It was about three in the morning when Ali heard the rooster crowing. He was already awake. He had not slept well through the night contemplating the journey he would make today. As he looked around, he found the others still asleep. Hussain was coughing irregularly. For the past few days, Ali’s best friend, Hussain, had not felt well. Ali had lived with Hussain and his family for twelve years now. They took him in as one of the family after he accidentally crossed the border and was stranded. That was the year 1971. India and Pakistan were engaged in a war over the dispute of the State of Jammu & Kashmir, which killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions as refugees. The war affected the people of Baltistan and Ladakh, and crippled local economy. Thousands of people, separated from their loved ones as a result of the war, were now waiting for the border to open. Ali was among the refugees of Ladakh who had wandered across the border into the Kharmang Valley of Baltistan.
It all started on a sunny day when Ali was sixteen years old. Ali was grazing his yaks and zomos on the pastures near the Baltistani border. His favorite yak Dong-kar, the White Face, sharpened his horns on the ground nearby. From where he sat under a willow tree, he could see the lush green pastures across the border. At the time, traders and shepherds slipped across the border easily. This summer, Balti traders had brought news of Pakistani armed forces fighting against Bengal’s struggle for independence. In the Kargil bazaar, shopkeepers worried over the Pakistani and Indian armies’ exchange of fire near the Bangladeshi border. However, farmers and shepherds like Ali had not paid much attention to the rumors because 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 the year 1948. 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 laid out apricots to dry for the winter. ‘This may be a place to spend the night if it is late’, thought Ali with some relief. With his mind on the journey home, Ali’s feet moved faster as he hummed loudly. The yaks also lumbered faster with excitement of fresh grass on the upper side of the pasture.
“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.” He stretched his legs in the soft grass while talking to his zomos and yaks. As he lounged, he could see a Pakistani army camp in the distance. All the camps were in the valley west of the pastures. The local villagers had shifted further west to safety when the Pakistani army 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 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 remained cautious in controlling their cattle through the 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 or dried apricots left in his pocket. Nibbling on them led his thoughts to 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. Gyalmo would give him dried fruit, the local bread ‘Khurba’, fresh walnuts and mulberry, dried yak meat and the local yogurt drink, ‘Darba’. Today, she was not in a good mood. She stayed for just few minutes, did not talk much, and gave him a few phating and nothing more. They argued about the dangers of the border crossing. Neither knew then they would wait decades to meet again.
As darkness prevailed, Ali herded his cattle towards the lower reaches of the pasture. The Zomos and yaks were docile after eating all day. When he neared the brook, Ali saw the troop activity 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 away from the border and soldiers were between him and the border. He waited until it got dark and then moved his cattle with care towards the houses on the other side of the brook. As he neared, he heard 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 his mother always forbade him from crossing into Baltistan. Gyalmo also disliked his willingness to take risk for greener pastures. The warm room made him dizzy. A day of shepherding and emotional distress was catching up. He stretched his legs next to the stove and fell quickly asleep.
At dawn, Ali awoke to the noise of shelling and mortar fire. In the morning light, he found the room hastily abandoned. Utensils were scattered everywhere, floor mats missing and barley seeds were spilt near the door. It did not take him long to realize that the owners had fled with their valuables and cattle before his arrival. To his dismay, the barn door was broken and his cattle were gone. 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? Do you not know war has started in Baltistan? If you insist on staying here any longer, you will get killed.” The soldier took him as a local villager and pushed him in the direction further west of the valley. Along the way, he hid behind boulders at the sound of shelling. He saw smoldering 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 back while women carried infants and dragged toddlers. The wailing of children added a sense of panic and fear in 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 a nearby empty house. They found a mat, some chopped pieces of wood and some utensils in the room. It looked like the villagers here too had left in haste. When the old man recovered his breathe, they introduced each other. 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 hid himself along the way after losing sight of his family.
As Ata Mutik’s condition improved, Ali went searching for water and food. Both of them were very hungry. He found some dried fruits, pruned apples and crumbs of bread in neighboring houses. He used a tea-stained pot to fetch water. Ata Mutik thanked him and they both ate ravenously. While they nibbled, Ali revealed his accidental arrival into Baltistan. He worried for his mother and Gyalmo and feared his village destroyed amidst attacks by Pakistani forces. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he thought about his family in danger. Ata Mutik patted his shoulder and comforted him. “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 Indian.” After eating, Ata Mutik and Ali walked to the road to wait for Hussain, who returned with Shesrab late into 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.
Destiny had other plans for Ali. As the war ended, the governments of India and Pakistan decided to permanently close the border and stop all cross-border movement. Under these circumstances, Ali decided to stay with Hussain’s family. When the ceasefire was declared, they moved back to Ata Mutik’s ancestral house near the border. He felt at peace living with Ata Mutik’s family and being closer to his own village. Every evening, he visited the barber’s shop for gossip and listened to the radio for news of Kargil. News came of a several Baltistani villages in Gangche district taken under Indian control. As a result, thousands of people became refugees and moved to Skardo. After four months, Ali received a letter from home. His family was alive. They had moved forty miles east of their ancestral village after Pakistani attacks 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 it would reach its destination before too long.
Days passed quickly as Ali anxiously waited for the border to re-open. At dawn and again before going to bed, he would stare at the mountain pass, the same pass over which he and his zomos once descended into Baltistan. His life stood still since coming over that pass, like a stationary picture. His home and family seemed like a dream slipping further away each day. With hope in his heart, he wrote letters to his mother and Gyalmo every week. He also visited several Phyak-khang, Khankahs and Imambaras, distributing alms and 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 tree bark. Ali washed the ink from the bark into a cup and drank the blessed water, hoping that God heard his prayers. He also tied the Dod-strung, an amulet made with Quranic prayers by the Shiekh, to his right arm. But the months turned into years and Ali busied himself with work and supported 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 across the mountain.
