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.
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.