In less than three weeks since Akshay’s martyrdom, we as a family while supporting each other every minute, every day, are also trying to accept that life must go on. Particularly for little Naina and Sangeeta. So here’s the positive news- Naina has started going to her new nursery school at Air Force Station Yelahanka (headed by a very warm and proactive Principal in Mrs. Aparna Dutta). It is reassuring to see her walk up-to her teacher smiling, saying ‘bye mumma’ and interacting with other kids her age. Sangeeta will take a while longer to decide on how she would like to occupy herself outside the home.
We have also just returned from a weekend trip to Delhi where we were hosted by Akshay’s arm- the Engineers, his parent regiment-the Bengal Sappers and unit- the 51 Engineers. Being with so many Veterans (the oldest a fit and active 93 year old General), serving senior officers and Akshay’s unit mates, the ladies who were so caring, Sangeeta’s many friends, and participating in a poignant ceremony to honour the braveheart soldiers Akshay and Chittaranjan, was very emotional. We came away reassured, that as a family, we are not alone in coping with the sorrow of loss. We are also filled with pride that our son has lived up-to the ideals of a true soldier of the great Indian Army who fulfilled his duty so bravely, that in doing so, he sacrificed his life for the nation.
While writing Akshay’s story is providing some solace, I do realise that penning down every thought of my little one will make it un-endingly long. So, I will try to speed up his story, my way.
His Story; My Way
When Girish was posted as instructor in Flying Instructors School(FIS), Tambaram (Chennai), both Neha and Akshay were lucky to get into the Kendriya Vidyalaya (KV) after another ‘entrance test’. We had thought only Neha might do well enough since there were only 4 vacancies and 40 children wrote the test but a combination of their marks and their dad’s large number of postings (5 postings in 7 years!) ensured both kids found a place in KV Tambaram’s class 4. In school, Akshay was very particular about completing his homework and learning up for his tests. Doing well was important to him and even if I said ‘very good, itna yaad kiya aur likha, kaafi hai (you have learnt a lot and written enough),’ he would want to do it ‘once more.’ He moved closer to Neha each year in academic performance.
The Tambaram KV taught Akshay what surviving the rough and tumble meant. Akshay being the shortest and thinnest in class (he stood right in front in the boys line during assembly), was often picked on and bullied by a bunch of bigger, older, local kids. Only they didn’t know he wasn’t one to taking things lying down! More than once, along with the other parents, I was called by the class teacher because Akshay had ‘been in a fight’. Akshay would tell me the boys used bad language and elbowed or tripped him on purpose and knowing Akshay, I would defend him by telling the teacher he would never start a fight. The teacher however didn’t always believe me. One day, five of the boys got together to beat Akshay up, when Neha, for the only time in her life, jumped into the fight to help defend her brother who was at the receiving end. Both came home with physical bruises and stronger emotional ties and years later, on Raksha Bandhan, Neha told Akshay that he should tie a Rakhi on her wrist because she once protected him!
Neha also remembers how, when in class 5, when a teacher made a comment about women’s fashion and how over the years the skirts were getting shorter, Akshay immediately stood up and told the teacher ‘aaap galat baat bol rahe hain Sir (you are speaking wrong things Sir).’ Needless to say I got summoned to school again for Akshay’s ‘rudeness’ to the teacher!
Although Akshay was short for his age and skinny, he would never hesitate to stand up to his principles. He would take on bullies in school or judgmental adults anywhere, anytime.
Tambaram (in Chennai) was wonderful for the first year and half when the twins had plenty of friends, and Akshay was not only getting good grades, but also showing a keen interest in sports and drawing. He was running very fast and getting prizes for it and was rarely separated from his bicycle! As a result, he was eating better and getting stronger. He was also very fond of attention and being on stage. He once won a fancy dress competition dressed as a ‘khilone wali(woman selling toys)’!! Trips to the Vandalur Zoo and Safari and a most enjoyable Andaman vacation – with the Ghosh family (kids- Arunab and Arpita) and Dhruv, the famous ‘FIS kids’ dancing to ‘Its My Life’ during the Presidential Colours honour for IAFs FIS(Flying Instructors School) and Teeny, our little loveable daschund made for great memories of the Tambaram tenure.
