Major Akshay Girish: Son, Hero, Martyr

It’s the festive season. On behalf of our family, let me wish you all a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year in advance.

While we are all doing our best to cope with losing Akshay in flesh and blood, we are also talking about him all the time and continuing to tell each other to stay strong, supportive, caring and loving. Because, Akshay has set very high standards of how to live life and embrace death, and the least we can do is try and emulate his way of bringing cheer and succor to people he came in touch with.

PART FIVE

Akshay is remembered as this ever smiling, fun loving boy who radiated positivism but as a parent, I know he never had it easy. He worked hard towards everything he wanted to achieve and the path was usually rocky. In fact, Akshay faced some very tough challenges even after following his heart into the National Defence Academy, where he and Aditya continued to be together as ‘first termers in Echo Squadron’. Unlike the Air Force and Naval cadets who automatically get science subjects (called techies) for their academic degree, Army cadets may have to take up humanities (non-techies). Akshay had always been better at Science than at Social Studies but  once he realized that many of his NDA course-mates had very high percentage of marks in their 12th Board exams, he was worried. Since many army cadets had overall % of marks in the mid-90s, Akshay had to not only keep his fingers crossed but also pro-actively try for BSc because he did not want to do a BA. Much to his relief, he succeeded in convincing the officer in charge!

The next challenge was not only managing the really tough routine of military training, the constant physical and academic tests and the ‘ragda’ but also staying firm on a newly chosen path after having been denied a long-cherished dream of becoming a fighter pilot.  Akshay was swayed by peer influence, some of who questioned why he opted for NDA and not for ‘commercial flying’, when his dad had given him that choice. Less than a month after joining NDA, Akshay, over a phone call, told Girish and me that he was considering leaving the academy and returning home. He added that some other cadets had run away from the tough life! I wrote Akshay a long letter reminding him of how driven he had been to choose this career, how he had overcome so many challenges right since his birth and to carefully consider and decide on what he really wanted to do. I also added that if he wanted to return, we would respect his change of mind and support whatever he chose to do.

Akshay overcame confusion and chose to stay on. He never ever looked back.

Even when a confrontation of the young cadets with senior 5th/6th termers took a serious turn and resulted in some of them being reassigned to other squadrons in their second term, Akshay remained motivated and cheerful. He moved on to become a proud and loyal ‘Kilo’ squadron-type, even as his soft corner for his ‘Echo’ mates never left him! When inter-squadron competitions became fierce, Akshay always said he cheered first for ‘Kilo’, and when it was not in the running for top spots, ‘Echo’ was what he rooted for!

As a family, Girish, Neha and I visited Akshay more than a couple of times during his three years in NDA. Akshay was always happy and proud to take family and friends around his squadron and talk animatedly about the vast facilities and activities that kept them on their toes from sunrise to sunset. I confess I was one of ‘those moms’ who visited her son in every term at NDA! Despite being told it was not the ‘done thing’, I seized every given opportunity to travel to Pune and visit Akshay because I missed him a lot and wanted to meet him as often as possible! My heart would swell just seeing our ‘little boy’ walking towards us, and listening to his unending stories on all he and his mates were upto, made my day.

He would talk all about ‘cross country competitions to drill and PT, maths and physics classes in Sudan block to lectures, events and movies in Habibullah hall, ‘fake’ liberties and punishments to jam sessions and NDA Ball, basketball, horse riding and tennis to cream rolling, push-ups and ‘dhava’, the 10 metre board jump to racing up and down Sinhagad fort, cycling and samosas at gol market to sailing in Khadakwasla lake, the amazing NDA dining hall and fantastic menus to never having enough time to eat a full meal, the famous camps – Green horn, Rovers and Torna to the ‘Josh run’ back to the academy.’ There were many more interesting tales that I’m sure his friends will be reminded of. We lapped up all that he would narrate, particularly when he was home during term-breaks, and we went through many emotions with Akshay.  He was well aware of his weaknesses and strengths and was in awe of friends who excelled in an activity and were rewarded with a blazer or medal. He loved the wonderful camaraderie through the tough competitions and took pride in the fact that every single cadet’s performance contributed to the squadron’s position. That meant motivating each other to do their best for the squadron and never leaving a buddy or mate behind.

Akshay was very proud of the stress NDA laid on character-building for ‘officer-like qualities’. He often spoke about the code of honour and how lying, cheating and stealing are the only vices not tolerated in NDA. Not owing up would result in a cadet being thrown out.

The spirit of the ‘Cradle for Leadership’ had seeped in till it flowed in Akshay’s veins.

Our charmer also had this innate and intuitive ability to reach out to help a fellow being faced with a problem. In their final term at NDA, Akshay called to ask if he could bring a friend home for a night. He went on to explain how the friend from an economically backward family was stressed because his father was unable to repay a loan. The family was being harassed by the money lender and the young son, a cadet like Akshay, wanted to help his family. Girish gladly gave the money and we got to meet and admire the grit and determination of another young officer in the making. Needless to say, the young man returned the money once he got his officers commission.

It was while on a break home from NDA that Akshay and Sangeeta took their initial friendship (they had earlier met through common friends) a step ahead. They spent hours on the phone late at night and Akshay began to sport that slightly goofy smile that the ‘falling-in-love’ types are famous for! While I wasnt really privy to details of their relationship at that stage, like most mothers, I could sense my son was happier than he had previously been in other ‘crushes’.

As I come to the end of this part of Akshay’s story, flashback is merging with fast-forward. Recollections bring me to the ‘Hut of Remembrance’ in NDA. I remember Akshay telling me that the cadets themselves had built the revered memorial in the mid 1950s to honour the sacrifices of NDA alumni who laid down their lives in service of the motherland. The prayer when the Academy assembles to pay homage to the martyrs says “Merciful God, we earnestly pray, that those of us who are yet to be tested and shaped in the forge of the battle, may, when the call comes, be capable of the same devotion, courage and determination, in the service of our country, as those of our comrades – at – arms, whom we remember today, in this Hut of Remembrance. Let their noble example guide us to emulate them in their integrity and may their inspiration help us in the moments of our greatest peril to triumph over our shortcomings and weaknesses”.

The names of 2/Lt Arun Khetarpal and Capt Manoj Kumar Pandey are legendary and Akshay would speak about their astonishing bravery and their gallantry awards. On a recent course re-union at the NDA, my brother Hari and friend Geetanjali sent us some images.  The name of our son, ‘Major Akshay Girish – 51 Engineers’ is already enshrined in the sublime memorial.

If only he could see his name in his alma mater’s Hut of Remembrance, that wonderful smile of satisfaction would light up Akshay’s face. I can picture that smile through blurry eyes.

Reflections from Loss

Major Akshay Girish – Son, Hero, Martyr

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PART ONE

His Story; My Way

If a million questions were thrown at me for a mammoth memory test today, I would get the perfect score, so long as the subject is ‘Akshay Girish’.

I know my post said Akshay’s story would start with his birth but as I get down to writing this, my thoughts take me further down memory lane- to the time I was pregnant with our first child. It was 1985 and Girish and I were in Gorakhpur – a fairly large, typically backward Uttar Pradesh town bordering Nepal, and also an IAF base for new fighter squadrons.

The pregnancy had been a difficult one from day one. In my 6th month, after I was very ill with an un-diagnosed fever for over a month, haemoglobin had dropped to 6 gm and foetal heart was weak. The doctors, Girish and my parents had me shifted from Gorakhpur to Bangalore for further investigations and treatment.  At the Command Hospital in Bangalore, I started responding well to antibiotics. An ultrasound in my third trimester shocked us. I was carrying twins – something I didn’t know for 7 months! The Gynecologist patiently explained to me that I had to be immediately hospitalized for the reminder of my pregnancy because of PIH (pregnancy induced hypertension) and possible foetal distress. Inadequate blood supply was affecting the growth of one baby more than the other.

I had the best round-the-clock care in the Command hospital with foetal heart being monitored every 4 hours. When Dr. Dey told me that waiting for the full term would endanger the life of my baby, I asked no questions and reposed my complete trust in his judgement. He decided to terminate the pregnancy at 35 weeks and Neha and Akshay were safely delivered via a C Section on 6th Dec 1985 at around 8am.

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Having arrived a month early, both were low birth weight. However, the pediatrician designated Akshay (at just 1.7Kg) a ‘high-risk’ baby. Not only did he take long to cry at birth, he had no suck-and-swallow reflex, very red and delicate skin that kept peeling for weeks, barely any flesh covering his ribcage with extended gaps between the bones of his skull plates (fontanels’ –both anterior and posterior). Since he couldn’t be breastfed, the nurses used a nasal tube to feed Akshay while in hospital. By the time the three of us were finally allowed to leave for my parents home, I had spent 40 days in hospital. The nurses had taught me the art of expressing breast milk into a bottle fitted with a large-holed nipple. It took an hour to make sure that Akshay swallowed the 2 ounces of milk that slowly dropped into his mouth.

No one in the family had seen a baby as tiny as Akshay raja. He would be warmly bundled up and placed on the bed where he lay quietly for hours, his huge eyes mostly glued to the ceiling. He didn’t respond to us with baby noises, or smile to himself the way his twin did. He didn’t cry for milk and when we force-fed him, his regular diarrhea got worse because the digestive tract was so delicate. In 40 days, he hadn’t gained any weight and my mother, seeing me very distressed after the Pediatrician hinted at ‘developmental problems’, tuned in to Lord Balaji for Akshay’s well-being.

We also consulted a second Pediatrician at St. John’s Hospital. He, after stripping off every shred of cloth covering our skin and bone infant, took his time for a thorough examination and reassured us that Akshay was a normal infant. He gave me simple tips on how to feed and care for a low-birth weight and pre-term baby and told me to rely on my parental instincts when in doubt. He was like a Godsend and we were all very grateful for his calm reassurances.

Over the next two weeks, Akshay turned the corner and in just another month, our quiet little ‘Vivekananda-like’ baby metamorphosed into a noisy, attention loving, wanting-to-be- constantly-carried and spoken-to kind of infant. He was yelling for his milk, sucking hard at the bottle and gaining weight. Although his developmental milestones (turning over, sitting and crawling) were rather delayed in comparison with Neha, he became very playful and finally looked as cute as she did!

Just as our family began to relax and enjoy the twins as they reached out to each other and played in delightful-to-watch ways, Akshay, became ill with high fever and respiratory problems. He was diagnosed with broncho-pneumonia at five and half months and we were told his immune system was weak. Fortunately, he responded well to antibiotics and by 7 and half months, he was crawling around, following his sister and trying his best to catch up with her.

Akshay had started showing us his ‘I never-give-up’ fighting qualities.

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Connected By Loss: Some Thoughts on Leadership

What Qualities Define a Leader?

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Today, for the first time ever, Naina went to nursery school in uniform. She looked adorable in her bright blue pinafore over a  white and blue pinstripe shirt, socks and black school shoes. Last night Sangeeta was talking about how excited Akshay would have been, and how we would all have been treated to Nainu’s smiling pictures on the family whatsapp. When I see Naina in the morning,  am instantly transported to Akshay-Neha’s first day at school. The image was so bright, it seemed as if they were Naina’s age just a few years ago! I tell Naina, ‘you know Nainu, when your papa was small like you, he couldn’t say uniform…he would call it ‘niniform’. She smiles cutely, her eyes lighting up with amusement.  Almost immediately, she repeats the sentence to Sangy and Birendar bhaiya(our gardener),  exactly as I had spoken, but replaces the words ‘your papa’ with ‘Akshay’. We all smile and chat about her clear understanding of relationships. Life goes on, as it must.

Two weeks ago, Student volunteers from PES-IT (a well-known engineering college in Bengaluru) invited us, as a ‘martyr family’, to a 3 day event in honour of Akshay and nine other martyrs. Organized by students and encouraged by the institution, ‘Samarpana’ has been an annual event to felicitate families of soldiers who have made the supreme sacrifice for their country. As I sat with a young volunteer who was being very sweet in keeping me company, we exchanged the usual pleasantries. In response to her ‘we are honoured to have you here’, I asked her about her course, hostel facilities, food and so on. As I was admiring the bright ventilated building space that was also green and well maintained, she asked a very simple question. ‘What do your children do ….how many children do you have…? Caught off guard, I tried answering…. and failed miserably.

Although I felt terrible for the young girl who kept saying ‘I am so sorry….you were in a good mood when you came and I did this to you….’, I could not rein in my tears for many minutes. Then, with great effort, I managed to regain composure and reassure her that it wasn’t her fault in any way. That this has been happening to me very often, actually almost every day….

Once home after the honour ceremony, I did look for answers on ‘how to cope with sudden breakdown’ and the internet gave me an explanation that said: “It’s so curious: one can resist tears and ‘behave’ very well in the hardest hours of grief. But then someone makes you a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer… and everything collapses.” — Colette, the French writer, identified “triggers” as skillfully as a modern-day psychologist and she is right. Human emotion is strongly linked to memory. And memory cannot be schooled or programmed selectively to trigger only joy.

In the recent news headlines on TV and print, we have been bombarded with ‘breaking news’ on ‘elections’ and ‘the security situation in Kashmir’.  In the social media, I happen to see a disturbing video. A young officer obviously hit by bullets has fallen to the ground. Flat on his back, surrounded by forest foliage, even as he is probably dying, conscious of his duty and responsibility, he is talking to the men under his command. What strikes hardest is his composure despite being grievously injured; issuing clear orders on what the other soldiers should do next. The conversation in Hindi goes like this:

Injured Officer: make sure every injured soldier gets first aid. Then get yourselves out safely. Get every man out. Tell the headquarters they have to immediately send help. There is no shortage of ammunition- keep firing single shots to keep the enemy engaged. Do not move ahead and make sure there is no panic or cross firing. Tell Delta one…’ at this stage he pauses and his voice becomes feeble as he continues, ‘that the command is now in his hands’. The voices of a few concerned soldiers are heard comforting the officer with, ‘yes Sir. Please don’t speak any more now. Don’t worry. We will make sure we take our injured out with us’.

Yet the injured young officer, probably realizing time is short continues talking to his men; ‘And if you hear a helicopter, light a small fire so they see the smoke and land. Then shift the injured.

The video ends with the voice of a soldier once again pleading with the officer, ‘…Sir don’t speak anymore…don’t worry at all…’ and then someone else is heard saying ‘…it is getting very late …..’.  My heart stopped at the possibility of what may have happened next. Did it become too late? Or did the injured officer and soldiers make it out alive?

I try to push away the painful stab in the stomach but it returns faithfully every day. The same words continue to ring in the ears. ‘I am sorry to tell you maam, that we have lost Major Akshay.’

Who are these young men who in the face of death, consciously place the safety of others uppermost? Why do they make sure they do their duty and fulfill their responsibilities at any cost? While bleeding and in obvious trauma, how do they stay calm….and positive….thinking only about getting their colleagues out safely? Not a mention of their own pain….not a word about missing their families…no trace of selfishness….. fear kept under tight control…..these young people don’t even belong to  that state and yet, they are out there, defending us as best as they can.

Why are our family members hurt and killed in Kashmir? Is the army responsible for the mess that the state of J&K is in? The army has been called in by the government because their so called leaders have failed to do what they have been elected for. For decades, they have failed us all. While they have lived with power, prestige and luxury, they have taken no responsibility for the seething discontent in the valley. They have ‘governed’ so poorly and passed the buck to such an extent, that the situation has now come to this. Do these political masters have anyone from their family in the army? Or even a son or daughter among those pelting stones at the security forces? No wonder lives lost mean little to them. They and their families are always safe, thanks to the security provided to them. What they have ‘succeeded’ in doing very effectively is to shift the blame for their failures on to our soldiers who die defending them. Loud voices siding with separatists and terrorists also find favour with most of our TV news channels as they, day in and day out, debate  ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’.

