Feet across the frontier

It was about three in the morning when Ali heard the rooster crowing. He was already awake. He had not slept well the previous night, contemplating the journey he would make today. As he looked around, he found the others still asleep. Hussain, Ali's best friend, was sick, and had been coughing irregularly for the past few days. Ali had lived with Hussain and his family for 12 years now. They had taken him in as one of the family after he had accidentally crossed the border and found himself stranded. That was in 1971. At the time, India and Pakistan were engaged in a war over Bangladesh, which killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced many more. The war severely affected the people of Baltistan and Ladakh, and crippled local livelihoods. Thousands of people, separated from their loved ones as a result of the war, were now waiting for the border to re-open. Ali was among the refugees of Ladakh who had wandered across the boundary into the Kharmang Valley of Baltistan.   It all began on a sunny day when Ali was 16 years old. He was grazing his yaks and dzomos in the pastures near the Baltistani border. His favourite yak, named Dong-kar, White Face, sharpened his horns on the ground nearby. From where he sat under a willow tree, Ali could see the lush green pastures across the border. At the time, traders and shepherds found it easy to slip across the border. This summer, Balti traders had brought news of Pakistani soldiers fighting against Bengal's struggle for independence. In the Kargil bazaar of Ladakh, shopkeepers worried over the escalating tension between Pakistan and India. Farmers and shepherds like Ali had not paid much attention to the news, however, as their region remained peaceful. Now these thoughts ran through Ali's mind as he crossed into Baltistan. He cautiously looked down the valley for Pakistani soldiers. Pakistan had stationed a large number of troops in Baltistan after occupying the region in 1948, and they remained. Ali reached a brook as the path wound through the lower gorges on the left side of Suru Chu River. It was a long and arduous journey. Through a cluster of trees, he saw houses on the other side of the brook. Smoke was coming out of the chimneys. On the rooftops, women had laid out apricots to dry for the winter. "This may be a place to spend the night," Ali thought with some relief. His feet moved faster as he hummed loudly. The yaks also lumbered faster, anticipating the fresh grass on the upper side of the pasture. Ali stretched his legs in the soft grass while talking to his dzomos and yaks. "Rinmochhe Balang, your fate has brought you to Baltistani pastures today. Now eat as much as you can, so we can return to our home before it is dark and unsafe." As he lounged, he could see a Pakistani army camp in the distance. All the camps were in the valley west of the pastures, and the local villagers had shifted even further west when the Pakistan Army had seized their land. The farmland had gone fallow as soldiers turned the valley into a garrison. After the departure of locals from the valley, only wild ibex, deer and the cattle from Indian villages grazed these pastures. Ali thought of Tsewang, a shepherd from his village who once could not control his sheep. A few had wandered into the army camp. Fearful of the soldiers, Tsewang did not fetch the stray sheep, instead leaving for his village with the remaining flock. Since then, Ali and the other shepherds had been cautious in controlling their cattle in these pastures. Lost in thought, Ali pulled out some khulak, a snack made of roasted barley flour and salted yak-butter tea, and took small bites. He had a couple of phating, dried apricots, left in his pocket. As he nibbled, his thoughts came to rest on Gyalmo, his fiancée, who had given him the apricots that morning. Gyalmo would wait in front of her house with food for Ali as he went to the pasture every morning. Food was an excuse for them to see each other at least once a day. At different times, Gyalmo would give him dried fruit, some local bread called khurba, fresh walnuts and mulberries, dried yak meat and the local yogurt drink, darba. Today, she had not been in a good mood. She had stayed for just a few minutes, had not talked much, and had given him a few phating and nothing more. They argued about the dangers of the border crossing. Neither knew that they would wait decades to meet again. As darkness spread, Ali herded his cattle towards the lower reaches of the pasture. The dzomos and yaks were docile after eating all day. But as he neared the brook, Ali saw soldiers moving about below. There was haphazard movement, suggesting panic and chaos. Ali drove his cattle behind a cliff, and waited there. He was still half an hour's distance from the border, and soldiers now stood in his way. He waited until it got dark, and then carefully moved his cattle towards the houses on the other side of the brook. As he drew near, he could hear the army vehicles in the distance. When he reached the first house, he stumbled in without knocking. In the dark, he whispered fearfully, "Is there anyone here?" The room was empty but warm. He took the cattle to the barn and locked them inside. He did not understand why the barn door was ajar at that time of the night. Then he returned to the room and sat waiting for the owner. The howling wind and desolation scared him. He remembered how his mother had always forbid him to cross into Baltistan. Gyalmo too disliked his willingness to take risks for greener pastures. The warm room made him dizzy – a day of shepherding and emotional distress was catching up with him. He stretched his legs by the stove and quickly fell asleep.
