The Wild Hounds of Kargil

First Person

The Wild Hounds of Kargil

Illustration: Saachi Mehta

Up in the Kargil sector at 18,000 feet, I wasn’t getting any sleep.

In the isolated environs of one of the highest battlefields on the planet, it’s not uncommon to spend most nights in anticipation of an attack – or of worsening weather conditions. The thunder from an avalanche, or the flash of a missile from across the border could claim us any minute. In these conditions, sleep is not an option especially if you want stay alive until daybreak. Those of us who remain vigilant eventually sense oxygen levels depleting. Those who sleep through, risk slipping into an endless slumber.

But that night, I was awake with anxiety and excitement, not with alertness. I was leaving for home the next day. I longed for the warm humid air of my town. The sight of green trees. I would be leaving behind these razor-sharp ridge lines, ice-capped mountains, and the endless blanket of snow I’d had enough of. I was exhausted and frozen with the winter that lasts for at least two hundred days each year, and the temperatures that drop to -40°C. I looked around for Rani and Lalu but they weren’t there. I didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye to my “langar dogs”.

Langar dogs are embedded into this strange world of ours. Their moniker is an indication of the fact that they are raised on the leftovers of army kitchens. Nobody knows how they came to be essential to our survival on the Line of Control, but they’re always here with us. Legions of army men in this landscape have found solace in their occasional rumbling bark on cold, unforgiving nights.

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Lalu’s mischievous antics and Rani’s soothing affection could draw me out on the most solemn days.

Rani and Lalu were my langar dogs. Just a year old, they were first befriended by the unit which had been posted here before us. And although fairly young, they were already far larger than average Indian dogs. The bear-like duo, born and raised in this icy abode, had features resembling the Bhakarwal breed of the mountains and could intimidate the bravest of souls. But inside, they were gentle as doves.

Like other langar dogs, Rani and Lalu accompanied our unit on patrols across the mountainside. They have led us through heavy drifts of snow, identifying places for a firm footing, given us early warnings on infiltrators, and in the month of March, when we don’t see the sun for a perilous 21 days due to fog, they have always found ways to guide us. But what they provide most in these otherworldly forward posts is something far beyond professional value: They provide companionship.

I’d been feeling like it had been an eternity since I’d come across anyone besides my colleagues. Our post had been cut off from the rest of civilisation for eight months. If a soldier fell ill or was injured, the closest doctor was two days away. Your training can teach you strictly material things like, stock up on ration for the winter. But nothing truly prepares us for the implacable solitude that befalls the camp. Days and nights are bound by apprehension; life is reduced to a matter of surviving.

Once you get used to the biting cold and the silence, all your cravings fade away. What you need is the occasional phone call home. Four hundred of us spread along a 20-kilometre stretch shared two satellite phones, one of which invariably failed to work. Talking to family is the real luxury here, accorded to us for a couple of minutes every few days.

I looked forward to these brief conversations, but once my mother would come on the line, I’d be at a loss for words. What could I possibly say that she didn’t already know? Saying, “I miss you, ma. And your food,” was such an infantile substitute for what I really wanted to tell her. But I never had the heart to complain and make her worry. Saddled with these weighty thoughts all by myself, I inched closer to a state of depression. But Lalu’s mischievous antics and Rani’s soothing affection could draw me out on the most solemn days.

That evening, longing for Rani’s company, I whistled a tune. Neither one of them appeared. For a moment I was seized with panic: Leopards prowl these towering ridges and grim valleys. And the big cat savoured dog meat. The scars on Rani’s body were testament to the territorial battles she had fought with others of her kind. So far, she had managed to avoid the formidable predator. But what if her luck had run out?

Suddenly, the night broke and I could hear barking. Within seconds Rani and Lalu came lunging forward. It was easy to spot their bright, chestnut-coloured coats against the stark white surroundings.

While Rani rested close to me, her brother grew restless. He rolled on his back and shook his head incessantly, occasionally turning to glare at me with his dark, beady eyes. I knew exactly what the brat wanted. But unfortunately for him, we didn’t have any of his favourite Good Day biscuits to spare. For the last several months, we had been surviving on canned foods and dehydrated vegetables, and we’d run out of fresh supplies.

Rani didn’t want anything from me. She looked beautiful in the moonlight with specks of snow settled on her thick fur. I nuzzled her cold nose, whispered my apology, and burying my hand in her warm fur, I went to sleep. I dreamt – in vain – that this would be the last time I’d see this ruthless terrain, where isolation and silence were the norm.


Six of us prepared to make the two-day journey down the mountainside, to the closest road which would lead us home. Lalu and Rani had already sensed that we weren’t embarking on an ordinary patrol. She gazed at me quizzically as though demanding answers.

As we’d expected, the two of them accompanied us as we gradually made our way down the slopes. I assumed that they’d turn back at the end of the day, when they’d realise we were heading further away from their territory. Parts of the descent were vertical. Our enthusiastic companions weren’t once deterred by the obstacles. Sometimes, they’d instinctively take a different route, most of which couldn’t possibly support the human form. At the end of the first day, the two of them showed no interest in turning back.


Our post had been cut off from the rest of civilisation for eight months.

Through the course of the second day, we encountered even steeper cliffs. There were times when we’d lift the dogs in our arms and carry them down. Eventually, Lalu grew uneasy. He only followed us for a few more hours before changing his mind and heading back. He’d probably figured out that no Good Day biscuits would be rewarded to them at the end of this road.

Rani too hesitated as her sibling headed home, but she seemed to have made up her mind. She intended to see us off, all the way down to the bottom of the mountain. Wagging her tail in blissful nonchalance, she followed us faithfully. I remained in awe of her loyalty.

When we finally reached the road, Rani understood that this was the farthest she could come with us. She sat up on a rock and stared at me, concern written all over her face. Would I be ok all by myself, without her protective hovering around me? Would I be coming back?

It almost broke my heart to say goodbye to her, especially when I knew that she’d have to make the lengthy journey back to the post, all alone.


Four weeks later, my brief holiday over, I trudged up the same road with a heavy heart. It didn’t help that the day was overcast and snowy. Coming back here after the warm embrace of love, sunshine, and hot food was never easy. The idea of being held prisoner to this landscape for another three months made my steps heavy.

As we took a turn on the winding road, I recognised a familiar form. A booming bark confirmed my suspicion. Rani stood in the distance, wagging her tail vigorously, waiting for us to reach her. I have no idea how she’d sensed that I was returning but here she was, greeting me with her unmistakable doggie grin. Suddenly the darkness lifted and a bright morning sun pierced through the clouds.

I ran up to Rani and nuzzled her furiously. I may not have hot food and sunshine, but I did have love. And sometimes, even at 18,000 feet, that’s enough.