Eleven months since Akshay, we woke up to Naina’s birthday with a strangely distressing occurrence. The family WhatsApp said ‘Akshay left’. It shook us to realise that the same message was on all other groups that Akshay had been part of. While trying to underplay the emotions each of us felt, telling ourselves and each other that an account inactive for so long was probably automatically deleted this way, the timing really upset me. Why on Naina’s fourth birthday? When he was part of our WhatsApp groups almost 11 months, couldn’t this have happened after Naina’s birthday?! All the while we have been saying ‘Akshay is always with us….. he is around us….’ and now……suddenly this….? And did it have to happen on the morning of Naina’s first birthday without Akshay? A reminder that he isn’t ever going to be there and we are all really and truly on our own from now on? That Naina, his precious little one, is also going to have to have to accept that her papa has gone forever?
My heart broke all over again, and this time it was mostly for Naina. That this little one has lost a papa who was her biggest fan…..who would have always been her best friend….. her most cheerful playmate…… her always doting dad….. her confidant no matter what secrets she wanted to share…..her biggest supporter and also her role model for all that was good in this world. While she continues to miss Akshay and often asks about what really happened to make him go so far away, she is still too young to imagine what she has truly lost. We had Akshay at the centre of our world for over thirty years and Naina lost him at just three. No matter how much we all rally around, no one can be what Akshay would have been for his little one. I know because our nephew Satwik was exactly the same age as Naina when he and Dhruv lost their wonderful mom Smita. We were there for the boys – a strong, loving and supportive family and yet, could we claim to have managed to filled Smita’s shoes?!
The jumbled train of thoughts after ‘Akshay left’ had to be pushed into a corner of the mind as it was time to make Naina’s birthday as special as we possibly could under the circumstances. In a year of ‘no celebrations’, the month of October this year saw Girish’s birthday and Neha-Pradish’s wedding anniversary go past with just good wishes. We however decided that Naina had to be celebrated. Last year Akshay and Sangeeta had a little party for her in Nagrota and the year before that, the family celebrated in Bangalore. Miraculously, a little video clip of that precious birthday has survived. Satwik- God bless him, had shot it on his old mobile phone and retained that phone after it had crashed. He managed to retrieve Akshay’s pictures and videos and for us, every little bit of Akshay is now our greatest treasure. We will have to keep all the pictures, clips, news reports and printed tributes safe for Naina to have when she is older. A little treasure chest instead of her papa in flesh and blood.
Naina was most excited this birthday weekend. She had been counting ‘days left for my birthday’ for over two weeks and woke up her cheerful best to a little ‘cake surprise’ at 7 in the morning, before Sangeeta left for school. Then the gifts, all wrapped in her favourite ‘shiny red wrappers’ were opened and her shining eyes, smiles and happy laughter started to dispel the gloom in my heart. We fit in all that we could for her birthday- the traditional oil bath, the temple visit, lots of new clothes, birthday party decorations and finally, the special ‘chocolate cake with stars, hearts, numbers and a mermaid’ that she had been dreaming of. Gifts poured in from outstation as well – loving and caring friends made sure Naina got much more than previous years. Surrounded by close family and her little friends, she was a happy little bundle of excited energy, and to see her enjoying herself on her birthday, made our day special as well. Sangeeta played doting mother and aunt to the kids and finally, an exhausted and very happy Naina was bundled into bed.
Yet, by the end of the day, post party, the meltdown happened again. Akshay had left. This 29th October – it has been eleven months. Time flies even in such terrible grief and soon it will be a year since Akshay. My father who says he speaks to Akshay every day said ‘Laadla chala gaya beta’. This time, I just couldn’t get myself to write and communicate with all of you as thoughts and emotions were too much in conflict.
For the second straight night, sleep was elusive and thoughts went back and forth until they sort of aligned to a theme of ‘lost and found’. Thrice in the distant past, we had come close to losing Akshay. The first when he was born a tiny and weak ‘high-risk infant’ and did not gain a single gram in 40 days. Next at age four and half when he was hospitalised with a severe anaphylactic reaction that caused his little body to swell to double its size with breathing difficulties. And third, when seven-year-old Akshay was lost for a while at Jhansi railway station, during a complex ‘waiting room to train and platform change’ situation. Somehow, since each tense situation ended well, we never got to dwell on what might have been if things had got worse. Akshay showed us he was a fighter even when he was little and fear wasn’t really a part of our lives.
