The past week has been an introspective one- coming to terms with ‘we will never see Akshay again in this lifetime’ is not easy, despite trying to use logic, wisdom and spirituality. Naina, our little one, is becoming much more vocal in her demands for ‘I want my papa….mere papa.’ Not wanting to tell her any lies, Sangu has tried explaining to her that ‘papa has gone very far away and cannot come back.’ When I gently repeated the same ‘far away’ line yesterday, she said ‘I will also go far away and get papa back’. Stumped by a three year old, I am reminded of Akshay’s line when he was the same age and saying- ‘Mujhe Chanda mama ke paas jaana hai…..’ Maybe we should tell Naina ‘papa Chanda mama ke pass chale gaye’.
Among the many messages that people have written to me, one home truth says; ‘Thoughts will always bring back the joy and the pain you have experienced. That is the ‘Maya of Life’, and we all have to undertake that journey.’
We are on that journey and one morning, all of us (Sangeeta, Girish, Neha, Pradish and me) came down for tea, wearing Akshay’s clothes- mostly T-shits and night-suits! Without any discussion or plan, all of us seemed to be finding comfort it holding on to his old, personal belongings. Akshay’s brothers Dhruv, Ankit, Vaibhav and Satwik have all asked for Akshay’s favorites- clothing, ties, pens, even a combat jacket as keepsakes. Aditya came and picked up what he wanted and more friends and loved ones will do the same soon. Akshay would have been so happy to know how everyone wants a bit of him close to their being.
To all you wonderful people who have comforted us, motivated us, prayed for us, offered help, sent thoughtful messages of hope, and appreciated our way of trying to cope with Akshay’s loss, thank you is all we can say. So many of you who we have never known or have not been in touch with for ages, have reached out and spoken about a ‘strong connection’. I feel it too and life continues to surprise us. As of now, I am telling myself not to ponder over life’s mysterious ways. It is time to get back to continuing Akshay’s Story, My Way.
The year 2016 began with a terrorist attack- the Pathankot Airbase was under siege on 2nd January and Akshay was the first one to tell us about what was happening. Seven soldiers including Lt. Col Niranjan were martyred, even as many precious lives and national assets were saved by their bravery.
Akshay summed up the difference between the terrorists and our soldiers in just one line. ‘Their motivation is to kill and destroy at any cost. Ours is to protect and defend, no matter what the cost.’
Akshay wanted to take Sangeeta out on a short break and after discussing options over the phone, I booked them at a nice hotel in Agra so they could see the famed Taj Mahal. Unfortunately, Naina fell ill and since Agra would be much colder than Kolkata, they decided to cancel that holiday. When Akshay called to tell me to cancel the hotel booking, I said since he had a few days of leave, they could come home to us instead. He readily agreed and that is how we got to spend time together. Today we know how precious those 4 precious days with Akshay were.
After that very short trip home, Akshay started studying in earnest for the DSSC (Defence Services Staff College) entrance examination slated in September. Considered a very difficult exam for Army Officers to enter this elite institution, he knew making it in, particularly in his first attempt would be difficult, but wanted to give it his best. This meant forgoing all his home visits and vacation plans for the year and using that leave plus any time available for serious studies. His CO Col Prakash sent him to attend preparatory classes in Shillong and when he reached Guwahati transit camp, he sent a message saying ‘happy to get a nice room to myself. Last time I was here as a young officer, three of us shared a room.’ While returning to Kolkata from the 6 week pre-staff course, transit camp rooms were not available and he got to stay in Taj Guwahati for a day. With childlike glee (still intact!), Akshay sent a picture of the beautiful room on our family whatsapp with lots of ‘smilies’ and text, ‘ just one day a month like this and I can keep on studying…. and do any amount of hard work to achieve anything on earth’. On the train, he praised the ‘chai and chaat’ and the ‘cleanliness of the compartment’. He also sent us a joke related to his studies which made me smile once again today, ‘ I told a girl she was beautiful.’ She replied ‘Tell me something I don’t already know. So I talked to her about Basic Considerations for Attack!’ Another joke he sent us was on the OROP issue. It went something like: ‘Son came first in class and Officer father gifted him a pen. The child was disappointed and said ‘just one pen daddy?” To which the father said ‘One Rank, One Pen son.’