On the other hand, one among the brave young soldier-leaders who took pride in serving our nation and our people, was our adorable son Akshay. Sangeeta’s beloved husband, Neha’s ‘best ever’ brother, Naina’s ‘hero’ father, the apple of his grandparents ageing eyes, the ‘bro’ admired by his cousins and Pradish, Beena and Ravindrans ‘second son’, and everyone’s ever-smiling, happy-to-help, always-there-for-you friend. He is no longer around for any of us because he believed protecting co-citizens was his responsibility. No cost was too high. He made us very proud. We hope he somehow knows we have taken strength from him and will do the best we can whenever called upon to do so.

I look up at Akshay’s pictures on our walls and my eyes play their tricks, bringing him back to life. There he is smiling at me…eyes twinkling….no trace of the anguish we are all going through without him. Soldiers are painted as strong and powerful and yet, what I recollect is how gentle and caring Akshay would be with all of us. How he never let me and Girish carry a heavy bag; how he would slow down his scooter when Neha said speed scared her; how his eyes followed Sangeeta, waiting to see her smile; how he held little Naina, like she was a delicate flower……. Akshay’s gentleness extended even to those he did not personally know. Once, when a drunk stranger tried to break into our home late at night, all Akshay did was firmly push the young man out, believing he had lost his way and meant no harm.  When a bus banged into his new car, not only was he polite to the bus-driver, he agreed not to register a police case because the driver would lose his new job. Criticizing, hitting, accusing…. or throwing stones and running away, was never part of Akshay’s way of life.

The TV is on even as I write this piece. The image of a young man tied to an army jeep in the Kashmir valley  is being aired again and again. We are told a young officer did so to ensure safe passage of security personnel and election duty staff who were surrounded by a dangerous mob of hundreds of stone pelters. While political leaders can get away with acts like hitting an airline employee 25 times with a ‘chappal’, fight dirty to usurp a dead CM’s ‘legacy’, steal, cheat and even commit rape and murder without being held accountable, this young officers’ timely action to save lives is ‘unacceptable’! Doesn’t ‘The End Justifies the Means’ philosophy hold good in this case? What did the young commander do to be berated in this manner?  With little time to spare and limited resources on hand, he did his duty. He did not shun his responsibility when called upon to protect a group of pro-government citizens from hundreds of stone pelters positioned to maim and kill.

Didn’t we see earlier videos of such stone pelters shielding terrorists and preventing the evacuation of injured soldiers? Didn’t we read about how terrorists got away and an officer and two jawans died because ‘misguided youth’ did not allow them to be taken to hospital? Thanks to the outcry over ‘excessive use of force’, the anti-nationals now know they can heckle armed CRPF men without fear of retaliation. This must stop. We ordinary citizens have a duty too. We must at the very least make our voices heard over the din if we believe we should support our soldiers. Our braves need the backing of an entire nation to keep India safe.

In doing what he did, the young officer saved many lives on both sides of the divide. Isn’t that what we as a nation want? Although an enquiry has been ordered ‘against the QRT Commander’, I was glad to see the Attorney General of India (Mukul Rohtangi) give the officer a pat on the back for doing what he did under the circumstances. In my personal opinion, for whatever it is worth, the officer should be awarded for exceptional leadership because his ‘out of the box solution’ and quick action successfully saved trapped co-citizens while preventing collateral damage. Maybe, just maybe there is still time for the likes of Omar, Mehbooba, Digvijay, Arvind, Yechury, Yedyurappa etc. to try and improve their own ‘leadership qualities?’

Akshay is now openly smiling his approval. I smile at the thought of him smiling.

In seeking to learn more, I found these unusual quotes. We will be happy to read some of your favorite ones as well.

Quotes on Leadership

Leadership is not about the next election, it’s about the next generation.

Simon Sinek

Leadership is not about a title or a designation. It’s about impact, influence and inspiration. Impact involves getting results, influence is about spreading the passion you have for your work, and you have to inspire team-mates and customers.

Robin S. Sharma

A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.

John C. Maxwell

Only the guy who isn’t rowing has time to rock the boat.

Jean-Paul Sartre

A good leader takes a little more than his share of the blame, a little less than his share of the credit.

Arnold H. Glasow

If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.

John Quincy Adams

(Source: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/topics/topic_leadership.html)

As always, we as a family draw hope and strength from Akshay’s extraordinary life and we are very grateful to all of you for being with us.

Please do post your comments. Thank you.

Jai Hind.

P.S. It is painful and frustrating to see that no acceptable solutions to the Kashmir problem have been put forth by the powers that govern our country and the state of J&K. Individuals like Major Gaurav Arya have given their opinion on a comprehensive way forward. Do read and react to THE IRON IN OUR SOUL April 13, 2017 on: https://majorgauravarya.wordpress.com/2017/04/13/the-iron-in-our-soul/

To see the video on the bond between a young injured officer and his men, go to: https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=%E2%80%AA%23%E2%80%8EGenerallySaying%E2%80%AC

Connected by Loss: Can we live better?

Rights, responsibilities and more….a mother’s musings.

Four months Akshay…… we have coped raja…without a single ‘real’ channel of communication with you. If constant thoughts, dreams and silent conversations are considered ‘acceptable means of communication’, then of course, our channels have been hyperactive- haven’t they?! Know you will be proud of how we have managed so far. Takes me back to more thoughts…whenever I was stressed, you always knew and prodded….and when I shared those worries or fears, you always soothed me….it came so easily to you- to reach out and help anyone who was troubled anytime. In one particular conversation you said, ‘don’t worry mumma…. ….sab theek ho jayega….aap ek do din bad dekh lena…mujhe pata hai…..koi aisa problem nahin jo aap log handle nahin kar sakte…. motivate kar ke dekho…and you are strong…papa is strong….

Since 29th November 2016, we have been mustering not just our strength, but seeking strength from you too. None of us is as strong as you were raja- you showed us that quiet… kind… more mental than physical strength…..right since the day you were born…….and it stayed with you till the day you were forced to take that last breath among earthlings. When concerned folks call us to ask ‘how are you all’, we usually say ‘doing ok’. Yes, life goes on …as it must. Apart from accepting what is beyond our ability to change, also getting to realize how important it is to become more spiritual. To understand that keeping faith also means not questioning the almighty/the universe/the unseen power. Many questions have no clear answers anyway.

We keep getting invited to functions and events in your honour Akshay. Know that will make you smile in absolute glee….! I can picture that wonderful smile and twinkling eyes, the slight blush on those cute cheeks….and you saying ‘dekha…sab aapke bete ke baare mein kitne wonderful baatein kar rahen hain…khush toh mein hoon hi…..aap ka beta star ban gaya mumma! And you know what raja…. Satwik sent us a picture of his tattoo with a note that said: ‘Excited and emotional but thrilled to share my tattoo of our hero, Akshay’s signature! This is taken from a picture of Akshay’s notes: “Do it Akshay.” I love it dearly, live by it; and it will continue to give me good josh! Also, the act of scribbling self motivating autographs makes wonder if he was already rehearsing for the hero’s role.

Akshay, you are truly our biggest hero and brightest STAR.  Even your signature had a star and I noticed it only recently sweetheart…its just that now you are right up there…with all the other stars…and we still need time to get used to not being able to have you in our midst, in our home…in our arms.

Just yesterday Capt Tushar Mahajan’s father called from Udhampur…two parents connected over their beta’s. He said something so very important. ‘Woh jo kar gaye, hum toh kar nahi sakte. Lekin jo bhi humse ho sakega, hum bhi karenge. Apna farz nibhayenge’.

Those words took me on a chain of thought. While life is all about living…and there are so many ways to live…. how do we live better? This question was also in my last blog post and I did get many suggestions. Many of you asked me to keep writing…sharing thoughts and ‘inspiring the young’. For whatever my thoughts are worth, here is my take on ‘leaders and masqueraders.’

We live in the world’s largest democracy and as all our news channels remind us on a daily basis, our country guarantees freedom of speech and expression as a fundamental right. Does that really mean we make heroes of people, who by their ability to debate and influence, create a one sided narrative to support a divisive agenda? While millions of our  people who are engaged in passionate efforts of nation building are overlooked or under-appreciated, we have these ‘hijackers’ get prime time coverage, support from political parties, money without work and a fan following that is scary to say the least.

Politics in universities is more important than education it seems. So we have these young ‘leaders’ who continue to be ‘students’ at 30 plus with state support and without having contributed meaningfully at any level despite opportunity. instead of hard work and effort to complete their PhD on chosen topics, they have the ‘freedom’ to choose to organize and attend events on contentious issues like ‘Kashmir ki azadi and Bharat ki barbaadi’. And when confronted, either go underground or cunningly change their tune to ‘we are fighting for bhukmari se azadi, samantvaad se azadi ..etc etc. When they don’t have the courage to own up and stand by what they say and what they mean, can they ever be trusted? And for months and years, we have to put up with political drama played through these impersonators in student leader shoes.

Thousands of other young people who have leadership qualities backed by knowledge and skills in different fields, plus integrity and love for our country, and who can do so much for our people, sadly find no space in social and national discourse.

I would like to see more positive stories in the media. I don’t care what KK and UK are doing or not doing. The thought of their ilk leading the country in the near future, is to me a scary prospect.

Which brings me back to Akshay and his ilk who always put our country and people first. He and so many bright young people out there, who live their dreams and strive to make our country better, deserve much more appreciation and support. I would like to see more positive stories of young achievers to motivate and inspire our impressionable children. Innovators among farmers, doctors, teachers…caring activists and social workers, paramedics, lawyers…..entrepreneurs and businessmen with a heart to help through job creation and wealth distribution……brave soldiers who protect us without question and kind law enforcement authorities…..so many fields, so many good people.  To help our children choose a path towards progress in myriad fields, we need the best amongst us to be visible. What we do not want is a narrative to instigate young stone pelters to protect terrorists and have our braves defend us at the cost of their lives.

To live better, we must choose right. We must take a stand. We can either be a nation of cribbers- always finding fault and forever pointing fingers, or we can put in our best and encourage others to do their best. Duty and responsibility go hand in hand with freedom and rights.

We have lost Akshay but we are not willing to lose hope. We have no answers to many questions that trouble us and yet our faith is strong. We will do our best to be even better human beings and citizens. Jai Hind.

Connected by Loss: Can we Live Better?

Akshay’s Thoughts and More…..a Mothers Musings

100 days without Akshay in the physical realm. Feels like….. I don’t know what…….unable to find the ‘right’ words to express emotions that overwhelm me when I think about our loss…..  despair and emptiness…. heartache and torment……

Driving into the city and alone in a cab, I try to focus at what I can see through the window- so much construction destroying the city, a little kid holding on to his dad on a scooter, pedestrians looking for a break in traffic flow to cross the road and traffic snarls at every junction. Despite attempts, I didn’t really succeed at distracting myself for long. Akshay’s thoughts just push themselves in…interspersed with his ever so bright images.

Did he know….?

Did he send us that single whatsapp message to prepare us for the worst …?

Did he see our responses of ‘love you’ ….?

Did he feel terrible pain for long….?

Did he have time for thoughts….?

Did he want to reach out to us but couldn’t…?

Did he know how many people he helped save…?

What were his last thoughts…?

There are many more such questions in our minds and hearts although we don’t voice them too often. As his mother, my most painful one is

Did I somehow fail to protect my child……?’

Once again, the meltdown happens…..Terribly embarrassed at glances from passers-by at traffic signals and the cab driver in the rear view mirror, I struggle to wipe my messy tears….scrubbing my face with my dupatta. Then, to stop crying and compose myself, I focus on recollecting responses to Akshay’s Story, My Way.

Harsh Vishwanathan said Thank you for beautifully writing and conveying this story. This is important because the media does not convey these stories with such fineness and depth. It really stirs up emotions as it inspires as we read along. These are our true heroes and their story must be passed on to future generations to inspire them. It’s a coincidence that I’m reading this on Shivaratri – a night when cosmic energy is given to earth bountifully. I hope and pray that Lord Sadashiva will bless you with patience and good memories…. to remember that after all Maj Akshay has just left the body and maybe he is already reborn somewhere. May the Lord bless and infuse into Maj Akshay’s memory the power to transform our nation in general and our youth in particular, by directing their creative energies and efforts into a truly meaningful life.

Sudeep Hegde recollected his association with Akshay through Neha and wrote: His martyrdom has moved me deeply. As a teenager, I sometimes used to fancy myself as a soldier or a fighter pilot, specially after watching movies with such roles. Then I would see Akshay already on that path – and so clear and focused about it. I often came away feeling a bit awed, and wishing I had the same clarity and commitment. A few years later I met him at a small reunion of Kumaranites, while he had come home on leave from his assignment in a north-eastern conflict zone. I asked him if he ever felt scared facing militants. With a cool smile and a finality to it, he said “they (the militants) should be scared”. That line and his expression have stayed with me and I’ve played it in my mind many times over the years, especially whenever I hear news about our soldiers fighting.

Akshay’s convictions, actions and his smile came from the deepest part of his being, his soul. That’s why I can only picture his soul still smiling, having lived a life true to his heart and with no fear, till the very end. That is a quality we can all look to emulate. Aunty, thank you for sharing Akshay’s story your way – I think we all needed it, including those who’ve never met him, because we have all felt an inexplicable connection. It is as if Akshay was already a part of us, and we only fully realized it after he left our mortal world. In the same way we feel connected to you and the family, and your blog has brought a semblance of closure and peace for us as we share in your grief.

Lokesh Sharma wrote about Akshay being blessed at Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar (he had no intention of visiting the Golden Temple and yet, it seems like he was there just before reaching Nagrota). Quoting Deh Shiva bar Mohe -a 17th-century hymn (shabad) written by Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru, in the Dasam Granth, he translated it for us as:

The physical body (deh) is analogous to mythological superpowers such as those possessed by Siva in folk tales, therefore I should not fear when committing myself to good deeds. That I shall not fear when I go into combat. And with determination I will be victorious. That I may teach myself this creed alone, to speak only of Thy (almighty lord Waheguru) praises. And when the last days of my life come, I may die in the might of the lord.

Anant Singh wrote: Aunty, had been desperately waiting for this last one. Thank you so much for letting us know the facts. I have no ways to express my grief as this incident had taken away a wonderful human being who always had a smile and did good for all. Nevertheless a great friend. We miss you Akshay! And from somewhere up above, he is always looking at us. The real stars always shine up in the sky.

Kpm Das said: Something told me the last piece would read like this. Deeply stirring and emotional- Akshay, Kunal and Chittranjan represent the finest of this Army and also reflect the great family traditions which birth to such immortals. In the midst of great sorrow, slivers of hope and optimism from the narratives of your visit to the North East and in those bonds will grow the immortals of tomorrow………………..

Sarita Deshpande said: It was a difficult reading – both because I was re-living his life and that I had to wipe away the tears so that I could continue. I firmly believe that Akshay came into our lives to teach us something and with his work complete he has gone somewhere where he is needed – more than we need him here. Its time for us to do our bit. Learn from his life. It is said that time heals – but does that mean we forget? No. Akshay, you will always be around us and integral part of all the happenings here, giving us strength, helpful tips, PJs and ‘I told you so’ and the ability to look at life positively. Love you Akshay!

