns into the batsman. The batsman goes back into the crease. He is rumoured to score runs even while sleeping. He is said to possess wrists that could flick any ball to the boundary. Instead, he shoulders arms. The ball thuds into his pads. In his counterpart’s words, Kohli had what could be described as a brain-fade. A classic example of lacking intent, that he had exhorted his team mates for in the previous match.

Lyon kept bowling similar balls. Over after over. And it fetched him wicket after wicket. Pujara was caught in the crease. Rahane failing to read the straighter one. Saha edged a skidder to slips. Nair deceived by flight.  In the end, his figures read 8-50, the best by an overseas bowler on Indian shores.

There was prodigious bounce and turn on offer. But the Chinnasamy had no demons lurking inside the pitch a-la Pune. India needed their batsmen to put their head down, set in for a long haul, show some application and grind down the opposition. Instead, they capitulated in spectacular style reminiscent of the first match.
*


The scorecard reads 120-4 in the second innings. The Jadeja experiment had failed. DRS continued to frustrate Kohli. The lead was a mere 33 runs. They were trailing 1-0 in the series and staring down the barrel. Australia knew they were just a couple of wickets away from an unassailable lead in the series. Suddenly, Smith’s dream of an unexpected series win did not seem so fanciful.

In walked Rahane, who had not crossed 30 in 9 of his last 10 innings and who had been playing off-spinners with the same assurance with which Raina plays the short ball. He joined Pujara, who had scratched, edged and survived his way to 34. Australia sensed the kill. 

Smith immediately turns to his best-bowler. Lyon turns the ball viciously. He gets the ball to spit venomously from the pitch. The outside edge is beaten. A catch is dropped. All in the same over. A wicket should have fallen. Yet it did not. Somehow, the batsmen survive. They refused to bow down. They battled on.

Pujara began to show the discipline that had come to define his batting style. He left balls outside his off stump in a religious manner bordering on fanaticism. He defended like his very existence depended upon it. He scored only when the ball was pleading to be hit.

Rahane was not in his usual stroke-making elements. He curbed his natural instinct to drive. He was scratchy, dogged and even ugly at times but he kept on rotating the strike, never letting the bowlers bog him down. So much so that Australia managed to bowl only 8 maidens during the entire partnership. And by the time the lead had crossed 100, only 1 maiden was bowled.  

As the overs passed by, the batsmen began to feel more assured. The pitch became slower and the bowlers did not pose the same threat. The ones and twos had now turned into boundaries and the scoreboard was ticking along. For the first time in the series, Australia were playing catch-up.

Pujara and Rahane batted their way through 46.2 overs, forging the highest partnership of the series and definitely, the most defining one. Eventually, it took a fire-spitting spell from Starc to end the partnership. By then, the duo had put together 118 runs and the lead had grown to 151. Australia were all but out of the match.

When Kohli was dismissed, Australia had cut the snake’s head. They thought that the body would fall off. Little did they know they were dealing with a Hydra.

**

Pic courtesy: www.icc-cricket.com

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Neocolonization of the Gentleman's Game

When a few enterprising gentlemen from the East India Company decided to colonise India, they came armed not just with modern artillery, a strong naval fleet, and mercantile policies, but also with bats and balls. Because, Cricket was never seen as just a game. It was more than mere runs and wickets.

The British used the game as an instrument to impose imperial order, glorify their rule and transmit English values in the colonies. They used the game to impose moral standards on the unenlightened Indian populace. For long, the sahebs would play the game under the sun. The native was only allowed to watch from afar.

But the native would not remain a stranger to the game. He would adopt it, get better at it and use the very game as a form of imperial resistance and nationalism. He would eventually, transform the very English of English games (and they have invented quite a lot of them) into a game that has become essentially Indian in essence and character. Today, the gentle claps from stiff-lipped gentlemen in tweed jackets and wide-brimmed hats in Lords has given way to the raucous and passionate fan of the Eden Gardens.

Clubs were formed. Associations created. Teams organized. And soon, the country had begun to produce players of fine calibre like CK Nayudu and Lala Amarnath. But as a team, they were yet to make a presence felt on the global arena. They neither had the economic clout of England or Australia nor the sheer brilliance of the West Indies. They were the Sri Lanka of the 80s and the Bangladesh of the 90s.