Akshay’s communication brought home the simplicity of a true soldier, happy with small, occasional pleasures, willing to go on facing hardships, and rarely cribbing.
As I am writing, I realise this was the year (2016) that our family whatsapp was most active. Akshay who always stayed in constant communication with loved ones was happy to see ‘the family chatter’ and sent us many forwards he felt strongly about, asking us to ‘read’. I pick up my phone to scroll back and see that on April 1st, his message said ‘The fibre, I think of many Armed Forces in the world is the same. RIP Lieutenant Prokhorenko’. The forwarded text was on how a young Russian Special Forces officer, knowing he was spotted and surrounded by ISIS, called for an airstrike on his own position so that he is not taken prisoner. ‘I am compromised and cannot be evacuated’ he said. ‘Please strike so that the ISIS members are killed along with me’. The transcript of his conversation with his colleagues reads; ‘They are outside and this is the end Commander. I do not want them to parade me and make mockery of my uniform. Please hit at my position so I can die with dignity and get these terrorists. Thank you. Tell my family and my country I love them, that I was brave and that I fought until I could no longer.’ Reading this message today, I suddenly feel as if Akshay, now no longer among us, is somehow is sending us a message.
The pattern on our family whatsapp seemed set for the rest of the year with many such messages from Akshay . On 13th April, Akshay’s tribute was to Major Amit Deswal, killed in action fighting NSCN terrorists in Manipur’s Tamenglong, ‘at eight years of service, he went in the true traditions of a Warrior, a Commando, fighting till the end’. Other messages over the next few months were on terror attacks across the world (‘another terror attack in Nice after Paris and Brussels – what is the world coming to….) and on the ‘never say die’ spirit of a soldier, Col Prabir Sengupta who braved bullets and bombs fighting LTTE ( in Sri Lanka, 1987). It’s a long narration on how, despite near death and permanent disability after being in a coma, coming out of it and surviving many difficult surgeries, the soldier concludes, ‘I am still on medication and they say I still have 5 to 7 splinters embedded in my brain- well that must account for my ‘freak streak’! But seriously, I have no rancor or regrets and given a chance, I would join the Indian Army again.’
On their 5th wedding anniversary, Akshay, the loving husband once again made sure he put aside his books to treat Sangeeta and Naina to an enjoyable outing – spending a day at the Taj Hotel in Kolkata –swimming and playing with Naina followed by a lovey-dovey candlelight dinner with Sangeeta. Back from their outing, the party continued at home with friends from the unit. Those lovely pictures of good times are among ‘treasures’ today. Many other treasures of happy times spent with Akshay are saved in our ‘Memory Bank’.
Akshay made the briefest of dashes home in May 2016 and his trip this time was for a dear friend. Young Sujeev Kharwadkar was all set to get married to Diya in December and we, family friends of his parents(Deshpande’s, Girish’s, Srivastavas), decided to have a special get-together (Gadag Neer) in Bangalore to get the celebratory mood rolling in advance. Such was Akshay’s fondness for Sujeev that he flew in on a Saturday and flew out on Sunday(May 21/22) and we all made the most of the few hours we got to see Akshay. While the youngsters chatted late into the night, I got Akshay to myself for an hour or so over breakfast. He asked about everyone in the extended family, about who was getting married, the health of the elders and so on.
Worried about the deteriorating situation in Kashmir, I asked him what he felt about the stone pelting mobs and the demand for scrapping AFSPA. In his usual way, Akshay started by setting the context. ‘Ma, the Army is not for internal security. It is meant to defend our borders. Maintaining law and order is the job of the home ministry and police. Anywhere that the Army is called in to support the civil administration means, the situation is so bad, that it can be a threat to the nation. Kashmir is such a complicated scenario and the separatists keep finding different ways to keep it on the boil. Now they are paying young men and even women and children to throw stones at our soldiers and at the slightest retaliation, a huge mob descends with petrol and acid bottle bombs and often, armed men will try to hide amongst them and fire. If 2 to 5 soldiers defending a post are threatened by a mob of a thousand, will the soldier who is trained to fight, not fire in self defence? And to carry out such a tough role thrust on them by the government, soldiers need protection too. Aren’t we citizens with human rights? If you need us to maintain a difficult peace, AFSPA is our right. Or else, send us back to our borders or our barracks and deal with the situation without us. For all the noise over ‘human rights violations by the Army’, do you know that 98% of the cases filed turn out to be false after investigations? The cases are mostly filed because of separatist links with certain organisations and are supported by elements in Pakistan, to show India in bad light. Accusing a soldier falsely means lowering his morale to fight and defend. We are a moral army. Rarely, there may be some collateral damage. Even at home, if you un-intentionally kill an intruder with a knife because you or your family seemed under threat, should you be tried for murder?! And should all knives be banned?!