Ata Mutik
At dawn, Ali awoke to the noise of shelling and mortar fire. In the morning light, he now noticed that the room had been hastily abandoned. Utensils were scattered about, floor mats missing, and barley seeds were spilt near the door. It did not take him long to realise that the owners had fled with their valuables and cattle before his arrival. To his dismay, the barn door was broken, and his cattle had disappeared in the night. Amidst the shelling, Ali wandered around looking for his cattle. He was not very far from the brook when a soldier surprised him from behind. "Why are you still here?" the soldier demanded. "Don't you know that war has started in Baltistan? If you insist on staying here any longer, you will get killed." The soldier had mistaken Ali for a local villager on his side of the frontier. He pushed him in the direction further west of the valley. Along the way, he hid behind boulders at the sounds of shelling. He saw smouldering homes across the Suru Chu. After a few hours of walking, he reached a village filled with refugees. He saw men carrying heavy loads on their backs, while women carried infants and dragged toddlers behind them. The wailing of children added a sense of panic and fear to the air. Men struggled to move cattle along with the people. Ali joined the caravan and moved west as the villagers followed the river. Some refugees stopped at Marol, a village at a safe distance from the border, while others kept walking. Ali saw an old man stooping to find a place to rest. He was panting and seemed unable to support his weight. Ali grabbed him and took him to an empty house nearby. They found a mat, some pieces of chopped wood and some utensils in the room. It looked like the villagers here had also left in haste. When the old man recovered his breath, they introduced themselves. His name was Ata Mutik. He was with his sons, Hussain and little Shesrab. Hussain had gone back to look for Shesrab, who was lost in the crowd. They feared Shesrab had hidden himself along the way after losing sight of his family. As Ata Mutik's condition improved, Ali went in search of water and food. Both of them were very hungry. He found some dried fruits and crumbs of bread in neighbouring houses, and used a tea-stained pot to fetch some water. Ata Mutik thanked him, and they both consumed the food ravenously. While they ate, Ali revealed his accidental arrival in Baltistan. He worried for his mother and Gyalmo, and feared that his village would be destroyed amidst attacks by Pakistani forces. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he thought about his family in danger. Ata Mutik patted his shoulder, "Ali, you are like a son. Please stay with us. We will take care of you. After the fighting ends, you can return to your village. Don't worry. No one will know you are from the other side." After eating, Ata Mutik and Ali walked to the road to wait for Hussain, who returned with Shesrab late in the evening. They assessed the situation and, after some discussion, decided to stay in one of the empty houses until it was safe to return to their village. Ali helped the family take their belongings into the house. Despite his fortune in finding Ata Mutik and his family, destiny was not kind to Ali. As the war ended, the governments of India and Pakistan decided to permanently close the frontier, and stop all crossborder movement. Given these circumstances, Ali decided to stay on with Ata Mutik's family. When the ceasefire was declared, they moved back to Ata Mutik's ancestral village near the border. Ali felt at peace living with his adopted family, and being closer to his own village. Every evening, he visited the barber's shop for gossip, and to listen to the radio for news of Kargil. Reports came of several Baltistani villages in Gangche District being taken under Indian control. As a result, thousands of people became refugees and moved to Skardo, the capital of Baltistan. After four months, Ali received a letter from home. His family was alive. They had moved 40 miles east of their ancestral village, after Pakistani attacks had destroyed the houses. "Your mother cries and prays for your safe return," uncle Zhangmo Anchan wrote. "If you fail to return soon, Gyalmo will marry someone else." Ali hastily replied, assuring them of his safe and speedy return. After dropping the letter off at the postman's house, he prayed that it would reach its destination swiftly. Days passed quickly, as Ali anxiously waited for the border to re-open. Once at dawn and once before going to bed, he would stare at the mountain pass, the same pass over which he and his dzomos had descended into Baltistan. His life had stood still since he had come over that pass, like a stationary picture. His home and family seemed like a dream slipping further away every day. With hope in his heart, he wrote letters to his mother and to Gyalmo every week. He also visited several holy Phyak-khangs, Khankahs and Imambaras, praying for a safe return. He prayed, "O Shazdechan-Ashi God, in the name of Rtsangma Rinchen Muhammad and his Rinmochhe family! Make my return possible. Unite me with my family and tribe. Help us overcome the barrier between Ladakh and Baltistan." One day he visited Shiekh Ibrahim of Ata Mutik's village, who wrote smonlam, the Quranic prayers, for Ali on a piece of birch