Early in the film Lakshya, two soldiers drive up to the Line of Control and look across it. "There," says one, pointing to a hut on the side of a hill, "that's the forward Pakistani post." The other, new to duty here, stares in some surprise. Is that all there is? he seems to be asking. That little hut on a stretch of terrain that looks no different from where I am standing, that hut like any number I've seen here? That's the enemy?
For me, the scene and the mild surprise struck home. Just five days before I watched the film, I had felt the same sense of faint unreality. As I stood at the LoC myself, the subedar with me pointed to a flat hilltop across a valley and some distance below us. On the hilltop, I could see two sets of huts. The nearer set, the subedar told me, was the furthest Indian post in this sector. Our soldiers had to reach it by walking into the valley and up the hill, part of that trek along a man-sized trench that began only feet from where we stood. About 2-3 km to the post, even though it looked no more than 750 metres away as the crow flies.
The other set of huts -- "only 50-60 metres from ours", said the subedar -- was the closest Pakistani post. Sprawled in the valley beyond the hilltop lay a largish town. Just as in Lakshya, the terrain across the Line looked no different from where we stood, from what we had passed through to get here. The town looked no different from towns on our side that we had peered down at as we wound into the hills. That's the enemy?
It was indeed. For suddenly the subedar said, inexplicably lowering his voice to a whisper:
"Better we don't stand too long in this exposed spot, better get our heads down. There's very little shelling these days, but they're always watching us through binoculars, like we watch them. They might suddenly decide to fire. Koi bharosa nahin."
So we walked back to our jeep. But my thoughts were racing. 50-60 metres between posts, that's all? Pretty much shouting distance? What is duty like when you are stuck in a hut knowing that those guys in that other hut -- that one you can see, those guys you can see, just *there* -- might shoot and kill you one day? That you might shoot and kill them one day?
Then I wondered, do the Indian and Pakistani soldiers ever speak to each other, meet each other? Is there any camaraderie between them?
Elsewhere on the border, clearly there is. This is how a recent visitor to Wagah described to me the famous stylised ceremony of hostility between border guards on each side there: "There was something jolly and frivolous about it all, evinced most clearly by the grins on the guards' faces as the crowd cheered them on. Patriotism as spectacle, but a good show all around."
Good show and grins, clap clap and all that. But what about here in this post, where there are no cheering crowds of patriotism tourists? Do the men talk across the line of mistrust?
I asked a few officers this. They all said, "No, they don't talk to each other. Occasionally the officers on both sides will speak on the phone if there's a body to hand over, something like that. Otherwise, nothing."
I asked some of the lower ranks, including the subedar I was with. Each one said, "Yes, we do speak to the Pakistanis."
And in fact, how could they not? It's unnatural, inhuman, to hunker in a hut only a few dozen yards from another few hunkering soldiers whom you don't even know, but whom you are asked to think of as the enemy, but whom you can't help thinking must be just like you in every respect, and to do this for months. To do this in utter silence for months. You're looking out at that hut, you see a guy in there looking back at you, this happens again the next day and the next -- eventually, you'd be a robot not to wave, or shout, or something. It's only human.
In the winter of 1914, still in the first bloody months of the first World War, something strange happened near Ypres, on the deeply trenched front in France. Strange, but still human. This was the famous Christmas truce.
Somehow, German and British soldiers came out of their trenches, which were also only about 50 metres apart (and in fact they snaked, that far apart, for hundreds of miles across the continent). They emerged not to mow the other down -- or, indeed, to be mowed down -- which is what they had been doing for weeks. No, the enemies jointly celebrated Christmas. They exchanged gifts and cakes, took photographs of each other. (They give you goose-bumps, those shots). There were even football matches, one of which the Germans were leading 3-2 when the ball was punctured by an inconvenient strand of barbed wire. Lance Corporal Kenneth Grant of the 16th (County of London) Battalion, Queen's Worcester Rifles, wrote home that Christmas day:
"I have just spent the most weird Christmas of my life in the trenches. Our enemy across the way arranged with us to hold an unofficial armistice, so we walked over the top of the trenches and exchanged greetings, they were a very nice set of fellows. We exchanged souvenirs, and they gave us some very fine cigars. A party of theirs met one of ours halfway between the trenches -- they all linked arms and had their photos taken by a German officer!"
Still, it happened. Peace broke out elsewhere on the front too. Guns shut down. In some places, the truce lasted only that day; in others, till the New Year. Men found out that, far from being monsters, those other men were very much like themselves. Arthur Conan Doyle called it "one human episode amid all the atrocities which have stained the memory of the war." Another British soldier, Henry Williamson, later wrote:
"I had, vaguely, a childlike idea that if all those in Germany could know what the soldiers had to suffer, and that both sides believed the same things about the righteousness of the two national causes, [the truce] might spread ... to the minds of all, and give understanding where now there was scorn and hatred."
News of these "childlike ideas" and the bizarre behaviour of the soldiers quickly reached Britain, via letters like Kenneth Grant's. The British Commander-in-Chief, Sir John French, was outraged. "I immediately issued orders to prevent any recurrence of such conduct", he said after the war. This merely human madness had to stop. (In France and Germany, many senior officers denied the truce had happened. Much like Indian ones I asked about our front).
So men like Grant and their cigar-gifting German counterparts returned to their trenches, where they spent the next four years slaughtering each other.
Must have been the less bizarre thing to do.
I found out about Kenneth Grant in 2001. I hadn't thought of him again till I stood in that exposed spot, looking across a Line of Control I knew ran invisibly somewhere in front of me. Did it actually thread between those two posts only 50 metres apart? I have no idea, nor did the soldiers I was with, and nor, I am sure, do the Pakistanis. Yet did it really matter? "Where the line is," a senior officer told me, "depends on where we establish our forward posts."
But while thinking of LoCs and Christmas truces, I did begin to understand two things. One, the conditions in which our soldiers work. The strain comes not just from having to keep your head down. It's also in things like this sign I saw beside one of the roads we took to the LoC: "Aage mine sadak hai. Dekh ke chalen." ("The road ahead is mined. Drive carefully."). How do you carry on every day knowing you might be blown up by a mine? Or, indeed, have your head shot off from 50 metres away across a Line? How do soldiers cope with this constant tension?
Two, growing out of that tension, the possibility for peace. Soldiers say they talk to the enemy. What if, up and down that Line, they find a way to talk and exchange gifts regularly? Would that be a bad thing? Would their superiors, like Grant's superiors, swiftly cut short any such camaraderie?
Would their countrymen denounce them, and their possible desire for understanding in place of hatred (see Williamson), and the at least temporary halt to mindless slaughter, as traitorous? (That happened too, in 1914).
You look at hilltop posts only yards apart, remember trenches in France, and you think: Had men like Kenneth Grant known the horror that lay ahead in their war, they might have kept playing football, might have kept their truce alive despite ire from their commanders. Might just have saved millions of lives.
And if soldiers keep talking, it might just happen here.