Sometimes, we journeyed without Girish, on trains and buses and it was Akshay, who even at age three, always sat on a separate seat so Neha could sit beside me. At the end of our first family vacation to Goa, we got to Goa airport only to be told the flight was full and only three among us five could board. Girish had to get back to work and quickly decided to leave Akshay and me behind while he took Neha and Satwik back home to Bangalore. While I was not happy with how the vacation was ending, Akshay at fourteen was absolutely thrilled to get one more day in Goa! Mother and son went back to the resort we had checked out of and Akshay being Akshay made the most of a sticky situation! His ‘Jab phas hi gayein hain toh karo masti’ philosophy was contagious. So we enjoyed another day of swimming and good food. Back at the airport the next day, Akshay spotted the then ‘Rangeela’ girl Urmila Matondkar getting out of a taxi and in a jiffy, my little boy had sped across to her, and despite a crowd of fans, he returned with her autograph, grinning ear to ear saying ‘she is much prettier than in the movies and gave me a special cute smile ma’. All his cousins agreed only Akshay could have done what he did!
A year later, we went to Auli and decided to trek up to ‘Hemkund Saheb‘- a revered pilgrimage for the Sikh community, and for us, an adventure mountain trek stretching 14 steep kilometers. The first leg of 9 km took us up from Govind Ghat to Ghanghariya where we had two rooms booked for a night stay. The rooms were apart and barely had we put our bags in when the quiet mountain stillness was broken by loud shouting and screaming- sounds of a dangerous fight that shattered the calm. The caretaker came running and terrified to tell us to lock ourselves in and not open the door no matter what. In a split second, we had divided ourselves into Girish-Neha in one room and Akshay-me in the other. Before I could take on the mother role, my son had bolted our door from inside, tested the locks to check how strong the door was and went around the room looking for other objects of self-defense. As firing began outside and sounds of people running and screaming became louder, Akshay had pulled down the lone curtain rod and stood guard at the door signalling me to keep quiet and stay behind. My little boy, from being my ‘protected one’, had instinctively taken on the role of ‘protector.’ We spent the night separated as a family, without food or water and speaking in whispers. ‘Don’t worry about Neha ma’, Akshay had said then. ‘Dad is there with her and I am with you’. Early the next morning, we were told the police had to shoot to break up a terrible fight between locals and outsiders. Six people had been killed and many injured. All of us tourists and pilgrims were sent back down the mountain under police escort.
Why all these thoughts have come back now, I have no idea. Maybe they never really went away. If all these thoughts have remained fresh for over 30 years, how can ‘Akshay leave’? Just as 29th November 2017 will forever be with us, so will Akshay. He lives with us because he has given us moments that really matter. It isn’t just our thoughts he dominates. All of you who have known or now know Akshay also think of him, talk about him, laugh at those moments of fun, share anecdotes and serious discussions, or take inspiration from how he lived ‘King-size’.
And strangely, I see Akshay in so many of you. Many of course because you are his brothers and his friends. Sometimes, I even see Akshay in strangers. It happened on a weekend trip to Vishakhapatnam last month when Girish and I took up the offer of a Naval course-mates invite. Our wonderful hosts arranged for us to get into a Submarine and the moment I saw the young Commanding Officer of the Submarine, he became Akshay in my mind. Although he must have been older than Akshay, as he showed us around, smart, smiling and committed to his work, I felt so motherly towards a son I had never met before. Signboards and posters at the controls caught my eye. One said ‘Cowards never Start, The Weak Do Not Finish, Warriors never Quit.’ Another said, ‘On My Alert Guard Depend the Lives of a Hundred Men’. Akshay would have been in complete agreement with both.