bark. Ali washed the ink from the bark into a cup and drank the blessed water, hoping that God heard his prayers. To his right arm he tied the dod-strung, an amulet that the Shiekh had made with Quranic prayers. But as the months turned into years, Ali busied himself with work, helping to support Ata Mutik and his family. He was valuable to the family because of his shepherding and farming skills. On many occasions, Ata Mutik advised him to marry and settle down. But all his thoughts revolved around the girl who lived on the other side of the pass. As the years passed, the relationship between India and Pakistan began to thaw, and both countries began what was known as confidence- and peace-building measures. There were rumours that the troops would return to the barracks, and life to normalcy. The border would open, allowing divided families to reunite. The rumours set a tempest brewing in Ali's mind. He visited government offices to confirm the stories. The village barber advised him to go to Tolti or Skardo, and register his name among the refugees to be sent back to their homes. Ali did not want to lose this chance after so many years, and followed every piece of advice. Ata Mutik was also a distant relative of the tehsildar, the district magistrate of Tolti. He approached Tehsildar Sahib and introduced Ali to him. Ali begged and offered presents to the man, and his emotional plea made everyone in the room tearful with sympathy. Tehsildar Sahib promised Ali that he would be one of the first to cross the border. He then kindly suggested that Ali take his presents back with him, and give them to his mother upon returning to Ladakh. A few weeks later, while Ali was grazing the yaks in the pasture, young Shesrab came running and yelling, "Ali Kaka! Ali Kaka!" Ali ran to him with anticipation. "Ali Kaka, father has just received news that you can go home," Shesrab panted. "He said you will leave within the week." Ali left Shesrab with the yaks and ran home. He collapsed onto Ata Mutik in a joyous embrace. From that moment, Ali became restless. His racing thoughts made sleep impossible. He lay wakeful, planning his future with his family. He did not know what to expect of Gyalmo after so many years. He also worried about saying farewell to Hussain and his family. Fear and confusion haunted him, while thoughts of seeing his mother thrilled him. He lost his appetite and interest in work. Suddenly, he felt he was living in strange surroundings. He was like a passenger at a railway station, desperately waiting for a delayed train. He knew that losing the chance to return to Ladakh would take away all meaning in his world. The free cavalcade
On his last day, Ata Mutik saw Ali sitting on the bank of the river, staring at the mountain pass and throwing pebbles in the water. He was struggling with his conflicting emotions. Ata Mutik sat down and said, "Son, do you know, Ladakh and Baltistan were part of the same province before Partition in 1948?" While Ali stared at the ground dejectedly, Ata Mutik continued, "Our province was called Ladakh Wazarat. I was very young when Partition occurred. I used to travel to Leh, Kargil and Changthang with my father to sell fruit and other goods. At that time, the valley of Kharmang was part of Kargil District, like your village is now. When Tehsildar Sahib of Kargil would visit our village, the excitement and preparations caused a great commotion. At that time, Skardo was the winter capital of the province, while Leh was the summer capital. The provincial government spent six months in winter in Baltistan and six months in summer in Leh." Ata Mutik's eyes searched the horizon. "Because of the capital transfer, the movement of the cavalcade ebbed and flowed," he continued, "creating a carnival atmosphere in Kharmang Valley. Accompanied by thousands of bureaucrats, workers and ordinary people, the Wazirs, Kalons, Lonpos and Trangpas passed through our villages on horseback. The village elders welcomed officials with gifts, cattle and prettied-up houses. As the cavalcade moved forward, it was a traveling festival from village to village. At night, fire dancers with flowers in their hats performed with smoking juniper twigs. Professional storytellers recited and performed sagas of Ling Gesar, Gyalbucho Lobzang and Yulstrung Karim with reverence, while the singers sang traditional Gyang-Lu and Barg-Lu songs. Villagers arranged polo matches, archery competitions and traditional feasts. Every household contributed food from their rations. The women spent the entire day making dishes of every kind, causing the children to run with excitement at the smell of meat and yak-butter tea. The entire village was involved, each person assigned a task to help pull the ceremony together." Ata Mutik continued wistfully, "We travelled freely between Skardo, Leh, Srinagar and Shimla. Peace prevailed everywhere." Ali looked at Ata Mutik with new excitement. He had never heard him talk like this before. Ali had had no previous interest in history, but found himself listening to the old man with rapt attention. He remembered how his own father, Ata Sengge, used to tell similar stories to him as a child. His father spoke of his journeys to Skardo, and compared the vastness of the Zanskar and Shigar valleys. Impatient to play with the other boys in the courtyard, Ali would