Life on the Line of Control is always strenuous and lonely. In the higher reaches of the Himalayas, posts get cut off once winter sets in and the soldiers are isolated except for telephone or radio calls with the battalion base. Should there be a requirement to return home to a sick child or in case of bereavement, the jawan is forced to wait it out till the first rays of spring melt the snow enough to make it possible to negotiate a path to the base. Should he fall sick, his life depends upon providence and good weather, or lack of it, which dictates whether he has a chance to be evacuated by chopper to a hospital down below.
On a post you are imprisoned in your own world, where the only other humans are the lonely figures of the enemy sentries in the Pakistani posts opposite who are likewise imprisoned. You live each day, in a surreal routine, praying to survive the long wait. The relations between an officer, a JCO and a soldier change. Each is an individual dangling like a puppet on his strings. What you believe in and what you feel is real changes in definition. And sometimes, just sometimes, you have experiences that have no rational explanation.
This then is a story of Forward Ledge, a picquet in the Sangro region of Drass, where I served as a field company commander in the aftermath of OP VIJAY. I was constructing field defences for an infantry company of the GRENADIERS. Forward Ledge is a lonely post poking boldly between dominating enemy posts on Manpo La ridge with a lone satellite post called Maharaj Position to give it company. Forward Ledge is more than 50 years old having been occupied during the 1947-48 hostilities with Pakistan. And like any self-respecting post in the Himalayas, Forward Ledge has its very own ghost – in this case, it was called the CHM.
The CHM was a paratrooper, a strict disciplinarian who was killed many years ago on the post during roll call by a single mortar bomb which fell unheralded out of the sky – the first enemy round to ever fall on Forward Ledge. Undeterred by small details such as life and death, he continues his lonely vigil on Forward Ledge, ensuring each man does his duty, long after the paratroopers left the Sangro Valley.
The CHM appears to those who are not alert on sentry duty. He appears to those who are slacking in their daily routine. He haunts those who partake of meat or alcohol on Wednesday – the CHM’s day on Forward Ledge. Why Wednesday? Nobody knows, but everybody in Forward Ledge believed it to be the day of the week on which the CHM changed his mode of performing duties. And most bizarre of all, he appears in the dreams of Company Commanders to warn them of impending attack – Forward Ledge, though vulnerable, has never fallen since its capture more than 50 years ago.
I first heard of the CHM from Maj Ravi, the Company Commander at that time, when I went to Forward Ledge for reconnoitring my field company’s task. Ravi’s company had occupied Forward Ledge just before the previous winter when his battalion had just been inducted into Drass. The previous Company Commander of the battalion being relieved had done a hurried handing over to Ravi and decamped immediately muttering something about the picquet being haunted and the need to abstain on Wednesday. Ravi, being of sound mind and healthy body, promptly put the whole thing out of his mind with pitying thoughts about the mental states of officers who had been isolated from the world for too long.
At first, life proceeded uneventfully. Ravi’s troops, being superstitious, abstained on Wednesday. Just to be on the safe side, so to say. Ravi himself was a vegetarian and rarely drank. Winter came. The first snows drifted slowly onto the bunkers. It became dark and cold early and the hours of darkness grew longer. Ravi insisted on a busy and meaningful routine for his troops. Deep snow now isolated Forward Ledge from his battalion. Bukharis, ECC (Extreme Cold Clothing), long nights of sentry duty and the whistling wind and whirling snow became the dominating motifs of daily life. The cold and limited space around prevented the troops from getting the exercise and physical recreation they were used to. The troops lost appetite and could not sleep soundly for long. Some of them passed away the long evenings reading, some playing cards, but always in company. They were never happy staying alone at any place for more than half an hour or so. Just when Ravi thought his company had settled down, the first incident occurred.
Late one night, a company cook fell asleep while his comrades played cards around him in the Company Langar. All of a sudden, he woke up screaming “Save me! Save me! He’s coming for me.” The langar commander woke him up assuming he had a nightmare. The cook continued to blabber with fright, moaning and writhing, and pleaded with all and sundry to save him. It took a long time for them to calm him down. He was still a shaken, nervous wreck, when a worried Company Subedar brought him before Ravi. Patient questioning revealed that when he had slept, the ghost CHM had appeared to him in his dreams and threatened to punish him. Ravi tried to convince him that it was a nightmare but the cook insisted on saying that it was real and that he would be punished by the spectral CHM. Ravi asked the cook why he felt that he would be punished, after all, he hadn’t done anything wrong, had he?
Slowly and painfully, the truth emerged. The cook, being fond of non-veg had been opening a tin of meat or fish on the sly to supplement his meals. He had done so today also, quite forgetting what day it was. It was then that Ravi realised it was a Wednesday. Ravi assured him that he would be OK, but the cook refused to go to sleep and volunteered to go on sentry duty. He spent the rest of the night in the open in front of the small post mandir, praying for forgiveness.