As the years passed, the relationship between India and Pakistan began to thaw, and both countries started confidence and peace building measures. There were rumors that troops would return to the barracks and normalcy would again prevail in the region. The border would open allowing divided families to reunite. The rumors 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. He did not want to lose this chance after so many years and followed every piece of advice. Ata Mutik was a distant relative of the tehsildar, the district magistrate of Tolti. He approached tehsildar sahib and introduced Ali to him for a special favor. Ali begged and offered presents to the tehsildar sahib. 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 Ali take his presents back and give them rather to his mother upon returning to Ladakh.
A few weeks later, when 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 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 train 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.
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 seemed to struggle with conflicting emotions. Happiness at seeing his mother on one hand and sadness at leaving Ata Mutik on the other continued to disturb the young man deeply. Ata Mutik sat down and to comfort him, 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, 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 elaborate residences. It was a traveling festival from village to village as the cavalcade moved forward. At night, fire dancers with flowers in their hats performed with smoking juniper twigs. Professional story-tellers recited and performed sagas of Ling Gesar, Gyalbucho Lobzang and Yulstrung Karim with reverence, while the singers sang traditional Gyang-Lu and Bar-gLu songs. Local 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.” He continued wistfully, “Peace prevailed everywhere during that era. We traveled freely between Skardo, Leh, Srinagar and Shimla.”
Ali looked at Ata Mutik with new excitement. He had never heard Ata Mutik talk like this before. Ali had no interest in history but now found himself listening with attention. He remembered how his own father, Ata Sengge, told similar stories to him as a child. His father spoke of his journeys to Skardo and compared Zanskar to Shigar for the vastness of the valleys, which mesmerized him. 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 peacefully.
Ali realized that people born after 1948 in both Ladakh and Baltistan accepted the border as set in stone. They compromised with the times. Today, for the first time, Ali escaped into the past, and looked before the year 1948. The existence of a border and travel restrictions pierced his soul. The more he learned about the past, the more suffocated he felt. The imaginary line had separated him from his parents and fiancÉe all these years. If he could, he would erase that line instantly, an artificial line that kept members of the same ethnic group divided. Ata Mutik realized he had Ali’s attention and so went on, “People were prosperous before partition as they traded freely across the expanse of the Himalayas. Farmers from Kargil would come to our village to purchase yaks, dzos and dzomos. We used to buy salt and tea from Changpas. Baltis on their way to Leh and Kashmir would pass through our village. People from Leh and Zangskar would spend the night in our guesthouses on their way to Skardo and Shigar. The travelers joined local competitions of archery and polo. Many became our friends and would bring exotic gifts from places as far as Lhasa, Nepal and Kashgar. The environment was friendly and we all benefited.”
As he heard about the past, a new idea planted itself in Ali’s heart. He looked to Ata Mutik with hope and asked with excitement, “Do you think that a border drawn so recently can be erased again?” Ata Mutik, who saw the light coming back in 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 together. Our fate and economic prosperity is connected to Ladakh. Closing these trade routes degrades 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.
It was well past dusk when they finally returned home. The young man was filled with energy. Ata Mutik had shown him a path to bridge his life of the last twelve years with his impending return home. It was as if a paralysis had lifted and was replaced by the voice of ancestors saying it was possible to rebuild a strong community. He dreamt 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 him to his wife Gyalmo and his future children. For hours, he tossed and turned. He was deeply engrossed in contemplation when the rooster crowed the coming dawn. At last, the morning had arrived when he was to return to his family. The bitterness of saying goodbye to a life of twelve years was made sweet by his eagerness to revolutionize 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 jewelry 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 presented Ali with a woolen Kaar, the local shawl, that he weaved himself on the house loom. Hussain added Chaphe Khulak, a roasted barley flour snack, and dried apricots for the journey. The separation of leaving those who nurtured him left Ali heavy of heart. Everyone was gloomy. Hussain, whose early morning coughing calmed after drinking the tea, sat quietly in the corner and avoided looking into Ali’s eyes. With strained cheer and a promise to see them soon, he hugged Ata Mutik and Shesrab. For Ata Mutik, it was difficult to say goodbye to Ali who had been like a son. They wept quietly for a while. After twelve years of holding his tears back, Ali finally let them all go. Hussain walked Ali to the road to see him off. He promised Ali 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 memorized how each house was set against each other, each field terraced against the next. As he navigated the streams that came from the snowy peaks for the last time, he thought of all the children who played along them on summer days. He thought of all the days spent in pastures as he glanced around at the mountains. 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 check post, Ali joined the first group of people from Baltistan and India who gathered to cross the border. It was 11 a.m. when the paperwork was finished and the security officials ordered the refugees to cross. Everyone walked across the border on foot in a group. Ali felt his heart beat rise as he neared the border. On the other side, his relatives, recognized him and shouted his name in joy and celebration. But Ali’s eyes were pinned to the imaginary “Line of Control” in front of him. Ali 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 Rgyalbachan Ldanchuk-khan God. His relatives fell around him and cried in elation.
Through his journey, Ali negated the very existence of the artificial boundary dividing his two homes. He was like the first drop of rain in a drenching downpour. Today, Ali laid the foundation of the unification of Ladakh and Baltistan with his feet.