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.
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!
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”.