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.
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!’
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..
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.