Ladakh – Always Through
‘Maiji jaldi aao. Dablu Babu awara ho gaya’
Gulab, the caretaker of Doctor Saab’s kothi in Aurangabad, Bihar sent this frantic telegram when he realized that Dablu, the daring young boy was leaving for Mumbai to do films. That he applied and won a national talent contest leading to an assignment of three films was known to none till then. Possibly Majid Khan, an eminent lawyer in later years, and Dablu’s dearest friend then, knew. Even today when this old man rolls back the years, he gets excitable about Dablu’s badmaashi.
Maiji rushed to Aurangabad and as we know, angry young men of the good old days invariably went soft on the knees when their mother entered the scene. From wanting to be a hero for the reels the wheels were turning for the real.
‘This is Captain Chowdhury, who hails from a family that has always been well represented in the Indian Army’
Always Through – I vividly remember the day from my early childhood when for the first time, I watched on television, this 1966 documentary by the National Film Development Corporation of India. It was on the role of the Core of Signals in warfare and it was about the life of a young officer.
Frustrated for not being able to pursue his dream of becoming an actor, the Dilip Kumar fanatic went on to first join the Indian Air Force with guardian advice from his army-man uncle. I can recall him saying “I remember when we became trainers, we used to keep count of how many fellows we kicked out of the airplane during free fall training!” – Then from Air Force to the Indian Army, to the Core of Signals, from being a wild horse to becoming a soldier, a decorated officer.
Life was short but because it was so eventful, there are stories. Stories of passing through the graveyard every day in the dark of the night as a young boy cycling home, singing Mukesh songs; of cantonment life in Jabalpur and that night walking through the fringes when a wild tiger was patrolling the area. Of playing Ranji Trophy cricket for the Services; in later years, of once being the manager of a team in the IFA Shield; of his Punjab regiment days, of his posting in Ladakh.
The last one somehow was the most captivating to my impressionable mind as a child. ‘Captain’ to his friends and elders, he was a biker at heart. Yet so painstakingly slow that I remember feeling embarrassed when others ridiculed him that someday he would be overtaken by a bicycle. I wanted him to prove them wrong but all he would do is give a wry smile, his eyebrows slightly crooked as he would drag his Charminar, like he always did, every waking moment. I vaguely recall him saying to me, there is no bravado in speeding through the streets of Asansol on his Royal Enfield Crusader. Perhaps he must have felt that riding through Khardungla or the Indo-China border under heavy shelling during war times needed a little more skill and bravery. Or even driving an army truck over the terrains of Ladakh. Ever since, I had visualized about Ladakh till I landed in Leh in the August of 2012.
Each time I felt breathless I felt compelled to keep walking and soak in as much as I could of this place that had occupied so much of my memory during childhood. The Leh and Shey palaces, the double humped camels in the deserts of Nubra, that biting cold early morning walk in Pangyong, the little children and their shared tiffin in Druk White Lotus School.
Stranded due to snow near Khardungla Pass and the Army jawan recounting their experiences of living in this terrain as he offered some black coffee, the lady who runs her little tea shop on that jutting rock just beneath the Japanese pagoda… her generous demonstration of the recipe of the unforgettable ginger-honey-lemon tea, that young boy who ran-in with hot Maggi noodles and glass of piping hot tea in that tent right on the edge of the Pangyong Lake… in Ladakh, people and their lives are like resilience in the face of adversity. In this unique land where they say one can get sun burns and frost bite at the same time if one sleeps under the sun and shade, their smiles are like warm sunshine breaking through a cloud of frost. The Israeli food is sumptuous, the Yak always gives you the dare.
Yet I cannot say much about this place to any tourist. I travelled Ladakh but I was lost in my own trail. If Dablu disobeyed his mother and went off to Bombay I would perhaps have been some Bollywood Hero’s sidekick in some forgettable film. But because he did join the Armed Forces instead; I lost and found myself in Ladakh!
When I look back… the final day, standing alone in front of the tricolour in the Leh War Museum, I feel a deep sense of closure. I recall one more time the chilling signboard near Pangyong Lake that read ‘stay away – dangers of landmines’. I once again go back to my childhood… the days of load-shedding in Asansol, sitting on the terrace listening to the stories of enduring friendships, bravery, sacrifice, battlefield injury, futility of war, call of duty, national pride. That letter from the then Field Marshall Sam Maneckshaw to Captain S.B. Chowdhury honouring his services. As I keep growing older, I realize his frustrations as an honoured officer amidst prodigal civilians.
I came to Ladakh with friends. Yet deep down, I had come alone – in search of the young Captain from the Core of Signals; in search of my childhood Hero who lives in these stories; who like bridge over troubled waters, was Always Through!