Ankita said: For over 24 hours now, have been constantly thinking, about how your family found the specs after two long months and it is difficult to digest that the universe really has its way of speaking to us! It is magical. I hope you continue to hear him call you, you decipher all the dreams, recognizes the places he scribbles on your hands and you wake up and plan to go. May there be endless conversations and depth over distance! The post is over too soon, just like the journey. But just like he wanted, the story was told and received with so much pride !! Thank you for sharing with us the story reminding all of us to live better! In his sacrifice, he gifted all of us a chance. A chance to live all the dreams that he bravely traded to guard ours!

So many more reached out to us. You stood with our family – by your presence, words, letters, pictures……and we have derived a lot of comfort and strength from you all.

We know our lives have been changed forever and we will miss Akshay eternally. Yet, even in his going, he has connected us as only he could! This ‘connect’ has strengthened old ties and forged new bonds for each of us. Suma, like a younger sister (or older daughter?), you made it a point to come all the way from USA for Akshay’s prayer meet.  Leaving your young son with his dad…and we are not even related! Praveen and Dpk, we barely knew you and now you are part of our extended family. And Sindhu- we live in different countries and have never ever met- yet, we chat like kindred souls every other day!

Many more ties and relationships make me wonder at what are life’s ways…or God’s ways…and how do we find our own way from here on?

For someone who is a believer in the almighty but a fence sitter on abstract ideas like ‘souls’, ‘miracles’ ‘rebirth’ and so on, I have to admit that Akshay’s presence continues to be ‘felt’. Sangeeta, in the initial weeks after Akshay, often spoke of feeling his energy, as if holding her and supporting her. More recently, her dream theme has Akshay back after the ‘incident’, explaining what he went through to others. Girish and Neha have also had dreams of long conversations with Akshay – in a car, on a journey. My father says he spends a lot of time talking with Akshay. In my dreams I see him smiling and chatting – the central figure in groups of people.

One very ‘real’ dream brought him into our bedroom at about 4.45 am. He walked in wearing a blue-grey night-suit (Girish had bought him one long ago), sat on my bed while I sat propped against a pillow, legs folded at knees. Giving my folded knees a hug, Akshay smiled at me. I woke up and switched on the light…almost expecting to see Akshay. It was of course just a dream. Took me a  while to get back to sleep. Strangely though, after a long time, slept  most peacefully – until Neha woke me up well past eight o clock.

In all the dreams we have had and spoken about so far, Akshay has been his lively, cheerful, smiling self. Knowing he was shot and battered by a grenade …. and seeing him in that state…… isn’t it strange that none of us is dreaming about him suffering? Thinking of the pain he must have borne-YES. But dreaming of him being in pain- NO. Not sure if there is a way to correctly interpret dreams but Akshay’s positive energy seems active.

I didn’t really know what I could write about after completing Akshay’s story. Yet, here I am. Scanning my laptop to look for Akshay’s articles- one forwarded by his friend and colleague Amit. I remember Akshay had penned parts of his own story about 6 years ago and shown me what he wrote. And I know Akshay will be happy to know you are reading excerpts from his ‘Regimental Dreams’.

Somebody asked, “What are the dreams you get while asleep”. A straight forward reply was “Dreams are not those you get while you’re asleep….dreams are those that don’t let you sleep.”

Such were my dreams since a young boy of maybe 6-7 years. Dreaming of the mountains of Kashmir, learning from and staying on the frontiers, witnessing action… and high morale….always………

To me, Fauj never came across as a job…….……………………..it was always a calling.

Before joining the Academy, facing apprehensive uncles and aunts had become a habit. Explaining what I felt and getting them to understand seemed an uphill task. Thankfully, my parents, sister and grandparents understood my dreams (my kind of dreams).

Dealing with fever and hospitalization (Jaundice) while writing my NDA exam made my path towards the portals of “Cradle of military Leadership” even more exciting! Three years of ‘ragda’, sleeping in class and endless nights…. Then one more tough and exciting year at IMA…. Finally……after four years of being an infantry optee……I chose Engineers. (I still don’t exactly know why)…

A brief stint at Roorkee where we got our first whiff of freedom and then my first posting to my unit- 51 Engineers, at Nagaland, was beyond what I had asked for. I was finally at a place I deemed MINE………

My first Holi in the unit (which I can never forget) and those Chais (numerous numbers everyday) in the Langar(soldiers’ dining space) which tasted as sweet as love itself……everything is so vivid in my memory.

After Chakbama, Limakong, Moltuk and several such places, it was finally time for Chandigarh. Packing with the unit and the joy of travelling on the military special train…. Buying my first car (Swift – it really is) and driving through the empty roads in an endless moonlit night of Chandigarh….

All my dreams were coming true, slowly and surely….even more so as the unit moved to Niyari (Kupwara), all that I had visualized lay in front of me. The majestic mountains, chirping birds, snow gleaming white, transparent streams, the pleasure of living on a post (Bhatija) in 20 RR, climbing unsurpassed heights (Eagle OP, Camel), the opportunity to live like a Tiger (as a Lt)….it was all happening.       

Then all of a sudden, I witnessed death from close quarters while moving in our CO’s QRT at Tangdhar….on first thought….was it an IED blast? Crying villagers engulfed by a pool of blood. We wasted no time, rescued the civilians climbing down treacherous slopes, finding the strength to lift and move people away from sure death. Not many made it to the hospital which was two hours away…some passed away in our arms. Still, the feeling of saving lives was unmatched. Relatives coming up to us…. with no words to thank for having done our duty…. images will always be etched in my memory.

The opportunity of seeing the josh, vigour and courage in men to work endless days and nights, in hostile terrain, in rain and snow, with no food or tea to keep warm, and finish a job as committed, for absolutely no incentive, instills the faith that there is still a world out there where self-respect matters most.

With all this and more that I will be experiencing, it all boils down to my Regiment that has given me so much more than money, material or a   9 to 5 job can….

It’s given me the dreams I always saw, the one’s that didn’t let me sleep. And I’m glad I followed them…..

By Capt Akshay Girish

My thoughts turn to more questions on Akshay.

How did Akshay stay steadfast on his childhood dreams….?

In a complex, confused world, from where did he derive his focus…?

How did he grow up to be so calm, so clear in his expression, so cheerful and helpful …?

How did he achieve so much and give so much…?

Did he know he could live his dreams…?

Once again, I seek your thoughts, ideas, maybe actions…How can we take from such real life stories and live better?

I look forward to your responses. Every idea is of value to me so please do post your thoughts.

Love and take care. Stay blessed.

Major Akshay Girish: Son, Hero, Martyr

Even as I sit down to pen the final part of this true life story on our martyred son Akshay, we are pained that every other day, our precious soldiers are having to continue laying down their lives, protecting us. The terrible truth is that some local separatist mobs in certain districts of Kashmir have been obstructing anti-terror operations, pelting stones at our soldiers, helping terrorists escape, and worse, have even tried to stop the evacuation of injured soldiers.  The army had been told to show restraint and not hit back at ‘civilians’. As a result, one more officer (Major Satish Dahiya) and three soldiers went back to their homes and grieving families in wooden boxes draped with the tricolor. While saluting the sacrifice of the martyrs, it seems the time has come for us to take a firm stand. Should we value the lives of our protectors or value those who want to kill us and destroy our motherland?

The past two weeks have been hectic – travel, very emotional meetings, many more visitors and nostalgic conversations, and importantly, recognition and honour for Akshay’s bravery and sacrifice under circumstances that most of us cannot even visualize.

Girish and I made the promised journey to a rather small and remote village beyond Agartala in Tripura (Thanks to help from the army unit there and Capt Avinash who accompanied us), to meet with Naik Chittaranjan Debbrama’s family. We knew communication would be difficult due to lack of a common language but we needed no language to connect! The moment I stepped towards his beautiful young wife Namita, she broke down, sobbing her heart out for a long time, while I held her close, trying to calm her. Chittaranjan’s frail father’s body heaved as silent sobs shook his chest, when Girish gave him a hug. His mother, grief written all over her face, wiped tears that managed to escape her eyes, as she fought to stay composed. The little ones (home from the Boarding school they study in), 12 year old daughter Inlet and 7 year old son Kaplai looked a little confused initially.  It was another soldier from Akshay’s unit and young Inlet who helped interpret what both sides spoke.  Inlet inspired us by her composure and pride in her father when she recalled his words telling us ‘I know my father was very brave. He would tell me work hard and you can be whatever you want to – engineer, doctor, teacher…’ His brothers, sisters and their families were there as were Namita’s parents and we were touched- they all wanted to meet us. We were hosted graciously, shown Chittaranjan’s grave (Girish Saluted the braveheart) and told that the Tripura Government had promised Namita a job, a memorial for Chittaranjan and a road and school will be named after the valiant warrior. The family crowded around us as we told them about Akshay, Sangeeta and Naina, our family trip to the ‘Karma bhoomi’ and our plans to stay strong despite sorrow of loss. We told them they now have an extended family in us and that the children could possibly consider college education in Bengaluru. Inlet took down our contact details. I think we came away feeling happy that we went. It was nice to see Namita and his parents composed and smiling as they waved us goodbye.

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In a very well organized award ceremony in Mysuru, Rotary Midtown honoured Akshay with the ‘Sainik Desh Ratna Award’. Instituted from this year, Akshay was chosen as the first recipient of this award and Girish was called upon to accept it. Girish, Sangeeta, Naina and I attended along with Col Deswal (Akshay’s first CO), Jamuna and Pradish’s father Mr. Gopalakrishna. The hall was full and while Mr. Bhaskar, Mr. Rakesh and Mr. Aiyanna spoke in praise of soldiers and the Indian Defence Services, Girish spoke on the Nagrota incident. When Akshay’s citation was read out, I failed to stop my tears. The Rotarians have ambitious plans to promote awareness among students in Karnataka and encourage them to aspire for a career in the Army, Navy, Air force and Paramilitary Forces.  A noble though indeed, for our country today is increasingly being threatened, and needs brave sons and daughters to defend and protect it. A generous cheque accompanied the award and we will be donating this money for a good cause. We thank Rotary Club for honouring Akshay. We were touched by all those who attended, asked questions, expressed solidarity with the cause and our family, and blessed Naina.

Every night, as I get into bed, my thoughts continue to be filled with Akshay’s sweet, smiling face, his words, his pranks, his love and concern, his laughter. I often dream of him but no dreams so far have been on what he went through that fateful day.  Those painful thoughts come only when I am wide awake. ‘How long did he lay bleeding, in pain after being hit? Could he have been saved? Did he try to reach out to us but couldn’t because his phone was smashed and burnt? Did he have to suffer a lot or did God grant him a quick death?’

As we come to the end of this series on Akshay, I know that somehow, through my blog, or on phone, or visits, or through other means, our connection with each one of you will continue. It is with very mixed feelings that I bring to you the end of Akshay’s Story, My Way.

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FINAL PART (THIRTEEN)

We were all set to be reunited as a family on 1st December 2016 and on 25th November, while piling up gifts bought for Naina, Sangeeta and Akshay, I sent a whatsapp message saying ‘waiting eagerly to see you all in Mumbai. Especially Akshay- its been so long’. The next two days, as Girish, Neha, Pradish and I made a quick one night dash to Pune to attend a family friends daughter’s wedding (Devina-Keith Say I Do), Akshay, Sangeeta and Naina went out with friends  to Zamindari Dhabha and 17 Mile,  ahead of Jammu, for a day of fun and good food. We exchanged happy family pictures of our outings on whatsapp. On 28th Akshay called in the morning and when I picked up Girish’s phone, he asked for ‘dad’. The two then went on to have a never ending conversation on ‘cars’ that lasted over 15 minutes! Akshay was planning to replace his red Fabia and wanted help from Girish to decide from his shortlist. Later the same evening, Sangeeta’s parents came home with gifts as well for us to pack and we had dinner together.

That was the last phone call from Akshay to one of us back home and Girish was the chosen one.

On the dawn of 29th November, that fateful, tragic day, Girish left to do an early morning flight. When Sangeeta’s first whasapp message reached us on ‘family’ it was a bolt out of the blue. ‘Please see news…Attack in Nagrota, she said. Oh no…what happened…all ok? Was Neha’s instant response. Outside our mess location….Akshay is out. We are all in the rooms….dont know whats happening. I came into the conversation with ‘OMG!’ Turning on the television, I continued- ‘Watching it on India today…. started at 5.45am. No other details yet’. Neha continued ‘Sangy, can you hear firing….? Yes…very close. There was supposed to be a drill but firing started earlier’ she said. I added ‘Artillery regiment attacked…says news. Stay low with Naina, Sangy. Keep away from windows’. The conversation continued on these lines between Sangeeta, Neha and me. I was glued to TV news, switching between channels and messaging updates like ‘three terrorists supposedly holed up…..entered in police uniforms……etc. Neha, early on her way to work in the office cab was saying ‘not much news online yet….keep us updated ma… ‘ and Sangeeta was saying ‘Naina got up early with the loud sound ….all the officers are out…We have sentries outside the room’.

Suddenly, unexpectedly at 8.09 am, Akshay sent us this one message on the family group. ‘Im in the firefight..first round came at our vehicle…Im with my qrt firing…three casualty..

My heart sank. Sangeeta and Neha must have experienced the same emotion.

Neha was the first to respond to Akshay with ‘So sad….Stay focused Akshay….Love’

I followed with ‘Stay focused Akshay…Your training is all you need right now. Love you’

That was the last we ever heard from our beloved braveheart.

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The rest of the day is now a blur and yet it is all coming back to me as I write. Girish landed after his flight, saw the messages and responded with ‘Good luck Aks’. The four of us kept in constant touch with Sangeeta, updating what the news was reporting and asking ‘are you and Naina safe’, ‘is the firing still on’, and ‘did Akshay call?’ News channels had started reporting ‘Major Kunal and three soldiers have been martyred’. Saddened, yet pushing all fearful thoughts out of our minds, we tried to tell ourselves that Akshay was fine and we would hear from him soon. Girish and I also tried to distract ourselves by sticking to some errands we had committed to for the day but continued to follow TV news.  Meanwhile, Pradish and Neha decided they would come straight to our home after getting out early from their work spaces.

By 11.30am, I had started getting a ‘bad feeling’ and by 2.00 pm, increasingly restless, I had started blabbering to friend Lalita. I think I said things like ‘No one deserves anything bad to happen to them but life is unpredictable. What can happen to others can happen to us as well…we are in no way special…all human beings will experience  sorrow and joy etc.

At 2.03 pm, Girish sent a message on the family whatsapp:

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Off the family whatsapp, many calls and message were exchanged directly between Sangeeta and me all through that afternoon. Sangeeta, Naina and other families had been shifted out of their rooms to a safer area and Nainu had eaten, slept and woken up. There had been no news from Akshay and no one from the unit had heard from him either.

With each passing minute, not having heard from Akshay, we were individually pushing out fearful thoughts from our minds and trying to reassure each other and ourselves that Akshay would be fine and we would soon hear from him. 