However, the good times didn’t last. Tragedy struck our family when my brother’s wife Smita, who was also my best friend since school, died of snake bite in Jamnagar on 2nd October 1994. Nine year old Dhruv and 3 year old Satwik moved in with my parents and my brother at their Jayanagar home in Bangalore. The grandparents were thrust by fate into once again being foster parents to the little boys and while no one can really replace a mother, we, as a family decided to do our best under the circumstances. I wanted to be closer to our nephews and Girish too decided to ask for an early retirement from the Air Force. We left Chennai and moved into a nearby apartment and the cousins became a foursome. We were lucky that Deepa Sridhar Maam, the Principal of the reputed Kumaran’s CBSE School took in all our kids- Akshay, Neha and Dhruv in class 6, Satwik in class one and also Ankit(Girish’s brother’s son) in class 3. Much bonding happened between the cousins and many stories of the ‘naughty boys’ are still shared with a twinkle in their eyes!
Akshay started writing poetry even as his sketching and painting became happy hobbies, particularly during school breaks. That was his quiet time as otherwise, he was a real social animal who loved people of all ages and began noticing the girls! As Neha says, to him girls were always pretty, prettier and prettiest, and they seemed to find him charming, with his cute lopsided smile and the twinkle in his kind eyes. It was also the time when Akshay became very focused about joining the Defence Services-he had always wanted to be a fighter pilot like his papa and was in no mood to change his mind. As his mother, I was rather reluctant to let ‘little’ Akshay write the entrance exam for Bangalore Military School, but he hounded us till we let him try, and surprised us by studying very hard and being selected. Akshay became a ‘Georgian’ late, in class 8th and his first rough and tough experience of a very difficult month in a Military boarding school did not deter him from changing his mind.
He soon embraced the tough life. BMS and the spirit of ‘Tagore House’ became his enduring passion. I’m sure his many friends- Aditya, Preetam, Tejas, Suhaas, Gladson, Kunal, Rishi, Anand etc etc will be privy to all that went on with Akshay in school but as parents, Girish and I were surprised at how our little boy was fast becoming an independent and responsible young lad, taking pride in his chosen way of life, doing well in studies, participating in sport and extra-curricular activities and when home, narrating some really exciting stories of hostel life! He looked up-to his seniors who had succeeded in making it to NDA and his first Principal – the capable Lt. Col Charanjeet Singh and Administrative Officer Capt DPK Pillai became his role models. In fact, DPK Pillai was his hero, both for his bravery and his kindness to the boys in school, like when he took them for a ride in his car or bought treats of ice-creams or pastries. When Akshay narrated the story of DPK’s bravery against militants in Manipur and being awarded the Shaurya Chakra, his eyes would glisten with respect and pride.
Heroism motivated Akshay and being brave while being kind meant more to him than it did to most other kids his age.
Akshay became a true Georgian and wouldn’t hear of suggestions to leave after class 10 and join a local pre-university college. Girish had by then left the IAF and joined Jet Airways as a Commercial Pilot. We as a family took our first vacation abroad (a month with extended family in US of A) in 2001 after the twins finished their 10th board exams. Girish also felt that the vacation would give our teenagers the much needed exposure, a broader view of educational possibilities at a critical time (when they needed to choose core subjects in class 11) and also help Akshay consider other career options. After a fantastic holiday with my aunt Hema’s family- Ben uncle and cousin Ganesh at Atlantic City and New York (The picture on top of the Twin Towers is now treasured) and with Nagmani bua, Nari uncle, cousins Anup and Vijay(Girish’s sister’s family) touring California’s Disney land in LA, Universal Studios, San Francisco and San Diego’s Sea World etc, we were on our flight back to India. Akshay was sitting next to me on the long flight, resting his head on my shoulder as we chatted about the good times we had just had. He suddenly went quiet- introspection time- before he came up with a sentence I have never forgotten. The 15 year old said and I quote, ‘Ma, America ke bare mein itna suna tha, ab dekha bhi aur bahut maza aaya (We had heard so much about America, now we have been there and had a lot of fun too). But for me, India is home. I am fine with taking a holiday anywhere but want to wear the uniform for my country.’
Coming from Akshay, I knew he had made up his mind. And once he decided to focus on something, no amount of influence or incentive could make him change his mind.
He went on to do his best academically in class 11. In February, just before the 12th Board exams, Akshay was hospitalized after a two week bout of fever, abdominal pain and vomiting. He lost a lot of weight as a mixed infection sapped his strength. Put on IV fluids and antibiotics, it took another week for his fever to normalise. He could barely sit up and stay awake but continued to try and study because the final boards were just about two weeks away. As a mother and college lecturer, I tried dissuading Akshay from giving his board exams and told him he could write the supplementary exams a couple of months later, because not doing well would affect his chances of getting into NDA or even into a good college. He wouldn’t hear of it and with four-hourly nourishment (fruit juices, bananas, eggs, boiled black chana and a high carb-low fat diet) put in a lot of effort to successfully write his 12th Board exams in March 2003. While he remained determined to do well in the upcoming NDA entrance exam, he did heed our advice to keep his options open (just in case he didn’t make it) and also wrote the AIEEE and the CET entrance tests for Engineering.
