This is the season Akshay loved. Christmas cheer, closely followed by making plans to welcome each New Year with a ‘dhamaka’!
This was the time of year he prioritized for bringing friends and family together. In all their growing up years, for Akshay and Neha, Christmas eve was a sacred outing with kids among family friends – mainly Dipika and Sneha, Aman and Dhruv, and whoever else was willing to go out and enjoy the sights and sounds of Bangalore, all decked up in red, gold and green. I really don’t know what fun they all had on Christmas eve but as a mom, it gave me great pleasure to see the excitement with which they called each other up and made plans to ‘do something special’. This year, Akshay must be watching over Sangeeta and Naina spending Christmas break with her parents while Neha and Pradish are doing the same with Pradish’s father. I am so happy to see pictures of Naina with Christmas décor in the background and shaking Santa’s hand. Takes me back to Akshay-Neha’s many Christmas parties in an Air Force Station. Akshay will approve of the fact that his precious ones are making the most of the festive season.
Akshay raja had another side to his responsible, calm, committed and courageous self. He was quite a prankster and trying out a gag with someone he knew well was right up his ‘having fun’ street! Many remember how he would make these calls posing as a ‘Banker, Insurance agent or even a Mithai wala’ and manage to continue the conversation until both sides ended up laughing! He succeeded in fooling a few of us, but more often than not, he was identified and would say ‘Kya uncle, aap ne pehchaan liya?’ It was another of Akshay’s ways to keep in touch with people he cared about, no matter how far away he was, or how few the opportunities to meet.
A few months before he left us, Akshay came home for just one night to ‘be there’ for good friend Sujeev’s pre-wedding party. Just before going to pick up Sujeev, Akshay came running to me, naughty smiling face full of excitement, asking for ‘Kumkum thali’, flowers and a coconut. ‘We have to do something dramatic and embarrass Sujeev when he comes out after doing the flight,’ he said, as he hurriedly gathered all I could give him. When Sujeev, in his crisp and smart Pilot’s uniform came out of the airport terminal, Akshay, Pooja, Aadhar and Priyanka ran towards him and in full public view, much to Sujeevs shock and the amusement of onlookers, a coconut was smashed on the kerb by Akshay while the girls gave Sujeev a big red ‘tilak’ and did the ‘Aarti’! I am sure Sujeev and each member of the gang roped in by Akshay will have their versions of this story to narrate to their grandchildren! A Memory Bank can be very precious and Akshay is sure to be in many such Banks.
It is almost 13 months since Akshay. Earlier this month, we hosted a First Year Remembrance Day in Akshay’s honour and were emotional as well as grateful as so many people made it a point to attend. They came from across the country, just for being part of Akshay’s day, and we are deeply honoured that they took time off and made the trip to be with us. Not only from Akshay’s regiment and his brothers in arms but also school friends, teachers, students and Principals of institutions he had studied in, people who had never met Akshay, families of other brave martyrs (the DESH family) and the first citizen of Bengaluru- the Honourable Mayor.
What really matters in life, we are realising with more clarity than ever, is that living in the hearts of people even after life has ended makes people immortal. Many of those who came are known to us for decades and many others came for the first time, because of Akshay. They introduced themselves to us and we were deeply touched. I cannot find words to express what that meant to us. Our son is giving us reason to cheer even after he has gone elsewhere! I am reminded of Mary Angelou’s quote: ‘People may forget what you said, people may forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Thoughts always take me back to how my Raja beta thrived on relationships. People were such an integral part of his life, and he made sure he gave every person he cared for reason to remember him for a long-long time to come.
Dr Imran speaking about Akshay at our home function went back to their days as kids in an Apartment block. He remembers how the kids had their different groups but Akshay was friends with every group! Narrating an incident of a ‘gully cricket’ match, Imran said; ‘Our team was weak and losing badly. Akshay was at the non-striker’s end while I, a non-player had to face the ball of a strong bowler. I was very nervous when Akshay walked across to me to say “Imran, tu kar sakta hai. I know you can do it…I am with you. Tu bas balla ghumake kar dega.” To this day, Imran remembers how Akshay’s calm, morale boosting words brought out the best in him and how he not only struck the ball, but their team went on to win the match!