When I could bear it no longer, I called Sangeeta at about 6.30 pm, hoping to get some good news. She did not pick up the call. Before I could try again, my phone rang. I grabbed at the phone, hope soaring seeing Sangeeta’s return call, but what I heard still makes my stomach contort into a tight, painful ball. I don’t think I will ever be able to get over Sangeeta’s wails of pain and absolute anguish as I heard her crying  ‘…ma…. we lost him ma…. Akshay…. Akshay…… Akshay……’ Then someone took the phone from her and said ‘Aunty, I am Shrishti’…I heard myself desperately asking ‘What is Sangeeta saying Shrishti…. Can I speak to Akshay’s CO please? I need to speak with him’. Col Prakash came on line and haltingly asked for ‘Major Akshay’s father’. My desperation rising, I told him ‘Akshay’s father is out on some work. Please tell me what has happened. I can take it.’ He confirmed the news ‘I am sorry to tell you maam that we have lost Akshay.’ Just before I broke down completely, I think I said, ‘Please take care of Sangeeta and Naina. We will come as soon as we can. Please look after Sangeeta.’

I put down the phone and went to pieces, howling like my world had ended. Was that my voice? Were those my howls? Those loud, hoarse horrible sounds- were they coming out of me?

Mamta and Birendar ran in from the garden.  I started making those dreadful calls to break the news to Girish, Neha-Pradish, my parents, brother…..By the time I called Col Ravindran, he had been informed and we were both crying as we spoke. I called Sangeeta again to tell her ‘be strong rani…we are coming to bring you home…..’and her cries of  ‘kab aaoge ma..’ broke my heart. Pradish was the first family member to get home to me and immediately started booking flight tickets for us to get to Jammu. Soon, Girish, Neha, my parents and aunt, Sarit and Deshu, Ritu and Sanjay, Lalita….everyone was home. I really cant remember if there were more.. …..our once happy  home was full of shocked, grieving people. As we left for the airport that night, we all knew our lives would never be the same again.

After that immeasurably painful trip to Jammu to receive Akshay’s mortal remains and bring Sangeeta and Naina home, our more recent trip to the ‘Karma Bhoomi’ has strangely helped us soothe very deep wounds. Interacting with so many people who witnessed the Nagrota attack or knew the details we sought – from members of Akshay’s quick reaction team to his CO, from the senior-most officers to the families that had got out alive, they all told us how valiantly our martyrs had fought. Right till their last breath. They gave their all to protect and defend. It was their immediate and effective response that had prevented a catastrophe from unfolding.

While many investigating teams have pieced together the sequence of events, I cannot claim this version to be absolutely accurate. Nevertheless, it has been put together by a civilian (me) as factually as possible, based on what we learned from people on the ground.

The attack had been meticulously planned well in advance and the heavily armed terrorists who had infiltrated from across the border had local support. They had been met and driven to a spot behind the long hill ridge the previous night. In the wee hours, the terrorists dressed in police uniforms walked about a kilometer along the wooded hill ridge to reach their chosen target at one end of the Nagrota cantonment. The specific area had housing for families of officers and other ranks, the Artillery Mess and guest rooms. The dark wintry night made it possible for the terrorists to scale the outer wall (there were trees along the wall and they had a rope ladder), cut the wired fence and shoot dead the lone sentry before he could raise an alarm. Almost at the same time, they entered a room just behind a residential block and shot dead three soldiers from the Rashtriya Rifles. The soldiers were on their way home after tenure in the valley and had barely woken up in their transit room when they were shot. The time was about 5.30 am. Three terrorists now entered the two buildings that housed 16 people – women, children, unarmed officers and men. While the families had locked their doors, the terrorists had the advantage of vantage positions with protective walls, free access to the corridors and staircases, cover behind water tanks and parapet walls on the roof. Armed to the teeth with AKs, grenades and rocket launchers, dry fruits, medicines, maps and so on, they had come prepared for a long haul.

Barely 200 meters away, officers and families from the neighbouring Engineers unit were rudely woken up by the loud blasts and gunfire. Naina was startled and Akshay who had gone into the bathroom to get ready for PT came out telling Sangeeta ‘this does not sound like a practice drill’. Quickly he changed into his combat uniform (as did other brother officers) and just before he left home, smilingly, he told Sangy ‘You must write about this one day’.

When he reached their workplace, his CO had summoned the QRT(Quick Reaction Team) and as soon as he saw Akshay, asked him to lead. While the QRT vehicle(a bullet proof van called ‘Casper’) quickly made its way to the location under attack, Maj Kunal (from the Artillery unit), who was rushing in on his bike, saw the Engineers QRT, stopped it and decided to join the team in their task.

The vehicle came under heavy fire from terrorists as it entered the area and bullets aimed directly at the driver and soldiers hit bullet proof glass. Realising the danger the inmates in the blocks were faced with, staying safe in the vehicle was not a choice they had.  In the dark, with bullets aimed at them, Major Kunal (who knew the layout around and within the buildings and the people trapped inside) said it was imperative they try to get a pregnant lady to safety immediately. Akshay sent Jung Saab with Kunal, deployed Chittaranjan on the LMG at a point opposite the main block and he with another buddy took positions to give cover.  Kunal and Jung Saab climbed up a drain pipe from behind the second block to the first floor room she was in, and they got her out the same way they had entered. Soon, the lady and her unborn baby were driven away to safety. It was when Kunal decided to come down the stairs at the other end of the block (he must have felt the need to check if others were in need of help), that he was hit by a bullet and fell to the ground. Seconds later, he managed to get up and run across the building’s edge and towards where his mates were. He was rushed into a vehicle and evacuated to the hospital. He said ‘don’t tell Uma- she will get upset. I am okay and will speak to her later from hospital.’ Sadly, he did not make the half hour journey as the bullet had pierced a vital organ.

As bullets continued to rain around, messages from an unarmed officer trapped inside with his wife and baby made it clear that the terrorists were banging on doors and it was just a matter of time when this hostage situation would lead to a massacre of innocents. Since the soldiers could not shoot indiscriminately into the blocks, or use heavy weapons for fear of killing our own trapped inside, Akshay decided they had to enter the blocks to try and save them, no matter what the consequences. Leading from the front, he made his way through the waist high undergrowth behind a block with his buddy following. As soon as he turned the corner of the block towards the staircase, he faced a burst of bullets from a hidden terrorist. The fiend, safe inside an unoccupied room on the ground floor had a direct view of the staircase and open space around it. Two bullets pierced Akshay (ordinary bullet proof jackets end at the waist and have gaps on the sides), and as he fell into the undergrowth, he must have tried to crawl for cover beside a protective wall. Realising that Akshay was moving away, the terrorist threw a grenade at him. Other soldiers heard the grenade blast and knew Akshay had been hit but couldn’t see him. When they tried to get to where Akshay lay, more grenades were thrown to stop them in their tracks.

We later learnt that it was the grenade that killed Akshay. His body however could not be spotted and recovered until much later that evening. He was discovered only during mopping up after the operation had ended. We had lost our most beloved Akshay and would miss him forever.

Chittaranjan, in relative safety behind a stone counter in the garden in front of the building blocks, continued to valiantly engage the terrorists with his machine gun. He held out until the Special Forces team arrived.  Destiny though had other plans and he took a bullet on his forehead and slumped over his gun, task completed. With their superior training and equipment (UAV for a birds eye view, neck below bullet proof clothing and superior weapons), they were able to spot and eliminate the three terrorists, one by one. The firing from the terrorists had ended by about 11.30 am but one or two more being holed up waiting for the kill could not be ruled out. Hence, mopping up operations started only later in the afternoon.

Kunal, Akshay and Chittaranjan had been martyred fighting, but not before they had lived upto the ethos of the Indian army. They had fought fearlessly for about three hours and succeeded in protecting our fellow citizens. They had prevented the terrorists from taking hostages, killing them or branching out into other spaces around with their destructive agenda. Every single woman, child and man (who had thought they would die) walked out without a scratch that day.

The terrorists failed to execute their plans of causing maximum damage. Our soldiers, once again had succeeded. They had to sacrifice their lives to do so.

To try and put into words or expressions the feelings and emotions that we experienced during this time in Nagrota is beyond my ability as a writer. I will therefore, not try and instead, will leave it to you, dear readers, to draw from your own imagination. Here are bits of what we heard and experienced.

Your son was absolutely fearless. He was calm and did everything as it should have been done. I get gooseflesh everytime I think of how brave Akshay was that day- bullets whizzing all around in the dark and still he stood there like a rock, fighting back and blocking the path in case the terrorists tried to escape.

We have recreated every minute of that terrible day and are convinced that but for the bravery and leadership of the two officers, the news headlines the next morning would have led to national mourning…

Had they cared for their own safety and not gone in, we would have had another Kaluchak  on our hands. Just across are homes of 300 families. If even one terrorist had managed to get there, can you imagine the mayhem? (On 14 May 2002 near the town of Kaluchak in J&K, three militants attacked a tourist bus from Himachal Pradesh and massacred 31 people, including women and 10 children. 47 people were wounded)

Knowing they couldn’t use heavy weapons to fight back, they put themselves in the line of fire while going in to get the terrorists, and saved our people. It rattled the terrorists- they couldn’t take time off to break into locked doors…..

There is no doubt that they displayed exemplary bravery and presence of mind under circumstances one can only try to imagine. In 20 years of service, I have never been faced with such a situation and these young boys have done us all proud. They have done our nation proud.

Bhanupriya, her husband and one year old baby were among those who were saved that day. She came to meet us and said Humne toh us din haath utha liye the- socha tha bach ke nahin nikelenge. Mera bacha dar ke mare roya hi nahin…ya phir shayad Bhagwan ka haath iske sar par tha. Kunal bhaiya aur Akshay, jo hamein bachane aaye…..her voice broke as she wept…. tears of sorrow and gratitude for their saviours. I tried to smile and console the young woman who with her family had been through hell and back. ‘Hume khushi hai ki aap sab bach gaye. Sahi salaamat hain. Is bache ko hasta khelta dekh kar lag raha hai ki unhone sahi kiya. Sangita added ‘Kunal aur Akshay bahut khush honge ki aap ko kuch nahin hua.

I am reminded of a message on my blog which said ‘dard ka rishta bhi apne aap mein anmol hota hai’.

My thoughts run back to the time we waited in a Jammu hospital (30th November 2016), waiting to see Akshay for the last time. Not knowing what his face and body would look like and wanting to protect Sangeeta and Neha from becoming more distressed, I had insisted that Girish and I would first see Akshay. They had the choice to not see him this way and remember him full of life, smiling and happy, in case they wanted that. ‘Then why are you going in to see him ma’? Sangeeta asked through her tears. ‘Because it is my one last chance rani’, I had blurted out. Her tearful ‘Its my last chance too ma’ meant the decision had been made .

When we were allowed to see Akshay, I was stunned. How could his face look so peaceful after such a sudden, violent death? Girish and Sangeeta felt the same way although Neha felt his lopsided smile looked more like a grimace of pain.

Moving back to our Nagrota visit, the day we were shown around the encounter site, we were told that the place looks different now as trees had been cut, undergrowth cleared and security beefed up.  I picked up a pebble from the spot where Akshay had been found and held on to it as we all moved away. Pradish lingered back a while longer, taking pictures and looking around. A few moments later, he had placed Akshay’s spectacles in Sangeeta’s hands and we all dissolved in tears, hugging each other at finding something so precious. Akshay’s CO told us it was a miracle. That different investigating teams(From the Army , Police, NIA etc) had been there almost 50 times, searching for every bit of evidence they could find, going so far as to dig up the mud and sift it to look for small splinters, bullet, cartridges…and this pair of spectacles, too large to have missed being spotted, had escaped them all!  An officer from the artillery unit said ‘I don’t know if you believe in spiritual connections but this is one such.’

It felt as if the universe had conspired to make Akshay’s spectacles vanish for two months and seven days. As if waiting for us, his family.  As if to show us where Akshay took his last breath on earth. As if Akshay knew we would come and find it.  He had worn his glasses to work every single day and it felt as if we had found part of him. As Sangeeta said, on his birthday (6th February), ‘instead of we giving Pradish a gift, he had given us the biggest possible gift’. A part of Akshay had been returned to us.

The next morning, the unit had arranged for a special prayer for Akshay and Chittaranjan and we were part of the most simple and most beautiful prayers in the Temple and Gurudwara. Conducted by soldier priests, Akshay and Chittaranjan were praised for their supreme sacrifice, taking from the teachings of Krishna to Arjun (in the Bhagwat Gita) and Guru Gobind Singh. As the tears flowed freely, I also felt more peaceful than I had in a long-long time.

Naam, Namak, Nishan’ are the core ethos of men in uniform. And the concept has held good across ages. Loosely translated, it means:

  • Naam – Name/Reputation of your country, Name/Reputation of your Regiment or ‘Paltan’
  • Namak – Fidelity to the salt you’ve partaken
  • Nishaan – Ensign, Flag. This can be the Indian flag and the Colors of the regiment. Since earlier days, soldiers rallied around their flags and would make the ultimate sacrifice to protect it from falling into enemy hands.

The different meanings of the word Akshay are Eternal, immortal, indestructible.

He has been immortalized in Nagrota at ‘Akshay’s Retreat- the Nineteenth’ – a glass hut dedicated to his memory. The stone plaque dedicated to Akshay was unveiled by Sangeeta on 7th February. Akshay’s entire fraternity in Nagrota were in attendance.

I take this opportunity to thank you all once again for staying with us on this journey. We will hopefully, find our own peace with time. It does seem as if we all were meant to be connected through Akshay and I hope we will continue to stay connected. God bless each one of you and give you and your families many joyous times in the coming years.

With love and warm regards,

Meghna Girish

Major Akshay Girish: Son, Hero, Martyr

We made the most significant trip of our lives this week. Before starting and on our way to Akshay’s ‘Karma Bhoomi’, our minds and hearts were filled with a hundred different thoughts, questions and emotions. What we experienced there is so hard to put into words. For Sangeeta, it was Akshay’s divine presence, long conversations and shared emotions with close friends, reliving times they had spent together in Nagrota, and meeting with so many people who had so much to say about their association with Akshay. For Naina it was the excitement of recognizing the building where one of the guest rooms was their home for two months. She ran in from the main gate in glee, eye shining, big smiles and happy laughter interspersed with shouts of ‘mera ghar aa gaya….come avva, I show you my house…..see….this is my house’.  She also enjoyed playing with her little friends, running around to see ducks with ‘Tejwant Bhaiya’ and enjoying all the attention she got from caring uncles and aunties. I think for all of us (includes Neha,  Pradish, Dhruv, Girish, Beena, Col Ravindran and me), it was a sort of pilgrimage to the place Akshay had loved in the short span of time he was there, and wanting to know the exact circumstances of his martyrdom. It was also about being as close to our beloved son as we possibly could, trying to find him in his office(ex-office), in the unit area, in the mess and on the sports fields.

We were received with so much empathy and looked after with utmost care. Our questions were patiently answered and every little request was graciously fulfilled. While the loss of our jewel can never be compensated, we came back with less turbulent thoughts and more acceptance of the cards that destiny has dealt us. At this point, I am not sure how to take Akshay’s story forward. I know I said this would be the last part but suddenly there seems to be more confusion. Should I write from where I left the last part or should I focus on what we have learnt and felt from our visit to Nagrota? Or should I combine then with now and see what emerges as I write?

I know it will not be possible to pen all that happened in just one post. Apart from Nagrota, Girish and I also travelled to Isha ashram at Coimbatore for a small ritual for Akshay’s soul (as suggested by a friend) and have returned home with a little more peace in our troubled hearts. Tonight, we travel again, this time to Agartala to meet with Akshay’s co-martyr’s family- parents, wife and kids. Naik Chittaranjan Debbarma was Akshay’s buddy in the counter-terrorist operation and a valiant warrior from the state of Tripura.

