Frank view of frozen heights
Harbans Singh

Heights of Madness: One Woman’s Journey in Pursuit of a Secret War
by Myra MacDonald. Rupa & Co. Pages 242. Rs 395.

This book by Myra MacDonald is remarkable not just because it is ‘One Woman’s Journey in Pursuit of a Secret War’, as the title says, or that "it is the first account of the Siachen war to be told from both the Indian and the Pakistani points of view", though both, in themselves are of considerable significance. It is remarkable because it has been reconstructed by keeping the human beings as the focus of the story.

Determined to discover the facts and how they have affected life, she is objective in her pursuit and interprets the impact at various levels of human consciousness and yet one cannot help but admire the irresistible romantic streak in her when she is among the mighty mountains. Her description of them is vivid, adding meaning to the impact they have, nearly creating Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, as in the description of the Himalayas when she suddenly wakes up in the plane to be overwhelmed by them, or the coursing of the Nubra and the passes named after the various creations of nature.

The Siachen War has been reconstructed by MacDonald by laboriously piecing together not only the information and the facts as given by both the sides, but also by genuinely working hard to understand and appreciate the response to it by soldiers of various denomination and their families and other civilians. Thus, she finds out that it is not just a war that began with the ‘cartographic aggression’ of Pakistan and the subsequent attempt by India to make its statement by sending an expedition led by the legendary mountaineer Narinder Kumar, that it is also about the threat perception of India because of the proximity of the Chinese and, as Pakistan would like the world to believe, the historical threat to the plains of India from the north-west frontiers.

She also discovers the frailty of the Pakistani state, its perceived victimisation that many in Pakistan believe, began when it was created in a hurry without any meaningful infrastructure needed by a State. It also explains to the readers as to how this syndrome gets reinforced when America repeatedly uses Pakistan to serve its political interests and then abandons it after the break up of the Soviet Union and why the Pakistan army is convinced that it alone is the custodian of the State.

In fact, Myra MacDonald touches upon so many subjects that the book has been made to transcend the military libraries and reach out to all those who would like to know about a war from where "soldiers come back maturer and those who don’t pray, start praying". From trying to unravel the attempt of human beings to dominate the mighty mountains that are "unsuited to sustain human life" and which force the "body to feed on itself to survive", she reaches out to the Lamas and the nomads who lived in a land where "the best of friends or the fiercest of enemies visit" and yet was a land that had no boundaries.

In the process, Myra MacDonald, with her Western training of expressing emotions, thoughts and opinions, has a running contest with the Indian soldiers trained to be stoic, suspend thoughts in the face of the task at hand and steadfastly refuse to express opinion as performing a duty without question is part of their being. She is persistent in trying to break through the hearts and minds of soldiers like Vikram Singh and Bana Singh and the uniform response of both to the call of duty and absence of feeling in those critical moments is a strain that runs through the book and yet she is one of the very few to realise that the metaphor of Karma being the only right of humanity continues to pervade through the subcontinent ever since the battle of Mahabharata was fought. Refreshingly, she does not indulge in laying blame though loses no opportunity to bring home the futility of a war in conditions that psychologically diminishes human beings.