fidget and look for the first opportunity to escape. Now he wanted to know about the time without borders – when people traveled freely, and when communities co-existed so well. Ali realised that people born after 1948 in both Ladakh and Baltistan accepted the border as set in stone. Like himself, they had compromised with the times. Today, for the first time, Ali escaped into a pre-1948 past. The existence of a border and travel restrictions suddenly pierced his soul. The more he learned about the past, the more suffocated he felt. This was the same frontier that had separated him from his parents and fiancée all these years. If he could, he would erase that line instantly, that artificial boundary that kept members of the same community physically so divided. As he heard these stories, an idea planted itself in Ali's heart. He looked to Ata Mutik with hope and excitement and asked, "Don't you think that a border drawn so recently can be erased again?" Ata Mutik, who saw the light coming back to Ali's eyes, smiled thoughtfully and said, "Son, borders are manmade. They can be erased or changed. Ladakh and Baltistan share the same culture, language and customs. Several traditional trade routes connect us to each other. Our fate and economic prosperity is joined to that of Ladakh. Closing these trade routes has degraded us severely. If we understand this, then we should work together to erase this imaginary frontier." Ali nodded in agreement. Today he found a new understanding and purpose for his life – a mission to connect people across the mountains. Controlling the line
It was well past dusk when they finally returned home. The young man was filled with energy. Ata Mutik had shown him a path with which to bridge his life of the last 12 years to his impending return home. It was as if a paralysis had been lifted, and replaced by the voice of ancestors saying that it was possible to rebuild a strong community. He dreamed of spreading the message of prosperity through a unified Ladakh and Baltistan. Now, he was hopeful about seeing Ata Mutik again. He envisioned a day when Ata Mutik and his family would visit him in his home. He imagined introducing the old man to his wife Gyalmo and their children. That night, Ali tossed and turned for hours. He was in deep contemplation when the rooster crowed the coming dawn. At last, the morning had arrived when he was to return home. The sadness of saying goodbye to a life of 12 years was made sweet by his eagerness to revolutionise people's thinking about the border. Ali got out of bed and boiled some water for tea. He had packed his luggage earlier, including silver and turquoise jewellery for Gyalmo made by Awulu, the village silversmith. Sheikh Ibrahim had given him a string of Quranic dod-strung for his mother. The previous evening, Ata Mutik had presented Ali with a woolen kaar, the local shawl, which he had weaved himself on the house loom. Hussain added khulak and dried apricots for the journey. The knowledge that he was leaving those who had nurtured him left Ali heavy of heart. Everyone was gloomy. Hussain, whose early morning coughing calmed after drinking his first cup of tea, sat quietly in the corner and avoided looking into Ali's eyes. With strained cheer and a promise to see them soon, Ali hugged Ata Mutik and Shesrab. Ata Mutik found it difficult to say goodbye to Ali, who had been like a son to him. They wept quietly together for a while. After 12 years of holding back his tears, Ali finally let them all go. Hussain walked Ali to the road to see him off. Ali promised to bring Ata Mutik and Shesrab to Kargil after the next harvest. After bidding Hussain farewell, Ali walked through the village he had called home for so long. He memorised how each house was set against the other, each field terraced against the next. As he navigated the streams of snowmelt for the last time, he thought of all the children who played along them on summer days. As he looked up at the mountains, he thought of all the days spent in the high pastures. As he passed the barbershop, the barber and his three boys came running up to say goodbye. Along the way, Awulu the silversmith intoned smonlam, for safe travel. At the border checkpost, Ali joined the first group of people from Baltistan and Ladakh who gathered to return across the border. It was 11:00 am when the paperwork was finished, and the security officials ordered the refugees to cross. Everyone walked across the border on foot as a group. Ali felt his heartbeat rise as he neared the frontier. On the other side, his relatives recognised him and shouted his name in joy and celebration. But Ali's thoughts were concentrated on the Line of Control he was crossing. He wanted to record this moment in his mind forever. He dragged his feet across the ground, as if footsteps could erase the border. Once on the other side, he fell to his knees to thank god, Rgyalbachan Ldanchuk-khan. His relatives clustered around him, and cried in elation. Through his journey, Ali had negated the very existence of the artificial boundary dividing his two homes. He saw himself as the first drop of rain, which leads to a drenching downpour and enriches the earth. Today, Ali laid the foundation of the unification of Ladakh and Baltistan with his feet.

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Himal Southasian