To all you wonderful people who have made this journey with Akshay and us, I have to try and do justice to your patience, your support and your encouragement. For that, I think I will need to add at least one more part to Akshay’s story- the most important part of what happened in Nagrota on 29th November and how a much bigger tragedy/catastrophe was foiled by the bravery of our soldiers.

Believing Akshay guides me in writing these post, here is part twelve of Akshay’s Story, My Way.

PART TWELVE

The very day Akshay, Sangeeta, Naina and Bingo reached Nagrota after a long drive by road (they were accommodated in the guest rooms of the Unit’s Officers Mess, with other families), Akshay left on another long road drive. He had to join his colleagues for special ‘orientation training’ high up in the cold mountains and valleys. My understanding is that the training is for officers and other ranks (ORs) from army units posted in the disturbed areas of J&K, and basically hones their skills for anti-terrorist action. At 8 pm on the first night, Akshay called me and his voice was soft but clear. ‘After all the studying and desk work last few months, I’m out of stamina ma….and really need to catch up physically,’ he said. I pepped him up with ‘the first few days will be hard beta but don’t worry, you will catch up’. ‘Hmmm’ he said and added, ‘you know, it is so beautiful up here. Very cold but so scenic- if only there wasn’t all this terrorism, others could have also experienced the joy of being in these stunning places.’  A few more calls over the next ten days were about long hard days spent running up mountain slopes in heavy combat gear, carrying arms and supplies and practicing  battle tactics taught in instructional classes, and falling asleep out of sheer exhaustion by 8.30pm. ‘No matter how hard one trains, no two battle situations are identical and a soldier always has to stay calm and apply his mind while leading his men’ was Akshay’s summary after the orientation.

Back in Nagrota, Naina, just short of her third birthday, started playschool on 3rd October. As Sangy got her dressed and sent us a picture of Nainu beaming with bag and water bottle, Akshay’s message read ‘Nainu’s first day of school- feels like she is getting big so soon.’ Naina seemed to have taken well to school – no crying even on her first day there, and Akshay and Sangeeta’s parental pangs were reassured. She did however howl on day three but as soon as Sangeeta left her with her teacher and walked out, the teacher said Naina wiped her tears and played happily!

Our littlest one was already showing signs of strength to deal with life’s insecurities and uncertainties’.

As was the pattern right from the start of 2016, Akshay could not make it home for Girish’s big birthday on 8th October- turning 60 years young! Sangeeta and Naina however did make it to the big day, coming all the way from Nagrota and we all had a large family dinner out with our parents, siblings and kids (Vaibhav, Ankit, Dhruv, Neha, Pradish, Sangeeta and of course, little Naina). While everyone spoke of a ‘puja and party’ to celebrate Girish’s 60th, we decided they can’t be planned without our son. So, the big celebrations were postponed to February 2017 as the likelihood of Akshay’s getting long leave then seemed good. I sent him a message saying ‘Really missing you Raja. Let’s plan a big party for dad in February. Hopefully you will get leave by then.’ Akshay responded with many ‘smileys’ and an uncharacteristically philosophical ‘Ya ma…the world lives on hope. The stars hopefully will align soon…’ He did post a very special message for his dad on facebook.

It’s been almost 31 years (us kids) … You’ve taught us to live calm, live sensible, live lively, live keen..
You’ve taught us that compassion, hardwork, determination and focus can share the same pallette as adventurous, fun, jovial and humorous..
you’ve kept the vintage songs going at home, given the travel bug not much rest, treated us to numerous gastronomic delights and even pampered us plenty…
you’ve taught us that all milestones are achievable..
That it’s important to enjoy the simple pleasures of life..
That humility only enhances ones greatness..

From cricket bats and barbies u brought back on TDs.. from long drives we cherish .. From the traveling all across Andamans to the numerous countries.. from advising us when we needed it to supporting us always.. you’ve also helped us realise that a happy marriage and a warm and loving home can produce two wonderful kids 😉 😂 (this, I couldn’t have missed)! Thanks dad for everything.. We’re truly blessed.. Happpyyyyyyyy happy milestone..

PS – MOM.. Dad couldn’t have done all that without u.. Not even James… James Bond could do that..

The next week, the family got together once again, for my father’s 88th birthday and on Vijayadashami ,Naina wore my duppata as ‘meri sari’ and as she did puja (she loves  observing and following my simple routine of prayer- placing flowers, putting kumkum and singing), we took some pictures. Looking at them, Akshay responded with ‘lovely pictures….family together and celebrating…’ Sangeeta and Naina returned to Nagrota to a happy surprise- Naina had won herself a first prize for recitation! Neha asked for the certificate to be framed and all of us were smiling. Neha-Pradish’s first wedding anniversary on 25th October was followed by two separate celebrations- Akshay-Sangeeta celebrating Naina’s third birthday with friends in Nagrota Mess and we enjoying Deepavali in our Bangalore home with families of our domestic help. This year, Neha got me an outfit identical to hers and as we all dressed up in new clothes and lit diyas, the children of Ritu- Sanjay and Birendar-Mamta (our part time help for home and garden) burst crackers and everyone from grandparents downwards had a good time.

By now, we had really started to miss having our beta come home.

Akshay had started to play Golf in Nagrota- adding another game to his list of sporty hobbies, and Sangeeta sent us a really cute video of Naina following him around swinging a golf club and saying ‘papa…wait!’  On 3rd November, I had a very long chat with my son- the results of the Staff College examination were expected and so was his posting. Akshay was saying,  ‘keeping fingers crossed ma, hope I clear the exam in this first attempt…nahi toh phir se padna padega.’ I was saying ‘you did your best raja, whatever happens is fine- don’t worry.’ To which his response was prompt ‘Im not worried ma. Staff College toh jaoonga hi- abhi nahi toh next time. I know I can do it and I will.’ His ‘never give up’ spirit always amazed me and made me happy and proud.  I told him ‘really missing you beta- looking forward to meeting up from 1st December,’ and he said ‘me too ma- really want to catch up with everyone and enjoy a break.’ It seemed like the ‘Sujeev-Diya wedding’ in Mumbai was also going to be a ‘Girish family reunion.’

On 4th November, in response to leg pulling between Neha, Pradish and Akshay over scary movies and sleep-less nights, he asked us all a question; ‘We all have our moments of fear- what has been yours? Let us reveal’. On 6th November, he spoke about ‘escalation happening – two soldiers killed in Poonch.’ On 8th November, all the chatter was predictably about ‘Demonitisation and Trump’s takeover’ with lots of jokes being forwarded!

When the DSSC entrance results came, Akshay had fallen a little short of making it to the merit list and he was really feeling low.  Sangeeta called up to let us know and Girish, Neha and I spoke with him to cheer him up. Knowing how much he had wanted to do well, we all felt his disappointment. I narrated my own experience of failure in a college exam, how low I had then felt, and how it motivated me to work harder and win a state award. He listened very carefully, asking a few questions and we shared precious moments of empathy. By next morning, his mood had bounced back! Determined to do well, he had already decided to get back to studying and ordered a few more books, telling his dad they would be home delivered and that he should bring them to Mumbai.

Since January 2016, Akshay’s whatsapp status had been ‘He will command His angels concerning You to guard You carefully.’ He now changed it to ‘Strike Two….’ It probably signified his determination to make it to DSSC in his second attempt. He did not get that opportunity. Was he then slated for something much beyond imagination? An examination that was bigger than all others? One that he would clear with flying colours in his first attempt but not be present to receive the accolades?

On 13th November, Sangeeta had posted some pictures and looking at Akshay’s handsome face, I wrote ‘Akshay Cutie…love love..’ to which his happy and embarrassed response was ‘Mom…Gee…’ with a ‘smiley.’ Once again the posts were on the family reunion coming up in Mumbai and we chatted about what to wear at the wedding and how much fun it was going to be with all our friends there. Unknown to Akshay and Neha, Pradish had initiated a separate discussion about a ‘surprise early birthday party for the twins’ on 2nd December. While he and Sangeeta were planning the surprise, I was roped in to babysit Naina at friend Sucheta’s home in Mumbai, so the youngsters could party late. Sujeev, Diya, Priyanka, Dhruv and many of Akshay’s course-mates (who he hadn’t met in a long time) were part of the ‘party planning group.’

This time, Akshay did not make it to his 31st birthday on 6th December. He will always remain young at 30.

On the night of 18th November, Akshay, continued his pattern of posting bravery related family whatsapp posts in 2016. We never paid much attention earlier but when we look at his posts now, there is a clear pattern emerging. His post said; ‘Can’t resist sharing. Feel like it’s a nice way to say goodnight. Trust you all will understand why…’ The forward started with ‘Today is Rezang La day …’ and went on narrate the story of unparalleled valour of soldiers from a Kumaon regiment who fought the Chinese in a battle on icy heights in 1962. It remains to this day a story of ‘Bravery that continues to inspire generations of soldiers.’  You can read this story on http://d2dex.blogspot.in/2016/11/today-18-nov-is-rezang-la-day-on.html

The words at the end are particularly poignant; ‘At the Rezang La memorial are etched eternal lines of Thomas B Macaulay…….”How can man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his Gods.”

On seeing Girish and me posting responses to his forward, Akshay prompted Pradish with a ‘Pradish, read it….’ Pradish then replied with a ‘ Just read it…I wish such a day never comes back but indeed, today wouldn’t exist for us but for these men….. these guys are real Spartans.’ Akshay sent a huge ‘smiley’ in response.

Ten days later, Nagrota was under attack. The dots seem to be connecting…or is it just my imagination?

I cannot just narrate the facts of what happened on the 29th of November 2016, without bringing in what we have seen on our recent trip to Nagrota, and what we have heard from people who were there on the ground that fateful day.

The next part will have to be more than just Akshay’s story, for there were other bravehearts who fought alongside him. Together, they succeeded in thwarting the evil plans that the terrorists came well prepared to execute. They laid down their own lives to do so. I will have to ask you all for more time. Hopefully, the next part will complete ‘Akshay’s Story, My Way.’

 

Major Akshay Girish: Son, Hero, Martyr

The past week has been an introspective one- coming to terms with ‘we will never see Akshay again in this lifetime’ is not easy, despite trying to use logic, wisdom and spirituality. Naina, our little one, is becoming much more vocal in her demands for ‘I want my papa….mere papa.’ Not wanting to tell her any lies, Sangu has tried explaining to her that ‘papa has gone very far away and cannot come back.’ When I gently repeated the same ‘far away’ line yesterday, she said ‘I will also go far away and get papa back’. Stumped by a three year old, I am reminded of Akshay’s line when he was the same age and saying- ‘Mujhe Chanda mama ke paas jaana hai…..’ Maybe we should tell Naina ‘papa Chanda mama ke pass chale gaye’.

Among the many messages that people have written to me, one home truth says; ‘Thoughts will always bring back the joy and the pain you have experienced. That is the ‘Maya of Life’, and we all have to undertake that journey.’

We are on that journey and one morning, all of us (Sangeeta, Girish, Neha, Pradish and me) came down for tea, wearing Akshay’s clothes- mostly T-shits and night-suits! Without any discussion or plan, all of us seemed to be finding comfort it holding on to his old, personal belongings. Akshay’s brothers Dhruv, Ankit, Vaibhav and Satwik have all asked for Akshay’s favorites- clothing, ties, pens, even a combat jacket as keepsakes.  Aditya came and picked up what he wanted and more friends and loved ones will do the same soon. Akshay would have been so happy to know how everyone wants a bit of him close to their being.

To all you wonderful people who have comforted us, motivated us, prayed for us, offered help, sent thoughtful messages of hope, and appreciated our way of trying to cope with Akshay’s loss, thank you is all we can say. So many of you who we have never known or have not been in touch with for ages, have reached out and spoken about a ‘strong connection’. I feel it too and life continues to surprise us. As of now, I am telling myself not to ponder over life’s mysterious ways. It is time to get back to continuing Akshay’s Story, My Way.

PART ELEVEN

The year 2016 began with a terrorist attack- the Pathankot Airbase was under siege on 2nd January and Akshay was the first one to tell us about what was happening. Seven soldiers including Lt. Col Niranjan were martyred, even as many precious lives and national assets were saved by their bravery.

Akshay summed up the difference between the terrorists and our soldiers in just one line. ‘Their motivation is to kill and destroy at any cost. Ours is to protect and defend, no matter what the cost.’ 

Akshay wanted to take Sangeeta out on a short break and after discussing options over the phone, I booked them at a nice hotel in Agra so they could see the famed Taj Mahal. Unfortunately, Naina fell ill and since Agra would be much colder than Kolkata, they decided to cancel that holiday. When Akshay called to tell me to cancel the hotel booking, I said since he had a few days of leave, they could come home to us instead.  He readily agreed and that is how we got to spend time together. Today we know how precious those 4 precious days with Akshay were.

After that very short trip home, Akshay started studying in earnest for the DSSC (Defence Services Staff College) entrance examination slated in September. Considered a very difficult exam for Army Officers to enter this elite institution, he knew making it in, particularly in his first attempt would be difficult, but wanted to give it his best. This meant forgoing all his home visits and vacation plans for the year and using that leave plus any time available for serious studies.  His CO Col Prakash sent him to attend preparatory classes in Shillong and when he reached Guwahati transit camp, he sent a message saying ‘happy to get a nice room to myself. Last time I was here as a young officer, three of us shared a room.’ While returning to Kolkata from the 6 week pre-staff course, transit camp rooms were not available and he got to stay in Taj Guwahati for a day. With childlike glee (still intact!), Akshay sent a picture of the beautiful room on our family whatsapp with lots of ‘smilies’ and text, ‘ just one day a month like this and I can keep on studying…. and do any amount of hard work to achieve anything on earth’.  On the train, he praised the ‘chai and chaat’ and the ‘cleanliness of the compartment’.  He also sent us a joke related to his studies which made me smile once again today, ‘ I told a girl she was beautiful.’ She replied ‘Tell me something I don’t already know. So I talked to her about Basic Considerations for Attack!’ Another joke he sent us was on the OROP issue. It went something like: ‘Son came first in class and Officer father gifted him a pen. The child was disappointed and said ‘just one pen daddy?” To which the father said ‘One Rank, One Pen son.’

Akshay’s communication brought home the simplicity of a true soldier, happy with small, occasional pleasures, willing to go on facing hardships, and rarely cribbing.

As I am writing, I realise this was the year (2016) that our family whatsapp was most active. Akshay who always stayed in constant communication with loved ones was happy to see ‘the family chatter’ and sent us many forwards he felt strongly about, asking us to ‘read’. I pick up my phone to scroll back and see that on April 1st, his message said ‘The fibre, I think of many Armed Forces in the world is the same. RIP Lieutenant Prokhorenko’. The forwarded text was on how a young Russian Special Forces officer, knowing he was spotted and surrounded by ISIS, called for an airstrike on his own position so that he is not taken prisoner. ‘I am compromised and cannot be evacuated’ he said. ‘Please strike so that the ISIS members are killed along with me’. The transcript of his conversation with his colleagues reads; ‘They are outside and this is the end Commander.  I do not want them to parade me and make mockery of my uniform. Please hit at my position so I can die with dignity and get these terrorists. Thank you. Tell my family and my country I love them, that I was brave and that I fought until I could no longer.’ Reading this message today, I suddenly feel as if Akshay, now no longer among us, is somehow is sending us a message.