Akshay’s school friend and later fauji brother Preetham wrote in their school magazine about Akshay as his Friend and Hero. Talking about his own experience in school, he said ‘Many years ago, a 13 year old boy joined a boarding school. He was shy, timid and fearful of what he is going to face. The first few days, the other boys ignored him. Then they pushed him and picked on him. He was alone at his classroom desk, on the playground and in the dormitory. A week later, a boy with a beaming smile came up to the new boy. He told the new boy, not to worry; he was there to help him. He offered him a handshake and asked him if he wanted to be friends. Delightedly yet cautiously, the new boy grabbed onto the outstretched hand.
Akshay came to me when I was alone and needy, when I was scared and vulnerable. He came to me when no one else was ready to help or accept me. He rescued me from the hazards of the first few days in a boarding school, just as he rescued those helpless people from the malicious intents of terrorists.
He was large hearted, kind and spread happiness around him. His charming personality had the attention of the girls of Pune. His friendly behavior made him the core of a very large social circle. Many of my close friends today are those, who I would not have known, if it were not for him. Akshay, even to this day, I vividly remember your outstretched hand, and I will hold onto it forever.
Priyanka, another friend writes in her blog, ‘I remember how you told me to follow my dreams and passions and be more outgoing, how you read my poems and encouraged me to publish them even though you yourself were never willing to do so, because, ‘some things’ you said, ‘are just meant for friends and family’. I remember how you dared me to go skydiving or do something that would get my adrenaline pumping. Sorry still not courageous enough – but one day, maybe. I know that you wanted to meet Baby R but never got the chance – he’s two and a half years old now. Thank you for standing by me when I was having a tough time making some important decisions in my life and thank you for believing in me. She went on to post a video of the courtroom scene from ‘A Few Good Men’ – a movie Akshay had loved.
To try and take forward Akshay’s legacy of commitment to the Nation, we as a family have registered a family Trust. It is named ‘Major Akshay Girish Memorial Trust’ and to start with, the Trust will award scholarships to students in college and school, who like Akshay, aim to defend, protect and serve our Nation. The scholarships we hope will not be limited to striving to enter the defence services, but also the civil services and paramilitary forces. As a family, we also hope to unite people and promote Nationalism, as we feel there is a real need and space to make a difference, however small, in this area. We have made a tiny beginning and look forward to all your ideas on how we can together take this endeavor forward in the months and years to come. Please do reach out to us with thoughts and suggestions
On the Remembrance Day function, my cousin brother Arun took on a difficult session that centered around ‘Sacrifice and Immortality’ with reference to all bravehearts. It was this session that deeply touched and inspired everyone present that day. Arun’s presentation drew from multiple ancient texts and spiritual sources to highlight values that build individual character for taking on larger responsibility. Beyond self and family. Something that each of us needs to consciously strive to do. Those who sacrifice their all for others and a greater cause become immortal. While accepting that Akshay’s physical presence is no longer with us, I now do believe he lives in a different realm and always will. I do hope families of Heroes who were present, Mr and Mrs Unnikrishnan, (parents of Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan), Mrs Subhashini Vasanth (wife of Col Vasant Venugopal), Mrs Shakuntala Bhandarkar and Akshay (wife and son of Lt. Col Ajit Bhandarkar) Mrs Salma Shafeeq (wife of Major Shafeeq Ghori), Mrs Beena Thomas, Meghana and Philly (wife and children of Col Jojan Thomas) and extended family members also felt comforted by Arun’s session.
Each of our bravehearts stepped forward when they could have chosen to step back. Knowing how dangerously the odds were stacked against them, they still had the courage to ensure that commitment and responsibility took precedence over self and family. Even as I write this post, images of four other brave soldiers being put to rest are being forwarded on social media. The price of freedom paid by few good men. So the rest of the nation can celebrate and sleep in peace.
To me, that Akshay went forward….. fighting to protect people he did not know….people who he felt he must save at any cost to himself….. consciously putting aside his own dreams with a loving family….that is the epitome of supreme sacrifice. Pride in Akshay often gives me the courage to stem my tears and wipe away those that force themselves out, despite gritting my teeth and clenching my lips. Known today as Akshay’s parents, we are also lucky to have such wonderful people around us, supporting us and cheering us in ways big and small. On our part, we have tried to reciprocate and will continue to reach out to everyone who feels as we do. The coming year/s will hopefully also make Akshay proud of his family.
I take this moment to wish each one of you a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year. May your relationships bloom and prosper and may we be there for those who need smiles and cheer.
Do take care and spread joy. Wishing each one of you peace, laughter and contentment in 2018. God bless you and your family.