It all changed in 1983.

It is said that catches win matches but Kapil’s catch would not only win the first world cup for his country but go on to change the cricketing landscape of India and the world. It was the time the humble television started to become popular in the households. It was also the time when Indian hockey was on a decline. The world cup winners were the heroes people were seeking for. The players gained popularity among the masses the game spread through the nook and corners of the country. Cricket’s pivot to India had begun.

24 years down the line, another Indian captain would go on to win the first T20 world cup which led to the consolidation of India’s hegemony in world cricket.

Today, India heads a unipolar power structure in the cricket politick. The rise has been a reflection of the fast-growing economy and increasing purchasing power of the citizenry in the country. The country’s market grew with its growing middle class and the sheer size of its cricket crazy population lends it enormous weight.

India is dubbed as the commercial centre of gravity of the game and accounts for 80% of the game’s revenue and 75% of the viewership. In the words of Gideon Heigh, “the world is witnessing the Indianisation of cricket, where nothing India resists will occur, and everything it approves of will prevail”.

The BCCI, the apex governing body of cricket in India, has grown into a multi-headed hydra spreading its tentacles everywhere. It decides whom India will tour and who would tour them. It rearranges matches held elsewhere to suit television viewers in India. It even changes rules to decide how the game will be played to suit its needs, a classic example being the DRS. It even refused to come under the ambit of the World Anti-Doping Agency, simply because it did not want to. India is to the ICC what the United States is to the UN.

The growth of the IPL is merely symptomatic of the shift in the economic power from the developed bloc to the emerging world. The cash-cow of Indian cricket has upset traditional cricketing structures. There is money involved in it like never before. Teams across the world are adjusting their calendars to participate in the IPL. Many players have made it abundantly clear that they will prefer the league over national commitments simply because it is too good money to lose. Even England, the lone country to put up a resistance against the IPL, have come to terms with it.

Cricket in the country has become a way of life. Players are not mere mortals- but gods and demi-gods. People perform pujas before matches. They shower love and adulation when the team wins. And they break houses and burn effigies when the team loses. The inordinate amount of passion generated by the fans led Ashish Nandy to remark that Cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British.

On the other hand, English cricket today is undergoing dynamic changes with more players of Indian origin representing the national team and at grass-root levels. It is estimated that in the coming decade or two, half of the English team will have players with subcontinental origin. Quite ironic, considering the fact that the princely Ranjitsinghji was long denied a spot in the England team just because he was brown.

Decades ago, the English took their cricket wherever they went, acting as missionaries of the game, spreading it in their colonies. Today, we find the Indian diaspora carrying their game to America and other parts of Europe, introducing the game among the locals Cricket has truly become an Indian game.


The iconic Lord’s still remains the home of the game. But it’s heart beats at Wankhede.

The Great Himalayan Trek

Of all the discoveries that man has made since inception, it is said that the discovery of self is the most difficult one. No one knows how it will happen and when. For some, it is a momentary spark; for others, a long drawn out journey. For the members of Trek Group No.14, it took a trek in the majestic Himalayas to discover their selves.

It is said that a journey is made memorable largely due to its members and ours was no exception. The group was a motley mix of people from various backgrounds, characters, and interests. Few were friends already, few mere acquaintances and few complete strangers. It was akin to a salad bowl where all the vegetables retain their individual flavour and characteristics. But together, they bring their own unique taste. And such was the case with our group. What started out as a mix of different people ended up becoming very good friends.

When we started out, we had been given the infamous tag of being the “softest” trek as we had to cover only a distance of 71 km. This put us at great ease and happiness. But once the trek was over, we came to know that neither was it an easy trek nor a short one.

The first leg of the trek was at Uttarkashi situated on the banks of Bhagirathi river, one of the two major headstreams of the holy Ganges. Mythology accords Bhagirathi as the source stream of Ganges and it is considered as a holy river in its own right. It was our luck that we stayed very close to the river- the so called “river view” for which we have to shell out thousands elsewhere. Many of us made use of the opportunity and took a dip- some their entire body and some just their fingers- to absolve any supposed sins that we might have accumulated in our short lifetime. We do not know whether we became purified but we certainly were frozen due to the cold waters.