The pattern on our family whatsapp seemed set for the rest of the year with many such messages from Akshay . On 13th April, Akshay’s tribute was to Major Amit Deswal, killed in action fighting NSCN terrorists in Manipur’s Tamenglong, ‘at eight years of service, he went in the true traditions of a Warrior, a Commando, fighting till the end’. Other messages over the next few months were on terror attacks across the world (‘another terror attack in Nice after Paris and Brussels – what is the world coming to….) and on the ‘never say die’ spirit of a soldier, Col Prabir Sengupta who braved bullets and bombs fighting LTTE ( in Sri Lanka, 1987). It’s a long narration on how, despite near death and permanent disability after being in a coma, coming out of it and surviving many difficult surgeries, the soldier concludes, ‘I am still on medication and they say I still have 5 to 7 splinters embedded in my brain- well that must account for my ‘freak streak’! But seriously, I have no rancor or regrets and given a chance, I would join the Indian Army again.’

On their 5th wedding anniversary, Akshay, the loving husband once again made sure he put aside his books to treat Sangeeta and Naina to an enjoyable outing – spending a day at the Taj Hotel in Kolkata –swimming and playing with Naina followed by a lovey-dovey candlelight dinner with Sangeeta. Back from their outing, the party continued at home with friends from the unit. Those lovely pictures of good times are among ‘treasures’ today. Many other treasures of happy times spent with Akshay are saved in our ‘Memory Bank’.

Akshay made the briefest of dashes home in May 2016 and his trip this time was for a dear friend. Young Sujeev Kharwadkar was all set to get married to Diya in December and we, family friends of his parents(Deshpande’s, Girish’s, Srivastavas), decided to have a special get-together (Gadag Neer) in Bangalore to get the celebratory mood rolling in advance. Such was Akshay’s fondness for Sujeev that he flew in on a Saturday and flew out on Sunday(May 21/22) and we all made the most of the few hours we got to see Akshay. While the youngsters chatted late into the night, I got Akshay to myself for an hour or so over breakfast. He asked about everyone in the extended family, about who was getting married, the health of the elders and so on.

 

Worried about the deteriorating situation in Kashmir, I asked him what he felt about the stone pelting mobs and the demand for scrapping AFSPA. In his usual way, Akshay started by setting the context. ‘Ma, the Army is not for internal security. It is meant to defend our borders. Maintaining law and order is the job of the home ministry and police. Anywhere that the Army is called in to support the civil administration means, the situation is so bad, that it can be a threat to the nation. Kashmir is such a complicated scenario and the separatists keep finding different ways to keep it on the boil. Now they are paying young men and even women and children to throw stones at our soldiers and at the slightest retaliation, a huge mob descends with petrol and acid bottle bombs and often, armed men will try to hide amongst them and fire. If 2 to 5 soldiers defending a post are threatened by a mob of a thousand, will the soldier who is trained to fight, not fire in self defence? And to carry out such a tough role thrust on them by the government, soldiers need protection too. Aren’t we citizens with human rights? If you need us to maintain a difficult peace, AFSPA is our right. Or else, send us back to our borders or our barracks and deal with the situation without us. For all the noise over ‘human rights violations by the Army’, do you know that 98% of the cases filed turn out to be false after investigations? The cases are mostly filed because of separatist links with certain organisations and are supported by elements in Pakistan,  to show India in bad light. Accusing a soldier falsely means lowering his morale to fight and defend. We are a moral army. Rarely, there may be some collateral damage. Even at home, if you un-intentionally kill an intruder with a knife because you or your family seemed under threat, should you be tried for murder?! And should all knives be banned?!

It was a serious discussion and Akshay’s clarity of thought amazed me. Later in the afternoon, I got the special ‘Akshay hug’ after which Pradish dropped him to the airport.

Thank you Sujeev, for being the reason Akshay made that trip to Bengaluru. It was the last time that we, his parents, grandparents, Neha and Pradish saw Akshay in his usual chatting, smiling avatar. It was the last time we got to hug him.

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Nothing seemed to work very well for the Girish family right through 2016 and most plans, made with great enthusiasm, somehow did not materialize. Girish and I wanted to do the Kailash-Mansarover trek but the roads through Nepal (damaged in the previous year’s terribly tragic earthquake) were still under repair. Next, we could not join our friends on a much planned East Europe vacation in August because my bad back (old injuries and herniated discs) decided to tie me down to the bed for many weeks. And I missed Akshay very much because, unlike all previous years, he hardly got to spend any time with us. In fact, he could not even make it for Girish’s big birthday- his 60th. The only silver lining was that Sangeeta and Naina made many trips to Bangalore and were with us on my birthday, Akshay’s grandfather’s birthday and also on Girish’s birthday.

Akshay’s exams in the first week of September were a mixed bag. Although he spared no effort, by his own assessment, two of the six papers did not go too well. ‘Let us see- I need luck if I have to make it this time’ was his response. Immediately after his exams, Akshay, Sangeeta, Naina and Bingo made a five-day car trip driving to his Unit’s new location at Nagrota. He decided to drive because he had read news reports that two pet dogs died on a flight because something went wrong with oxygen levels in the cargo hold. His love for Bingo, ‘hamara beta’ made him fear that Bingo could in danger on a flight. Akshay reasoned that the long drive could also be like a short vacation break- the one they never got to take that year. Making the most of the family journey, they halted at Varanasi, Kanpur, Delhi and Amritsar. Driving through Agra, they stopped to see the Taj Mahal (from a distance), stayed with family friends Pooja and Karan in Delhi and on my suggestion, visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar with Heena and Tanmay. Akshay loved the Golden Temple and the food in Amritsar and I was happy our kids went and ‘Matha Teka’. They sent us some lovely pictures.

The dawn of 18th September was a sad one for India. In Uri, four heavily armed terrorists shot and killed 17 unarmed soldiers in their sleep – many were burnt when their tents caught fire. It was a cowardly attack but one that was the deadliest in Kashmir in two decades. In Amritsar, Akshay was glued to the TV. He felt pain at the loss of young lives (from two units) and was upset at the political blame-games and lukewarm concern of the average citizen when our soldiers are killed.

The same evening, Akshay, Sangeeta, Naina and Bingo ended their drive vacation and a guest room in Nagrota Mess became their new ‘home’.

The coming week is going to be a very important one for us. We, as a family, have chosen to make a trip to Nagrota- maybe it will be a sort of pilgrimage- to see Akshay’s ‘Karma Bhumi’. We hope to also meet people he spent his final days and moments with.

For Sangeeta and Naina, it will also be a time to reunite with friends and Akshay’s colleagues.  On our return (God willing), I will probably write the last part of this blog.

For a while now, a poem we learnt while in school and long since forgotten, has comeback to haunt me. The words keep swimming inside my head. Penned by Makhanlal Chaturvedi, it is called Pushp Ki Abhilasha and you may know it too.

Chah Nahin Mai SurBala Ke

Gehnon Mein Guntha Jaaon,

Chah Nahin, Premi Mala Mein

Bindh Pyari Ko Lalchaon

Chah Nahin, Samraton Ke Shav

 Par He Hari, Dala Jaaon

Chah Nahin, Devon Ke Sar Par

Chadhon, Bhagya Par Itraoon

Mujhey Tod Lena Banmali

Us Path Par Tum Dena Phaink

Matra Bhoomi Per Sheesh Chadhaney

Jis Path Jaayen Veer Anek.

Major Akshay Girish: Son, Hero, Martyr

Two months- the longest and hardest 60 days of our lives and we have managed to cope. Each passing day, hour and minute is also driving home the irreversibility of our loss and telling us this is way beyond a bad dream. Which means, telling ourselves to stop hoping for that miracle- like maybe a phone call saying there was a bad mix up, that Akshay is somehow safe, and we will see him soon.

On our 68th Republic Day, the message ‘Freedom does not come for Free’ has never been so poignantly felt. Even as we missed Akshay every moment, our hearts went out to all the martyrs families. At the same time, we were glad to see that many of the Gallantry Awardees (including Major Rohit Suri- Keerti Chakra) made it back home safe and can smile with pride while their tales of valour are discussed. The biggest honour though, India’s Ashok Chakra was awarded posthumously to Havildar Hangpan Dada (for his valour in thwarting the evil designs of terrorists in Kupwara) and was received by his brave wife Chasen Lowang Dada.

Naina and Neha have been down this past week- something they ate didn’t suit them and when one is already feeling low, immunity is down and its easy to fall ill. They are both on the mend now- touch wood. Pradish, in his quietly efficient ways does multiple things for all of us, (like toys and outings for Naina, errands for me and Sangeeta, company for Girish and a comforting shoulder for Neha) helping us stay cheerful. Yesterday, he walked in with Pizza for dinner (after a long time) which we wolfed down while playing the movie ‘Lakshya’ on TV– rented via youtube. Akshay absolutely loved this movie by Farhan Akhtar- based loosely on the bravery of Kargil heroes. It was also made around the time he was in IMA, and as a family, we have all watched it with Akshay many times over the years. Far away, in the US, Satwik too was watching the same movie on the same day and texting – ‘how Akshay knew almost every dialogue in it’.  Isn’t this telepathy?  Girish found it painful to watch and went down mid-way to catch up with some paper work while the rest of us, talked about Akshay in every other scene as we watched. Once again, we felt a huge rush of pride in what our soldiers rise to whenever the nation has been under attack. I got back to continue writing Akshay’s Story; My Way.

PART TEN

Naina’s first birthday on 28th October 2014 was a lovely celebration at our home and Sangeeta-Akshay-Nainu made the prettiest picture that day. The young papa-mumma went halfway across the city to pick up her beautiful birthday cake. That afternoon, Neha joined them in decorating the place, and it was so nice to see them laughing at each others efforts at blowing up balloons – behaving like kids themselves! Naina was the perfect birthday baby- smiling and enjoying the attention from her great grand-parents, grand-parents, family and friends who came in to celebrate her very special day. The Girish household was brimming with joy and the good times continued into 2015.

This part of my story goes back to the twins – the special bond Akshay-Neha always shared was strengthened with Sangeeta and Naina’s entry, and even as Dhruv-Neha-Akshay had been a threesome for the longest time, Neha-Akshay-Sangeeta became another trio ‘in perfect sync’. When together, they planned fun-outings, family ‘dinners out’ and partied with friends and cousins.

Akshay was just as proud of his ‘scientist sister’ as she was of him and of course, they were also ‘partners in crime’ in a nice way! Akshay doted on his sister and while always supportive of Neha‘s focus on education and career and her clear preference to ‘not marry early’, he had begun to worry about his sister continuing to remain single. His one wish of ‘ma, I wish Neha finds that someone special too’ came true when Neha and Pradish who had been ‘dating’ finally made it known to us that they were ready to change their standard response from ‘we need more time to decide’   to, ‘we are ready to get engaged’!

Akshay was all smiles after an evening out with Neha and Pradish and he said ‘maan na padega ma, Neha ne banda dhoonda toh takkar ka hai’! The standing joke was that Neha whenever questioned, would always have an answer to ‘how come no one special….?’ and her favourite excuse was ‘my brothers are so good looking and nice, I can never find anyone as good’!

Knowing how much Akshay’s approval mattered to Neha, it was obvious she was very happy that her much loved brother and Pradish got along so well.

Once again, Girish and I got into ‘engagement and wedding’ mode and this time we also had Akshay and Sangeeta to share the planning joys for our ‘ghar ki laadli ki shaadi’. As the only girl among eight brothers on both sides of the family, it was a wedding the elders, uncles, aunts and cousins were waiting to be part of. Pradish’s father Mr. Gopalakrishna – a gem of a person – was happy to go along with whatever kind of wedding the kids wanted. After a small engagement in April, the Arya Samaj wedding was set for October 25th– just after Dusshera.

On the professional front, it was once again a very busy year for Akshay. He went to Mhow for the Junior Command Course in March and put his best foot forward to earn an Instructors grading (BI). As always, his first thought was ‘my CO will be happy I did well for the unit.’ Back from the course, Akshay got busy coordinating the biggest celebration for his regiment – its Golden Jubilee. When I called him, he would be busy speaking on other calls and quite often, it would be ‘ma, ek minute hold karo…’ and I would say ‘baad mein baat karein?’ Despite added responsibility as the adjutant, Akshay was very clear he would take a month’s leave for ‘behen ki shaadi’. ‘I have to be there to do work also, not come last minute for the wedding,’ he had said.

Earlier that year, Akshay had to miss out on the family vacation we had planned to Bali because the JC Course came up and so, it was Girish, Neha, Sangeeta, Naina and me who went without Akshay. On the phone, when I said ‘miss you Akshay, wish you were here with us’, he said ‘I too miss you all ma, but never mind, we will soon be together at Neha’s engagement.  So often in the years past, Akshay has said ‘ma, mein nahin bhi aa sakta toh Sangeeta ko le jao ghumane ke liye. I always tell her you don’t miss out on the fun just because I cannot make it. I want her to have a good time and it doesn’t have to only be with me.’

My thoughts are filled with how little Akshay expected and how much he always gave.  How he wanted to see his loved ones happy even when he couldn’t take time off to join the fun.

The very day they came on leave for the much awaited wedding, Akshay rolled up his sleeves and said ‘ma, batao, kya kya kaam karne hain.’ We happily transferred a lot of responsibility onto Akshay and Sangeeta and it was so nice to be able to relax and enjoy our own daughter’s pre-wedding functions like ‘Sangeet, Haldi and Mehendi’, that too at home, with much singing, dancing, chatter and laughter. It was little Naina’s first exposure to so many people and like her father, she loved the attention. And just like Akshay, she set the stage on fire twirling and swaying to the music!  Late at night, when she could no longer stand on her little feet, Akshay said ‘do something ma- Naina isn’t getting off the dance floor,’ and I, the firm grandmother, scooped her into my arms and marched her into bed.

At the wedding, Akshay was most emotional, just as Pradish had predicted. When asked in a ‘how well do you know each other’ game by friends, to the question ‘who do you think will cry the most at Neha’s wedding?’ Pradish had known it would be Akshay. As Sangeeta says, ‘he had teary eyes at the wedding while Neha was happily smiling!’

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The night after the wedding, Akshay took to facebook to post this message:

To my darling sis Neha Girish..

From when u used to push my pram, allow me to be seated next to u in class, share your laddoos or even gave me a hand when I was in a fight.. U helped me grow better….
U helped me study, came to my rescue in school, showed me glimpses of the college life I never had and even made me a party to the amazing group of friends u have.. Helped me grow better…
U went on to do big things, did them rather well.. Became a scientist ( now a senior one, I love it when u say ” senior scientist “).. U made me proud and that ur doing so well pushes me hard too.. U still help me grow better…
On this wonderful day when ur finally a WIFE.. Ur gonna be the reason another man, Sripradish Kapikad is good too and ul help him also grow better.. and to take this beautiful journey ahead, let’s do it with a family selfie… Cheers 🍻 to u my darling sis.. And to Sripradish kapikad.. Ur in amazing company and hands bro..

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Somehow, my story refuses to move forward and comes back to the present. Girish and I were invited to our old apartment complex for the Republic Day celebrations this year. Must admit, it was a difficult day despite being back among a caring group of people. After Girish hoisted and saluted our tricolour, Akshay was honoured as a martyr at Floriana Apartments and my voice broke when I was asked to say a few words.

It was to that home of ours that Akshay came on leave to- right from his NDA days until he and Sangeeta were married. Many memories came flooding back as we entered Akshay’s room in our apartment (Pooja and Viraj now live there).