The episode affected the troops and Ravi had a hard time reasoning with them. They refused to call the actual CHM of the Company as CHM calling him Havaldar Major or Major as troops are wont to do. It was obvious whom they referred to when they spoke about the CHM. Time passed, the weather worsened and the blizzards began. Inconceivable though it was that the enemy would launch any kind of attack, the sentry duty continued. The sentries were always alert and no sign of the CHM could be seen until three weeks later on the night of the second incident.
That night a blizzard was blowing. The sentry huddled inside his sentry box which had a bukhari blazing inside. The bukhari (kerosene pipe stove) was warm, nothing could be seen through the frosted glass of the windows and slowly the soldier’s eyes drooped. A resounding slap hurled him into the sentry box as he felt his weapon being snatched away. Dazed, he peered around expecting to see the Duty Officer or JCO but he could see nobody. The freshly fallen snow lay pristine indicating that no one had come from the direction of his post. Also, he could find no sign of his weapon. Thinking it to be a Pakistani raid or grab action, he activated the alarm.
Hearing the alarm, troops stormed out of their bunkers and fibre glass huts and rushed to their posts. When Maj Ravi appeared, the sentry who had been slapped, narrated the incident and reported that his weapon was missing. Immediately, a search of the surrounding area was instituted. It revealed no sign of any activity. The search was now extended inwards and once again, no sign of any intruder could be found. One thing though! The sentry’s rifle was located lying in front of the unit mandir!
By now, the troops were firmly convinced as to what had caused this mysterious occurrence. It was the ghostly CHM on his rounds who had discovered the errant soldier and punished him. Ravi could not make anything of this incident and puzzled returned to his fibre glass hut. He carefully shut the doors to stop the draft and stoked the bukhari till it glowed warmly. He took off his extreme cold clothing and in the orange light of the bukhari lay back in his sleeping bag to ponder on this latest puzzle. He began to doze on his side with his back to the bukhari. He felt the door open and a cold draft tickled the back of his neck. Turning over drowsily, he saw a dark figure in a greatcoat standing on the far side of the room; the light too dim to distinguish his features. The figure stood silent and motionless.
Ravi asked him, ” Haan bhai! ( yes, man). What report have you brought?”
The figure remained silent. Ravi, now irritated, said “Why don’t you speak, man?”
The figure replied softly in a deep voice, ” I have warned your soldiers before but still I find them sleeping on duty or eating meat and drinking rum on Wednesday. Be warned, caution them, or I shall do something you wont like!”
Amazed, Ravi sat up on his bed and now the bukhari came between his line of sight and where the figure had stood. Infuriated, he shouted, “Who are you? How dare you speak to me in this manner?” There was no reply. Ravi immediately stood up and rushed around the bukhari. There was no one there!
Assuming the prankster had rushed out of the hut door, he went out into the snow with his chappals and found no one. Even stranger, once again the door entrance was surrounded by virgin snow showing that no one had passed from there recently. Aside from his own footsteps, there was no sign that anyone had passed except for the open door!
He looked up and saw the sentry opposite the Company Kote about 20 ft away. The sentry was observing him curiously. “What’s the matter, sahab?”, he said. Ravi asked him whether anyone had passed this way. He said no, except for Ravi himself who had entered about half an hour earlier. Ravi accused him of not being attentive! The sentry was indignant, “Sahab, we have just turned out for the alarm given by Sepoy ___ who was slapped by the CHM tonight. I’m an extra sentry placed to keep an eye on the Kote and your hut by the Company Subedar. I’ve already had a good rest tonight and I’ve not been on duty for an hour as yet. How could I make such a mistake?”
I never believed Ravi, who swore that what he said was true. That was the last time I met him at Forward Ledge because the next day, I sidestepped to Tiranga where my field company was now working. Two weeks later, while walking back to my field company base in Drass, I saw a chopper take off from Forward Ledge. On returning back, I enquired from the Adjutant of the battalion about the chopper. He told me that Maj Ravi, the Company Commander had been evacuated as he had fallen prey to HAPO, the dreaded High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema, and had now been moved to the Command Hospital at Udhampur. It was a Wednesday!
The next day, I phoned the Company Subedar at Forward Ledge to commiserate on his losing a fine company commander. He told me that Ravi had confided with him that his engagement had fallen through as his in-laws had been horrified by the officer losses in Op Vijay and had decided against giving their daughter to an Army man. The Company Subedar said to me, “I told him many times to put it all behind, but he succumbed to his grief and got drunk once I left him. And Sahab, you know what happens to anyone who break’s the CHM’s code on Wednesday!”
Even today, I don’t know what to think. Chance? Or is the truth out there?