It was a serious discussion and Akshay’s clarity of thought amazed me. Later in the afternoon, I got the special ‘Akshay hug’ after which Pradish dropped him to the airport.
Thank you Sujeev, for being the reason Akshay made that trip to Bengaluru. It was the last time that we, his parents, grandparents, Neha and Pradish saw Akshay in his usual chatting, smiling avatar. It was the last time we got to hug him.
Nothing seemed to work very well for the Girish family right through 2016 and most plans, made with great enthusiasm, somehow did not materialize. Girish and I wanted to do the Kailash-Mansarover trek but the roads through Nepal (damaged in the previous year’s terribly tragic earthquake) were still under repair. Next, we could not join our friends on a much planned East Europe vacation in August because my bad back (old injuries and herniated discs) decided to tie me down to the bed for many weeks. And I missed Akshay very much because, unlike all previous years, he hardly got to spend any time with us. In fact, he could not even make it for Girish’s big birthday- his 60th. The only silver lining was that Sangeeta and Naina made many trips to Bangalore and were with us on my birthday, Akshay’s grandfather’s birthday and also on Girish’s birthday.
Akshay’s exams in the first week of September were a mixed bag. Although he spared no effort, by his own assessment, two of the six papers did not go too well. ‘Let us see- I need luck if I have to make it this time’ was his response. Immediately after his exams, Akshay, Sangeeta, Naina and Bingo made a five-day car trip driving to his Unit’s new location at Nagrota. He decided to drive because he had read news reports that two pet dogs died on a flight because something went wrong with oxygen levels in the cargo hold. His love for Bingo, ‘hamara beta’ made him fear that Bingo could in danger on a flight. Akshay reasoned that the long drive could also be like a short vacation break- the one they never got to take that year. Making the most of the family journey, they halted at Varanasi, Kanpur, Delhi and Amritsar. Driving through Agra, they stopped to see the Taj Mahal (from a distance), stayed with family friends Pooja and Karan in Delhi and on my suggestion, visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar with Heena and Tanmay. Akshay loved the Golden Temple and the food in Amritsar and I was happy our kids went and ‘Matha Teka’. They sent us some lovely pictures.
The dawn of 18th September was a sad one for India. In Uri, four heavily armed terrorists shot and killed 17 unarmed soldiers in their sleep – many were burnt when their tents caught fire. It was a cowardly attack but one that was the deadliest in Kashmir in two decades. In Amritsar, Akshay was glued to the TV. He felt pain at the loss of young lives (from two units) and was upset at the political blame-games and lukewarm concern of the average citizen when our soldiers are killed.
The same evening, Akshay, Sangeeta, Naina and Bingo ended their drive vacation and a guest room in Nagrota Mess became their new ‘home’.
The coming week is going to be a very important one for us. We, as a family, have chosen to make a trip to Nagrota- maybe it will be a sort of pilgrimage- to see Akshay’s ‘Karma Bhumi’. We hope to also meet people he spent his final days and moments with.
For Sangeeta and Naina, it will also be a time to reunite with friends and Akshay’s colleagues. On our return (God willing), I will probably write the last part of this blog.
For a while now, a poem we learnt while in school and long since forgotten, has comeback to haunt me. The words keep swimming inside my head. Penned by Makhanlal Chaturvedi, it is called Pushp Ki Abhilasha and you may know it too.
Chah Nahin Mai SurBala Ke
Gehnon Mein Guntha Jaaon,
Chah Nahin, Premi Mala Mein
Bindh Pyari Ko Lalchaon
Chah Nahin, Samraton Ke Shav
Par He Hari, Dala Jaaon
Chah Nahin, Devon Ke Sar Par
Chadhon, Bhagya Par Itraoon
Mujhey Tod Lena Banmali
Us Path Par Tum Dena Phaink
Matra Bhoomi Per Sheesh Chadhaney
Jis Path Jaayen Veer Anek.