I could almost picture Akshay sprawled across the bed, sleeping on his stomach, his young face peaceful, lopsided grin spreading into a smile when I would try to shake him awake. The usual routine was to wake him up, place his tea on the bedside table and tell him to get out of bed to shut the door after I left for work. As I would turn to leave, he would often put out an arm to stop me, and while still half asleep, murmur, ‘baitho na ma…thoda head massage kar do na bete ka…’ and while I ruffled his hair and gave him a head-rub, he would make those ‘mmmm’ sounds and say ‘kitna mazza aa raha hai…aur zor se karo na’ He would finally get up when I teased him saying, ‘Army kya itni der tak soti rahti hai? Kya hoga hamare desh ka?!’

I look up from writing this part of his story and see Akshay’s framed photograph in uniform adorned with a garland. The country continues to be in safe hands. Scenes of his final farewell flash through the mind for the umpteenth time and the tears flow.  

To all you wonderful people standing beside us and supporting us, telling us how strong we are in the way we are coping with loss, I have to tell you, at this moment, I do not feel strong at all.

“Do not judge the bereaved mother. She comes in many forms. She is breathing, but she is dying. She may look young, but inside she has become ancient. She smiles, but her heart sobs. She walks, she talks, she cooks, she cleans, she works, she is, but she is not, all at once. She is here, but part of her is elsewhere for eternity.”

– Author unknown

Tomorrow is another day. I know I will pull myself together and get over this mood. The words ‘If God brings you to it, He will lead you through it’ are already echoing through the mind. Or maybe Akshay is telling me this from wherever he is.

 

Major Akshay Girish: Son, Hero, Martyr

This week has been even more difficult. The luggage truck arrived from Nagrota- all things big and small that Akshay and Sangeeta, with so much love and pleasure, had put together over the last five and half years- for ‘their home’. His favorite car with a book and the songs he loved still playing inside, the music system cum home theater for pleasant evenings at home, and more than anything else, Akshay’s clothes and personal belongings. My heart broke all over again to see them…..the shirts he looked so good in, sets of uniforms and combat gear he wore with so much pride….bright sweaters I had sent just in October (and he sent us pics wearing them)…. the formal suit he got tailored for Neha’s wedding…loving picture frames and collages…. His prized collection of watches, tennis rackets and shiny sets of cuff links and tie pins…….The ‘Fit Go Pro’ gifted by Pradish and Neha that he was waiting to tryout on their next adventure holiday……and a million other things from sheets and curtains to kitchen appliances and dinner sets etc,  that go into making a happy home.

Naina was thrilled to see the car when I got her home from school and kept saying ‘my red car avva.’  My mother and brother came home the same day and we all felt very sad. Sangy looked so low that I tried not to ask too many questions of what she planned to do with all their things. I picked up a few clothes of Akshay’s and went downstairs to my room where I held them close and wept. The home they had set up together, the many plans they must had made for the year ahead, the dreams woven for a future together…that home no longer exists. It is with a heavy heart, mixed with our resolve to stand by Sangeeta and Naina, and our ‘never-say-die’ hope to see them smile as before, that I pull myself together and continue to write Akshay’s Story; My Way.

PART NINE

Early 2013 saw all of us excited at the ‘Pooja-Viraj’ wedding which coincided with the completion of our new home. Pooja (friends Deshu-Sarits daughter), Akshay-Neha’s childhood ‘play and fight mate’ decided to get married at Jade Garden- where we live- and our just completed home became their sangeet-practice venue and young people’s hang out place for the event. As always, Akshay was the enthusiastic one egging the rest to put up something special for their ‘chaddi-buddy’. With just a few hours of practice Akshay, Dhruv, Neha, Priyanka and Sangeeta  choreographed and coordinated so well that the evening began with a bang to ‘Subah hone na de….Shaam khone na de…….Tu mera hero…..’ I thought Akshay was the best amateur dancer ever and for those who don’t believe me, do watch this foot tapping youtube video by copy-pasting this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1mMo3j0hahc&feature=share

Soon after the thoroughly enjoyable wedding, Akshay and Sangeeta were back at CME Pune from where they called to give us the good news- we were all set to be grandparents before the year ended! They had earlier, as newly-weds, got home a pet cocker spaniel named ‘Bingo’ and Akshay called the cute fellow their ‘son’. Sangy had picked up a job as dietician in Pune’s VLCC and as pregnancy pangs set in, Akshay took the really good husband role a notch higher- making sure she got enough rest and care and did not stress over anything. With blood pressure showing signs of an increase (family history), Sangeeta returned to Bangalore in the seventh month, initially spending some time with Girish, Neha and me, and then under Beena’s loving care, as D day approached.

Akshay all along wanted a girl and one day, at the Ravindran’s dining table, as we all suggested baby names, he barely paid any attention to ‘boy names’! Sangeeta went into early labour and after Beena and Col Ravindran rushed her to hospital, Akshay reached saying ‘mom, papa, Im here. You can relax. I will take care of Sangeeta’. In Sangeeta’s papa’s words, ‘Sangu who was looking a little worried despite our presence was all smiles to see Akshay. We went home confident our daughter had Akshay beside her at this critical time.’ On the morning of 28th October 2013, our world became even more bright and beautiful!

I was driving towards the hospital when my phone rang, and although I normally do not use the mobile while driving, had to answer this one! Akshay was sounding soft and emotional as he said, ‘ma, our princess has arrived. She is so cute and Sangeeta is tired but smiling and well.’ I was over the moon, grinning and laughing to myself after the call with Akshay and can never forget the rush of deep love and gratitude that filled my heart as the nurse placed our little grand-daughter in my arms. Neha entered with a bunch of gifts and cute balloon decorations and we were all hugging and smiling as the twins made the drab hospital room look all cheery! Sangeeta was absolutely rocking- the prettiest and most cheerful mother, moments after giving birth.

‘Naina’, with her beautiful big eyes, so like her father’s, was born in the same hospital that Akshay and Neha had arrived in so many years ago! And when Sangeeta and Naina were shifted to the ward, it was the same room I had spent 40 days in, waiting for our little ones to make a safe entry. Time, they say, never stops. Time however, can seem to stand still and to come a full circle.

The extended family’s cup was brimming over with this little bundle of joy. Akshay’s Dadi was particularly thrilled to receive the first ‘4th generation baby’ of the family. Girish and I, as per tradition, celebrated Naina’s birth by gathering our near and dear to felicitate all the great-grandparents with a ‘Swarnabhishekam’. Naina was placed in the arms of her family elders, one after the other, and they (Akshay’s Dadi, Nana and Nani) were respectfully showered with tiny golden flowers. They in turn blessed Naina and the rest of us. It was such an emotional and happy time with Naina in a good mood and Akshay-Sangeeta, truly the cutest new parents.

Akshay went back to Pune to complete his degree while Sangeeta and Naina stayed on for a few months. He graduated as an Electrical Engineer from CME in early 2014. Akshay hadn’t been very pleased to have missed out being with his Unit during its field tenure at the high altitude of Leh and after graduating, he rejoined his unit in its new location near Kolkata. Once back in the regiment he loved, Sangeeta joined him with little Naina and the twosome that had become a threesome with Bingo now became a regular foursome with the littlest addition.

Akshay’s calls home continued and now his chatter was about ‘how cute Naina was, how well Sangy took care of the little one, how Bingo was jealous of the attention Naina got and how happy the home felt with all of them being together.’ Our family whatsapp group became busier as pictures and videos of Naina led to delighted exchanges between all of us!

Like most babies, Naina was most secure in her mother’s company. Akshay encouraged Sangeeta to take a break from her busy baby routine to meet with other ladies from the unit and to participate in the many unit activities. On a phone call one day he spoke with much sensitivity saying, ‘ma, when Naina wakes up, she looks for Sangy and is upset if she doesn’t see her. No matter how hard I try, it’s just not the same. Naina wants only Sangeeta and the minute she sees her, she gives such a happy smile. And if she is not well, it is only Sangeeta who can soothe her. Now I realise how important a mother is for a baby. No one can take her place.’ I responded by telling him that as she grows, Naina will want to spend more time with her father as well and will greet him with lots of excitement. That she will love swinging in his arms and being carried around held close to his chest.

My story moves fast forward to the present. In the past year and half, Naina showered her father with her demonstrative love- her ‘huggies’, Ummas (kisses) and her ‘Uv(love) you papa’ had Akshay floored by his little princess. As I write today, Naina’s clear voice saying ‘I miss papa’ and her shrill cries of ‘papa….papa…..’ when she is upset and crying is ringing in my ears and my eyes are clouding over. She has said this so many times since Nagrota and each time, Sangy and the rest of us have pretended to not be rattled and managed to keep our emotions from showing, as we try to distract and soothe her.

Akshay would have loved to know how much Naina misses her father. We are left with the difficult task of making sure she doesn’t miss him too much.

On the professional front, the regiment was tasked with another important assignment- this time to make bunkers in the icy heights of Sikkim, along the border with China. Akshay moved up the mountains to take forward the work begun by his colleague Major Samarth who moved to Pune on posting. Thanks to army phones, he could contact us even from altitudes between 17000 to over 19000 ft! The soldiers were pushed to the limits of endurance as they carried material up by foot, literally brick by brick and worked despite the cold and low oxygen in the rarified atmosphere. Akshay would tell us how difficult it was to breathe, how one couldn’t go on after a couple of hours of hard labour and how they managed on a ‘dal-rice’ or ‘aloo-roti’ meal because cooking up there had to start with melting ice, and everything took so long to cook. On bad weather days, they managed on just canned food and chocolates.

Akshay loved the mountains despite the hardships and took some out-of-this-world photographs of the barren beauty of the area and spoke about Gurudogmar Lake which, located at an altitude of 17,800 ft is one of the highest lakes in the world. The romantic in Akshay carved out S-A in ice as he missed his beloved. And he often said ‘son’ Bingo kept him company in those heights where he, as the soldier and Bingo representing man’s best friend shared a tiny temporary shelter and sometimes a sleeping bag for warmth in sub-zero temperatures.

Akshay and his men lived there for months, the close bond strengthened in adversity as they worked, ate, and lived with only one aim- to complete the task for the ‘Paltan’s izzat’. Part of Akshay’s responsibility towards his men was to ensure the ‘no-alcohol in high altitude’ rule was adhered to, along with closely monitoring them for any signs of acute mountain sickness (AMS). He told us that not a drop of alcohol is allowed in high posts as it tends to cause dehydration and exacerbates AMS fatalities. Breathlessness, nausea, vomiting, visual disturbances and such other symptoms if not immediately treated quickly lead to pulmonary edema and cerebral edema which are potentially fatal. Twice during that tenure, Akshay’s men had to be airlifted to a hospital and once, a soldier who fell into an icy pit had to be rescued and evacuated. Luckily, they all recovered from their risky ordeal.

Akshay was proud to have shouldered the responsibility of another tough task and his seniors were impressed at how well he motivated his men to complete it just before the winter of 2013 set in. Any delay would have meant abandoning the work until the next summer.

The picture he posted with his watch recording an altitude of over 19000 feet left me with very mixed feelings. Here was my little one, who in the first few months of birth couldn’t find the strength to cry. I was told to not pick him up and to let him cry so that his lungs would get enough oxygen and would help him get stronger. In his childhood, he often had breathing problems and I was worried he may have a form of asthma that runs in my family. At one stage, he was worried he may not have the ‘lung capacity’ needed to clear the stringent medical exam for NDA selection.

To see Akshay fit, smiling and healthy at that height made me send a grateful ‘thank you’, and a prayer up for his safe return.

But life can spring a surprise or shock us when we least expect it to. It wasn’t the heights that posed a risk to Akshay. The real danger lurked in the plains around peaceful Jammu. Unfortunately, that though was nowhere on my horizon of fears and concerns for Akshay’s safety and well-being.

Major Akshay Girish: Son Hero, Martyr

Life is so strange. We are grieving, yet filled with pride. The magnetic power of Akshay continues to bring us closer to each other as a family, and also to all of you, reaching out with concern and expressing solidarity with us. Receiving a letter addressed to her ‘martyred brothers’, 14 year old Vidhi Jadhav from Nadiad district of Gujarat asks about Naina and tells us how she uses her pocket money to help families of martyrs and support poor children stay in school. Tammy, a Lieutenant Commander in the US Naval reserves reads Akshay’s story and writes to me expressing concern and giving therapeutic tips to cope with grief. One sentence reads, ‘Know that days will get easier but grief takes time. It is a journey none can take for us, and yet – God does not intend for us to put down the tent stakes.’ Truly, it’s the thought that counts and we are determined to go on with life, while counting our blessings, even as we hope for continued strength and togetherness.

PART EIGHT

This part of ‘Akshay’s Story, My Way’ is mostly about the ‘super highs’ in our son’s life- love, romance and commitment to Sangeeta. While Akshay was still with his unit near Chandigarh, Sangeeta was in the midst of her MBA in Hospital Management in Jaipur. Eager to meet each other whenever they could wing it, ‘aaj kal tere mere pyaar ke charche’ was the song that matched their mood! By mid 2009, Akshay had told me and also written to Neha (she was studying in the USA) that Sangeeta was the love of his life, and he had never ever been happier! The first time he brought her home, meeting this pretty, poised and smiling child, as a mother, I was drawn to her. Akshay’s doting looks are vivid images in my mind and the vibes felt so right.

Akshay went back after his leave and then made a phone call- he and Sangeeta wanted us parents to meet and formalize the commitment. The Ravindrans and Girish’s didn’t know each other so communication had to be through the kids. Girish and I told Akshay we were happy to have them come over but he said there was a catch, that in her family, the boy’s folks were expected to initiate a proposal. So Girish called Sangeeta’s dad and the two ‘fauji’s’ typically set up a meeting at the Officers Institute called RSI. With Sangeeta’s mom Beena away in US of A where her elder daughter Vineeta and her husband Nitin were set to become first time parents, I was nervous about how to raise the topic with Sangeeta’s dad. It was after all our first experience as prospective in laws!

I needn’t have worried though. Like most good officers, after sharing a drink, they came straight to the main issue- ‘my son and your daughter have been seeing each other’ said Wg Cdr Girish and Col Ravindran continued the sentence with ‘and so we should formalize the relationship’. In the next 15 minutes, with shared conversation about our respective families, no questions asked by either side, a convenient date for the engagement was fixed for 29th May 2010. Phone calls were made to Beena, Akshay, Sangeeta and Neha and that was the shortest ever ‘proposed and accepted’ ‘love cum arranged match’ (as we call it in our part of the world)!

After celebrating Neha’s graduation from Duke University (with Girish, Satwik and my sis-in-law Prema), we were back in Bangalore and planning the Akshay-Sangeeta engagement – two wonderful celebrations in the same month! What more could we have asked for? And it was a lovely event – traditional Ganesh puja and ring exchange in the morning followed by a swinging party in the evening. To surprise Akshay-the dancer, Neha, Dhruv, my niece Prarthana, the Deshpande kids Pooja and Sameer and Sukoon, after just a two hour practice session, set the stage on fire swinging to cute old love songs like ‘ Jaane kahaan mera jigar gaya ji’ and ‘Shaadi ke liye raza mand kar li’. The twosome of course, smiled from ear to ear!

The love story, after initial hiccups and partial derailment was chugging along at perfect pace. All we did was add more fuel in the form of regular meetings between parents and soon, the train had reached the wedding day station.

