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The Rediff Special/ Chindu Sreedharan

'The next time you hear the swish you don't wait. You sprint'

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You duck instinctively.

This is after a long gap that you are hearing artillery fire. You are only a little way into the battle-zone, between Matayan and Dras, near the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir. For a moment you are disconcerted and canít make out whether India is being shelled or is shelling. You hear the sound of the gun atop the ridge you are passing beneath. You see the smoke rising there. And you know you are safe.

Five minutes later you hear the next gun. And the next. And the next. You are not flinching anymore. By the time you reach Kargil, 60 km away, you are reasonably used to the sound. You can tell whether it is Indian or Pakistani artillery. In case of the Indian, the initial sound (there are two sounds when you shell -- the boom of the gun and the burst) is louder than the second.

The Kargil you enter looks peaceful. Quiet. Populated. There aren't any shells landing in or near the town.

An hour later, when you hear a clap of thunder, it takes only a few moments to identify what it is: Pakistan's guns. More thunder rolls on the surrounding hills. They keep rolling through the night. But you are not worried. Till now, you haven't experienced the power of a burst or witnessed its bloodiness.

A day later you do witness its power. You hear the boom of a gun long away, then a swishing sound and, seconds later, the explosion. It is, you register, a 'ground-burst.' As opposed to an 'air-burst,' wherein the shell explodes in the air. You feel the windows of the room you are sitting in rattle.

You feel a little less brave.

You are out in the open when you hear the now-familiar swishing sound again. Right overhead. You find the people, veteran victims of shelling, running for cover. The panic is contagious. You too make a mad scramble, but not before the shell lands.

You rush out to see the damage. You hear a rain of shrapnel, dust and stones on the roof of nearby buildings. You see people running to safer shelters.

You donít feel brave anymore.

The next time you hear the swish you don't wait. You sprint. Your cockiness has oozed out. But as more shells land, you learn to live minus it. More safely.

You feel almost a veteran now, one with the residents of Kargil.

Safe back in Srinagar, your bravado returns. You feel a bit nostalgic about leaving the action behind. You know that a shell needn't hit you directly to kill. You know about the killer shrapnel that can pierce you like pin through paper. You know that a blast can blow you to bits if you are anywhere near.

Yet, you feel a little left behind in Srinagar.

Shelling, you conclude, is like fire. You will try to touch it till you are burnt.

The Rediff Specials

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