The high point, literally and metaphorically, of our journey was Dayara Bugyal- a picturesque landscape carpeted with lush green meadows whose beauty would have made a Monet jealous. To reach the destination, we had to undergo a strenuous journey from Baarsu where the only way was upwards and further upwards. Time, invariably begins to slow down when we trek uphill- even a minute feels like an hour. We were exhausted beyond imagination but once we reached Dayara Bugyal, we realized that the hard trek was worth it.

Nestled at an altitude of 3200 metres, the vast alpine meadows stretched endlessly over the horizon. The bugyals (or meadows) are inhabited by the local nomadic Gujjar and Bakarwal tribes who let their cattle graze to their heart’s content. The locals consider the area to be sacred and believe that the bugyal is home to a natural deity.

It indeed looked as if the deity had spent some extra time here exhibiting his handwork. Secluded away from the rubric of modern day developments, it was the perfect place to be in harmony with oneself and contemplate on nothingness, with the clouds circling a few feet above our heads.

We pitched our tents under the star lit sky and as darkness engulfed, we could hear ourselves as even nature had gone to sleep. That night, where we sat around the bonfire forging bonds in those dancing flames are sure to be etched forever in our memories.  In the morning, the sun peeked out of the dense clouds, bathing the majestic snow clad peaks of Neelkanth, Srikanth and Bandarpooch Hills, creating a radiating glow.

Sometimes, the destination makes the journey worthwhile and at times, it is the very journey that is a delight. Our route from Lata to Belak was definitely not the latter. Infested with tortuous ravines, almost perpendicular slopes, and slippery tracks where we could not trust our own feet, it seemed that it was nature’s way of putting man in its rightful place. At one particularly treacherous route, where a fall would have resulted in broken bones, many of us, who were hitherto steadfast atheists, became staunch believers of the almighty. But it was at that stage where each member of the group ensured all of us reached safely. In times of adversity, the members showed their courage which solidified strongly the bonds of friendship that had been formed already.

We kept on trudging through uphill and the mountains were teasing us throughout the way. At one juncture, it would appear as if the peak was just a few metres away creating a sense of false hope and lull. But once we reached, we would be confronted with yet another peak. This continued for a while till we stopped believing the mountainous mirages. We kept plodding along till we began to hear some human voices. It happened to be the members of Trek Group No. 8. A sense of relief swept over us when we realized that we were not alone.

In Belak, we stayed in Gujjar huts, that were comparatively large in size for a thatched hut. Built out of stones available from the nearby area, they were designed and maintained to suit their day to day lives. The huts were multifunctional in nature with the entire space serving as hall, bedroom, and kitchen.

The stay at Gujjar huts made us realize something important- that we take many things for granted and we realize that only when we do not have them. Used to snug, warm beds and cosy rooms at the academy, it was strange to sleep on a bare floor in our sleeping bags. As the embers flickered in the fireplace, we realized that the people who lived here faced immense hardships- for even drinking water was a luxury that had to be fetched from a considerable distance. It opened new perspectives into the way people lead their lives in these parts of the country.

The leg from Belak to Budhakedar was indeed remarkable for the very fact that all the members of the group, irrespective of their fitness and injury status, showed immense fortitude and solidarity. We traversed downhill through dense silver oaks and stout deodars rhododendrons at a speed that would have made our PT instructors proud. Throughout the route, we were accompanied by the youthful Balganga river whose pacy flow probably egged us to go faster. The river bid farewell to us by merging into the Dharmaganga river once we reached Budhakedar. As we neared Budhakedar, we sighted a few small shops and houses that hinted at civilization. After spending three days in the very lap of nature, we felt happy yet sad to see the towns that we were so used to.

Our journey ended at Ghuttu, one of the smaller hamlets situated on the banks of Bhilganga River. The village, with its rustic way of life, was beautiful in its own right and it was fitting that we completed the trek in a place ensconced by mountains.

Travel is said to be a great teacher and the trek taught us many a thing. It pushed the limits of our physical and mental barriers to the fullest and we came out stronger and happier. We realized that man has been very alien to nature and the journey made us appreciate even more. Throughout the trek, nature had surprised, delighted, shocked and excited us and in the end, embraced us.

As our bus made its long winding way back to Mussoorie, we reflected back on that one week in the Himalayas that we would cherish for the rest of our lives.