With the blessings of grandparents and extended family and friends, Akshay and Sangeeta tied the knot on 8th May 2011. At just 25, both were lucky to have found each other while still young by today’s standards. The happy occasion was so well attended, particularly by Girish’’s and Akshay’s fauji friends that it was also a re-union of sorts, with plenty of ‘group photographs’ being shot on the sidelines of the wedding hall!

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We became parents to one more daughter and Akshay became a second son to the Ravindrans- in the truest sense. Very comfortable, minus expectations, just lots of joy and good times, bonding over small shared moments and larger celebrations- Prakash’s (My sister in law Jamuna’s spouse) sixtieth birthday at our home followed by the twins 26th birthday in December 2011 and soon after, Col Ravindran’s 60th. The smiles of joy were on all our faces.

Akshay and Sangeeta went on to set up ‘their own home’ in CME Pune where Akshay, posted by the Army, was doing his 3 year Engineering Degree. It was the perfect posting for the newly-weds- lovely city (by fauji station standards, any place other than ‘field station’ is a good posting)back to classes meant regular work hours, no outstation tasks or deployment, and best of all, many other friends in the same boat! Im sure Akshay and Sangeetas friends will have many anecdotes and stories on the time they spent together in Pune and maybe they will share some with us. I know that as a new bride, Sangeeta got a very warm and boisterous ‘welcome party’ and Akshay’s friends made him carry her a long way down the road and over the threshold into their home!

It is with so much love and pride that I share how Akshay, from the time he committed to togetherness with Sangeeta, never took her for granted. He did in fact, while still a bachelor, make sure he set up their home before the wedding, right from painting a wall or two so it looked pretty(money from his own pocket), buying home appliances and a few pieces of good wood they could use (a bar unit to be precise!), to writing Sangeeta a lovely poem and having it framed on their wall with a much loved picture, and even trying his hand at a new skill- cooking!  Over the years, he became a really good cook and would love to feed others with special recipe’s served beautifully plated- ‘masterchef style’. Something I still cant do! Sangeeta would laugh about how he would drag his friends’ home and enjoy making them a nice cup of tea or a special snack as they chatted.

When he would call or chat with me on leave, he would praise Sangeeta, ‘ma, she makes the bed so well, sheets pulled and tucked in perfectly’ or ‘you know, she never lets me drive fast and she is right. I have become careful now’ and ‘her rajma was a big hit with my friends who came for dinner last night’. The little things most of us take for granted, he never failed to appreciate. I loved him even more!

Akshay instinctively knew that marriage, like a beautiful plant, needs to be nurtured to make the roots strong so it stays green. I personally do not know of any other husband who spoke of only the nicest things about his wife, encouraged her to be independent, pursue her interests and hobbies, enjoyed time spent with her friends and best of all, made every birthday and anniversary special by pampering her with ‘surprise’ outings planned to perfection well in advance.

In Sangeeta’s own words, he gave her more love and respect than she ever expected. And she reciprocated – we could all see that.

As a parent, I urge all you young people out there to take from Akshay and Sangeeta’s experience and invest in your relationships.  Akshay invested in all his relationships and today, even when he is so far away, he is remembered with love and continues to inspire. In a marriage, this investment becomes much more important. When both partners express love and care for each other and their families, appreciate the little things one does for the other, respect diverse opinions and encourage one another to pursue interests they want to, both benefit, as do the kids and elders in the long term.

As they say, its not just the length of the journey, it is also how the path is walked while together.

Akshay’s love for adventure was known to all. He would go all out to find and experience the adrenalin rush – be it bungee jumping, trekking, white water rafting and even hobby flying. He urged us as a family (Girish, Neha, Akshay, Sangeeta and me) to take a ‘skydiving vacation’ and in December 2012, we did! It was the best ever family time the five of us got. In an unknown small town called Udon Thani in Thailand, we signed up to skydive at the ‘Birds Paradise’ resort. The resort was large but simple, with local staff who cooked Thai food, two instructors ( one was a Dutch veteran), and a pilot. A few training sessions on the ground, a video, clear bright skies and one by one, we were airborne to jump out in tandem at over 10,000 feet. It was scary and exhilarating! Akshay of course opted to go first and as the videos showed later, was laughing throughout the jump, not a trace of fear on his face! He had so many plans for this year- including doing the skydiving course that would need about 3 weeks of precious leave. Maybe he is doing a lot of it from the heavens but we cant really verify that.

Once again, my thoughts take me back to Kashmir and Akshay’s experience that won him praise in the past. Akshay and his CO were driving down from the the heights of Tangdhar to Kupwara when all of a sudden, bodies that seemed to be falling from the sky landed right in front of their jeep. The driver was quick to stop and they realized that a vehicle had fallen off the steep cliff from the curved road above ad disappeared into the valley below. People had fallen out of that vehicle, or had jumped out, and while few landed on the road below, others were stuck in bushes on precarious slopes or had fallen to their death.

In Akshay’s COs words, ‘we had just two jeeps and two to three hundred Kashmiris were shouting and coming towards us.  We couldn’t understand what they were saying but knowing how mutually suspicious and strained the locals vs army sentiment is in those parts, we thought of backing off. But I was lucky to have Akshay with me. He was very calm and told me to deal with speaking to the local leaders while he decided to rescue the injured. The few soldiers and he used their jeeps to transport many badly injured locals to the civil hospital. Their relatives were grateful and the regiment was appreciated for their soldiers going beyond their call of duty.’

For helping rescue and save lives of civilians in Kashmir, Akshay was awarded the COAS (Chief of Army Staff) Commendation medal in early 2010. He wore it everyday with so much pride.

Kashmir seems to be the land that has, each time, tested Akshay in different situations. And Akshay- Officer, Gentleman, Concerned citizen, Brave soldier never ever fell short. Never.

I end this part of my story with sentences from Neha’s touching speech on the 13th day after Akshay’s supreme sacrifice. She choked as she said, “I am thankful that Akshay experienced such enormous happiness in his life with Sangy and Naina , enjoying every moment to the fullest, loving deeply and being loved in return”.

Major Akshay Girish: Son, Hero, Martyr

His Story; My way

Thirty nine days since Nagrota. Each busy day passes by with Girish, Neha and Pradish at work, Naina at school and Sangeeta and me doing the drop-pick up and home duties. Sarit and Deshu pitch in to help with multiple errands. Sleep continues to be fitful at night. Sangeeta and I have had more time for close chats. As always, the topic of conversation revolves around our beloved Akshay and his thoughts and images are brighter than ever. Yes, we are coping with our unimaginable loss and we don’t know where the strength is coming from. The combined power of all your prayers, empathy and support is probably helping us and with gratitude, we thank you, dear extended family, friends and well-wishers. And maybe, from somewhere where we cant see him, but feel his presence ever so often, our guardian angel is transmitting all his positive energy to loved ones back home?

Some of you have also been sharing your dreams on Akshay. With much spiritual connection, feeling calmer, I am back to taking Akshay’s story forward, my way.

PART SEVEN

Commissioned from IMA into 51 Engineers of the Bengal Sappers (Known as ‘Combat Engineers’ along with Madras Sappers and Bombay Sappers), Akshay came home on a months leave and we, thrilled parents and grandparents celebrated the twins achievements. Akshay’s commissioning coincided with Neha graduating with a BE in Biomedical Engineering from Manipal and we threw a party with music, dancing and leg-pulling laughter!

During his leave, Akshay as always, went and met his teachers in school, his friends around Bangalore and spent time with extended family. He loved catching up with everyone on everything and was always willing to go visit an ailing relative, have a drink with his Nana or celebrate a friends birthday. Anywhere he went, folks loved his chatter and he in turn always showered old and young with compliments that made each one feel good about themselves. With a grandmother, aunt or me urging him to eat he would say ‘Ummm…this is the best rasam/ sabzi/ cheese omelette / milkshake / dosa / dal… I  have ever eaten!”  Any news of a tiny achievement like an exam going well,  hike in pay or pension, a game won by a cousin or friend would bring forth his ‘we must celebrate- chalo- lets go out for dinner tonight!’ To an ailing grandparent,  a new worried mom, heartbroken friend or a kid who fell and hurt a knee, he would put an arm around their shoulder saying ‘arre, don’t worry- you are strong and doing fine’. Akshay would make sure he chatted with our domestic help and asked about their kids. After each surgery for benign tumors’ that our pet daschund Teeny underwent, he would cradle her in his arms like a baby – eyes full of concern even as he smiled. Akshay made sure we updated him on all that he missed out on and made the effort to reach out to anyone who was going through a low phase.

Somehow, Akshay always brought people together and even after Nagrota, we have all been connected through him.

Neha, Girish and I particularly teased Akshay about his insistence on a ritual of ‘coffee at midnight’ – something he often suggested after dinner and long chats at home. He would say ‘chalo na – all four of us are together- lets go have coffee and chat some more’. It was sacred family bonding time and despite our feigned ‘not tonight Akshay- Im sleepy’ or ‘Ill make you good filter coffee at home’, we invariably did go along with his cute cajoling and have probably tried a lot of 24/7 coffee shops around Koramangala!

Those are today among our sweetest memories- Akshay with his cute smile and twinkling eyes making sure everyone opened up in conversation so that our bond stayed strong.

After his leave, Akshay went on to the Bengal Sappers Regimental Centre at Rorkee for initial orientation training. From there, in February 2008, after a long and much delayed train journey, he joined his unit at Nagaland. As he got off at the platform in Dimapur, he was received by colleagues from his unit and whisked off to the Mess for his ‘Welcome party’. When he surfaced the next day and called home, he was talking about the tremendous welcome he received- ‘downing 51 punches with every senior officer as per tradition’! For an almost non-drinker like Akshay, he was out cold and soon after tucked into bed by his new colleagues! In absolute embarrassment he said ‘Mamma, I hardly remember anything but my buddy was laughing at me in the morning saying “sahib aap neend mein bahut kuch bol rahe the….ki chodoonga nahin, jis jis ne mujhe pilayi hai, ek ek ko dekh loonga!!”

He also learnt of the tradition in 51 Engineers when each young officer joining his unit for the first time spends a month with the soldiers in their barracks, and not in the Officers Mess. This is to make sure they interact with the men under their command, learn about their strengths, shortcomings and family issues and help each soldier put in their best, by being a compassionate mentor. Needless to say, Akshay enjoyed the close camaraderie with his men, rubbing shoulders as he ran the tough BPT with them, took classes and trained with them, played team games like football, hockey and basketball, spent evenings chatting with them about their families back home and ate the ‘langar’ food. Soon he knew how to cheer-up, motivate and lead by example. Along with putting his academy training into action by leading patrols in the insurgency ridden villages of Nagaland, he experienced the coming together of soldiers and families at the unit ‘Mandir’, learnt some Punjabi (many of the soldiers in his unit are from Punjab), sang with the unit Band during social evenings and called home very often, thrilled to share his many exciting experiences.  He greatly looked up to his first Commanding Officer, Col Praveen Deswal and we often heard about ‘how fit he was, how decisive and committed he was and how he could still beat most of the youngsters at any sport!’

On annual leave, Akshay came home looking every bit the confident, ‘happy with his chosen way of life’ young officer and his always warm, tight hug became stronger and lasted a bit longer. Or maybe, I, his equally proud parent felt so! This time, the very evening he reached home, he was all set to ‘meet some friends at NGV’ (National games Village in Bangalore). I looked up from some work I was doing and asked “are you also meeting someone special Akshay?”Ma, how did you know?” he said with a huge grin spreading across his face and as his cheeks and nose turned a shade of red, he added “Aapko pata hai, Sangeeta finds me cute too– aapka beta hai hi itna special!” I knew that Sangeeta’s friends were Akshay’s friends too- Akshay Ghorpade, Aman and Preetham among others. Together, they played cupid in bringing the two cuties together! It felt wonderful to see my little one smiling and so happy!

A year after Akshay joined his unit, he was sent to CME Pune for the Young Officer’s (YOs) Course where he once again met some of his academy course-mates and between classes, tests and shared experiences, they youngsters had a jolly good time biking around Pune, catching up on what we often take for granted- dinner at a good restaurant, movies in a multiplex, beer at a pub or shopping at a mall. Akshay also worked hard and did well in his YOs course and was rewarded with an Alpha (A) grade. When we congratulated him, he said ‘Ma, its not just for my sake that I need to do well. My men and my unit should feel proud they have a good officer.’

Akshay was very proud of many traditions in the Army where the unit became a big extended family and each put in his/her best to ensure the ‘izzat of the paltan’ (Honour of the Unit)

Akshay re-joined his unit in Zirrakpur near Chandigarh after his successful completion of the YOs course and we were happy to be able to visit him and see the pride reflect in his eyes as he showed us around their Unit and Mess and introduced us to his co-officers. Neha, who came on a term break (she was at this point doing her MS in Duke University in the USA) and Dhruv also made a visit and were impressed with how much responsibility Akshay shouldered at a young age. When they returned, each separately told Girish and me with much pride that Akshay’s  CO had said ‘Your brother is a very good Officer’.

Soon after, the unit was ‘tasked’ with fencing the LC (Line of Control) at the heights beyond Tangdhar (ahead of Kupwara in Kashmir) to help prevent infiltration by terrorists. Akshay  took his men and we learned from his seniors how well he led them by example, to not only climb steep mountains with equipment at places few had set foot on, but also motivated them to do a very good job of putting up the fence well within stipulated time. This was also the time to hone his skills as a soldier- accompanying infantry battalion teams on patrol duties and coming close to a possible encounter with terrorists trying to infiltrate across the border.

As always, particularly when I’m writing, my mind goes back and forth as it is again doing now. Suddenly, I recollect a conversation we were all having on our family whatsapp group in the very month we lost Akshay. I pick up my phone to scroll back, desperate to find that part of our family chat. I find it and it was on November 4th 2016. The chat started with Neha talking about some scary movie that she and Pradish had watched when Akshay said “…Lol…We all have our moments of fear…Whats been your most scary moment ever? Lets reveal…” I took him up and revealed how mine was watching the movie ‘Exorcist’ as a young teen and that I had been scared for months after that. Akshay responded with lots of smilies and when I said ‘your chance now,’ he started with “Never a movie moment as I remember…..but in the ambush that I dozed off in while in Kupwara….felt alone on waking, in the middle of a jungle along the line of control….50 mts from a Pak post…expecting militants that night based on intelligence…never forgotten that night and how it felt….. I responded with “Some experiences are unique”, and since it was late added “Good night…sleep well everyone.”

He most certainly wasn’t dozing on the 29th– just 3 weeks plus after that exchange on whatsapp. Was his intuition telling him something? So many people who were in Nagrota that fateful day have met us (when we went to Jammu and Delhi), or have come home to meet us or called…and each one has told us how he led from the front, knowing his life was in grave danger, and knowing there had already been fatalities in terrorist fire. And despite his utmost love for his beloved Sangeeta and Naina who would have been waiting for him to return home, he did not hesitate even for a moment to put his life at risk. With complete awareness and 100% alert, he left a protected space and did what he needed to do to save the lives of our countrymen.

Its almost as if Akshay, now our guardian angel is helping me tell this story in a way that I do not miss out any critical bits.

As I am about to stop writing this part of Akshay’s story, Neha forwards a picture that brings tears of pride to my eyes. Some runners in the Chennai Marathon today ran wearing a poster of Akshay with ‘Salute the Braveheart’ on their chests. I wish I knew their names to share with all of you. Through this channel, I thank each one of them for honoring Akshay and the other martyrs for their supreme sacrifice. Akshay must be smiling at the sight from up there!

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