What motivates the Submariners to volunteer for a life in the ocean’s depths ? Duty missions sometimes stretching up-to 45 days underwater to protect us, while they live in such cramped spaces, eat canned food and do not even have the luxury of a bath until their mission is complete? It is the same emotion that motivates every soldier who braves extreme conditions, fighting to keep the flag of our country flying high. An emotion that is obviously missing in people who debate the right to ‘not have to stand’ when the National Anthem is playing. Maybe 57 Seconds is too long to stand up for our country? Debating on freedom and democracy is of course without any time limits. In fact, it can be unending. The cost of that freedom to debate endlessly is also paid for by citizens like Akshay. Because they chose ‘to do or die.’ Others may think ‘to insult and live’ is alright. To each their own. I know this sounds harsh but know no other way to express how it feels when courage and sacrifice are not valued.
Naina however has absolutely no confusion in what really matters to her. While she loves music and singing, her eyes are at their brightest when A R Rahman’s ‘Ma Tujhe Salaam’ plays on the car radio. Anytime of the day we pass through a gate with security guards, her tiny hand automatically goes up to form a ‘Salute’ and their smiles at our little one makes us smile too. Given half a chance, she waits to shout ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ at the end of ‘Jana Gana Mana’, wherever and whenever it plays. Oh yes, Akshay didn’t leave! He lives through Naina.
A bundle of energy like her papa, Naina’s latest are ‘pretend games’. She played one with Girish and me the day before yesterday in the car. In her game, she was Captain of a Pirate Ship while we were her crew, and every-time the ship had a problem (‘Oh no! the ship is stuck; Oh no! We ran out of water; Oh no! We ran out of food!’), she ‘called for help‘. The people she called were Neha, Sangeeta, Pradish and Dhruv. It surprised me that in her little mind, she didn’t once call her papa who she says she misses ‘so much’. And when she plays the old game of ‘I sent a letter to my mother…. on the way I lost it’, Naina always starts with ‘I sent a letter to my papa’ instead. Tiny little things, but her clarity of thought and connections amaze me. As Sangeeta and I chat, we realise how much we need to learn from Naina on how to live life joyfully, despite irreparable loss.
As I come to the end of today’s post, I feel a lot better than I have over the past week since the ‘Akshay left’ incident. Many before Akshay have also left their kids, parents, spouse and siblings, who must have felt just as we do. Among them are wonderful families we have met- of Charulatha Acharya, Beena Thomas, Salma Shafeeq, Dev Raj and Asha Gupta, Shakuntala Bhandarkar, Surabhi Dhruv Yadav, Akanksha Rathaur, and many others I have not named here. All of them seem like part of our extended family. Last week 78-year-old Mrs Padma called me up from Delhi after she got my number from Vikas Manhas of DESH. An Air Force Officers widow who lost her loving husband when she was eight months pregnant, she continues to be a working professional while the daughter she raised is an IAS officer. Her voice sounded so cheerful when she comforted me, wished Naina a happy birthday and said don’t worry, all will be well. Such positivity is inspiring.
If life is not measured in the number of breaths we take but in the moments that take our breath away, Akshay lived much longer than most others ever do. He taught us how to reach out confidently for what one wants, to fight fearlessly for a cause and to treasure what matters most.
We now look forward to seeing Sangeeta much happier and Naina all grown up. We are so blessed to have Neha, Pradish and Dhruv around and so many loved ones, including our parents, close by. Akshay will forever be part of all our lives. We are grateful to the Almighty and proud beyond words that our family had Akshay this lifetime. While many ‘Akshays’ have been around and will always continue to be around, sometime, somewhere, our Akshay will also be back to continue to teach love, commitment and courage to many more people like us. God willing, we will do our bit to take forward Akshay’s inspiring legacy in a way that he would want us to. With zest for life and love for others. Always taking a stand to uphold the dignity of our protectors and our country.
I know that the rest of this month is not really going to be easy, but with all of you rooting for us, we will get through the 29th of November too. And then, things can only get better. Although you may not know it, each of you have made this very difficult journey a little easier for us. May we all be there for each other, and for those who may need someone, at most difficult times in their lives. May each of us have moments that truly matter and may they give joy year after year.
With gratitude, love and regards, all I can say is God bless you all. Thank you for reading and reaching out to us.