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.
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!