When the results came in one after the other, Akshay not only had excellent college options that were available to Neha and Dhruv, but had also comfortably made it to the coveted National Defence Academy.
At this point, I would like to share a story written on Akshay on how he joined the Army and not the Air Force. Called ‘Colour of the Uniform’, this story was earlier published in one of the books of the ‘Chicken Soup’ series.
COLOUR OF THE UNIFORM
Akshay knew what he wanted to be ‘when I grow up’ since he was 3 years old – ‘a pilot like papa’. Unlike his twin sister who changed her long term goal every year since they turned 12, he remained focused all along and finally, his 14 year long dream was coming true. Class 12 exams were done with, the difficult National Defence Academy (NDA) written examinations went well and the upcoming SSB interview was the lone hurdle.
At age 17, Akshay’s resemblance to his baby pictures were his big bright eyes and impish smile. Chatty and hyperactive with friends in every imaginable street around home, Akshay loved eating out and justified its frequency saying, ‘for just 20 rupees, you can get the tastiest, healthiest parathas and egg curry or aloo parathas with butter’. Like most teenagers whose life revolved around school, sports, phone calls and movies, his study-related mantra was ‘mugging really hard before exams’. It had paid off and he was pleased as punch with everything unfolding as per plan.
When he received the interview call letter, Akshay was thrilled, well prepared and confident of leaving no stone unturned in convincing the SSB selection panel that he was ‘excellent Air Force material.’ And he did! We hugged him on his return from the week long process that had included daily activities and tests. ‘Pilot aptitude, psychological, physical endurance, team tasks, group discussions and personal interview,’ he listed them out and described each one. Excited and euphoric, he pointed to the fighter aircraft on his chest and we learnt that the coveted T shirt had been gifted to successful candidates by officers of the Indian Air Force.
All that remained now was the Medicals. Akshay wanted to take an advance eye test- ‘just to make sure before the final medicals that your son has perfect vision ma,’ and so I drove him to the doctor. Seated in the waiting area, Akshay was his usual talkative, smiling, confident self, telling me about plans to fit in a mountain trek and Goa holiday ‘before I go to NDA’. The doctor called him in for examination and soon he was back- his eyes stormy pools as he met my questioning look, shaking his head in disbelief and unable to hide his pain and disappointment.
‘You know how I’ve dreamt of being a pilot since I was 3 ma – why did this happen to me? After coming this far? ’ The tried and tested words ‘whatever happens is for the best sweetheart’ sounded hollow and fake even to my ears. Akshay’s vision was not good enough to clear the Indian Air Force’s stringent medical standards. His lifelong dream had been ended by an unexpected twist of fate.
Later that evening, his father outlined options that were still open. ‘You can become a commercial pilot and fly for an airline. Think about it- there’s still time.’ Akshay didn’t take long to decide. ‘It is the NDA for me ma, he said. Yes, I wanted to be a fighter pilot, wear the uniform with pride and serve my country. Maybe the colour of my uniform has changed. I will join the Army. An adventurous life is just right for me.’ He had bounced back, oozing positivity and confidence once again.
We learnt that dreams don’t die. They transform. When all seems lost, acceptance can open many doors to happiness. Today, at 25, Akshay wears the Olive Green with pride and has served in conflict zones. It is obvious how much he loves his work of leading the soldiers under his command, the camaraderie, and the spirit of the service he belongs to. On one of our walks, he tells me how glad he is to have made the decision he did. ‘Many friends told me I was stupid not to take up commercial flying ma. When the going got really tough in NDA, there were times when even I thought of quitting for the easier option. But this sense of achievement …making my own path… self-esteem born of struggle…it gives a real high. I look at him in awe and ask ‘Is there a twinge of regret in not realising your long standing dream?’ He smiles that lopsided smile saying, ‘read that ma’, and points to a signboard in the park that says ‘When you ask for something and God says ‘not now’, it means he wants to give you something better’.
Author: Meghna Girish.
Published in Chicken Soup for The Indian Soul- Teens Talk Growing Up (2011)