The Government announcing kerosene rationing for soldiers in the colder reaches of the country refuels Pankaja Srinivasan’s memories of Ladakh
For a good month-and-a-half after we returned from Ladakh, after a two-year stint, we trailed clouds of kerosene. My toddler daughter’s soft curls were perfumed with it and I could sniff out my four-year-old son wherever he was.
I wonder what Manu would have done. An Air Force officer from Chennai, he was always to be found covered in blankets from head to ankle, with his bare feet flat against the hot kerosene-fed bukhari that grumbled gently in a corner. Manu’s soles were like cured hide with all that heat.
We were not allowed to keep the bukhari on through the night as it was dangerous. People have asphyxiated on the kerosene fumes and not woken up. Those who have tippled on rum and then dozed off in front of the warm bukhari have burnt down their rooms. Still...Ahhhh, the joy of stepping in from minus 26 degrees, rushing to the bukhari and allowing first our hands and face to thaw and then turning around to allow the delicious warmth to work on the posterior ...Will 50 per cent rationing now restrict toasting to one side alone?
It was lights-out and bukharis-out at 10 p.m. We hoped like hell we fell asleep before the warmth dissipated and the urge to visit the loo flooded our thoughts.
While the youngsters recklessly splashed rum into their toilet bowls so that they did not freeze over, the abstainers put in a capful of kerosene that also worked as an anti-freeze. Maybe, now on, everyone will use rum.
Even the bathwater got a peg of rum. The officers would go to work reeking of it. One could never tell if they had bathed or just had a quiet swig before starting the day! For obvious reasons, kerosene was eschewed here as it would be awkward if not downright incendiary, in case if someone decided to light up next to you.
And each morning, after breaking chunks of ice from the drum of water kept outside, I would put them into a vessel, carry it inside and place it on the lit kerosene stove. Gas cylinders were hard to come by.
Washed clothes hung out to dry in the brilliant sunshine were carried in at dusk, stiff like emaciated scarecrows. Inside, they were kept next to the bukhari till they crumpled and let off steam. We folded the clothes, now warm, sooty and smelling of kerosene, and put them away.
When Raju’s tenure ended, I had to leave every last bedsheet, curtain and sweater behind. Taking them back to the plains in the aircraft was downright hazardous.
To this day, I can tell who has just returned from a stint in Ladakh, just from the smell.