So much has happened since I last reached out to you all. Most important is the full integration of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh so all citizens of India have the same rights and responsibilities. As normalcy slowly returns after decades of conflict in the Kashmir valley, we are together as a nation, united in fighting terrorism and hopefully, continuing to work towards peace, development and being better people.
On Gandhi Jayanti, a team from the online education portal Vedantu came home to do a shoot on Akshay for their Biotonic channel for students. During the time I was speaking to Vani and for the camera, Naina seemed busy playing with her friend. In the afternoon, as I was feeding her lunch after they left, she caught me off guard with a question. ‘Avva, did those bad people ‘shot’ my papa? Did he die?’ I put the plate aside in pain and holding her close had to tell her the truth. ‘Your papa and other heroes fought bravely with terrorists to save so many uncles, aunties and kids sweetie. That’s why he could not save himself. He had to save others. While fighting, bullets and bombs hit him.’ Her eyes were big pools, her mouth quivered. ‘Yees…but if he had got saved, he would have come for my birthday.’ I had no words left to comfort Naina. Such a simple wish that cannot be fulfilled. Just hugged her and rocked her while holding back my own tears. ‘I still miss papa’ she repeated, as many times before, and I nodded and kissed her. In a few days now, Naina will celebrate her 6th birthday. Her 3rd without her loving papa.
What makes a 19-year-old go to Kargil, although she wasn’t even born when her soldier father was killed in action?
What makes a young woman, married just couple of years, want to join the Air Force after her husband went down in a fighter crash?
What makes siblings, friends, sometimes even strangers, keep a martyred soldier alive through actions, words and work?
These questions that fit many real people pop up as Girish and I make multiple trips this year to places Akshay lived in, trained in, loved being in. These places, the NDA, the IMA, the Bengal Sappers Regimental Centre, and of course his parent unit, the 51 Engineers, made him what he became in the 12 and half years he spent there, after leaving school at age seventeen.
After a very nostalgic visit to NDA, this time seeing his name in the ‘Hut of Remembrance’, we also went to IMA, our first visit after Akshay’s Course Passing Our Parade on 10th December 2007. From the high security entry gate to Chetwood Hall and Parade Ground, the many training spaces in the sprawling campus, the impressive Commandant’s Office, the Military History and magnificent Portraits displayed in the Museum, the sprawling Dining Hall that seats 1400 cadets at one time, the state of art Classrooms, Physical Training areas and Firing Ranges…. we saw a bit of Akshay in every space. The smart young future officers on their bicycles gave us curious looks as they passed by and each one could have been our son….
Our most cherished, most sentimental moments were when we were taken around Alamein Company and got to take few pictures at the very room that was Akshay’s home while he trained. A room he shared with course-mate and close friend Shorya. Introduced to Mr Amarjeet who remembers Akshay as ‘Saab Physical Training mein tagde the…unko Tyagi Sir bahut pasand karte the’ his words transported me to Akshay whilst in IMA, happily telling me ‘you know ma, Maj Rajat Tyagi from Para SF told me I should opt for Para….’ We saw the Course photograph in the ante room and memories of the December 2007 POP of IMA Platinum Jubilee reviewed by then PM Dr Manmohan Singh, came alive. Images of Akshay among newly commissioned officers singing ‘Bharat Mata Teri Kasam, Tere Rakshak Rahenge Hum’ as they marched. The wide joyful smiles as smart young Lieutenants with stars in their eye to match the stars on their shoulders, clicking pictures with proud families….
Our gratitude to the very kind gesture of the IMA Commandant for giving us a precious gift- his framed dossier filled in Akshay’s own handwriting- one the day he joined IMA and the other, the day he left after getting his choice of Arms and Regiment. Girish and me took turns in holding it close to our hearts, as if the frame was our Akshay himself.
While in Dehradun, we were honoured to visit the family of braveheart Major Vibhuti S Dhoundiyal martyred fighting terrorists in Pulwama on 18th February 2019. As always, when families of heroes connect, words do not matter. We met his grieving yet proud mother, eldest sister and brother in law, but missed meeting his young wife Nitika as she works in Delhi. Major Vibhuti of 55 RR was leading from the front during the encounter to kill the trapped terrorist who was the mastermind of the horribly cruel Pulwama attack that killed 44 soldiers in a CRPF Convoy. Shared emotions automatically bring us close and we sat and spoke for a long time, listening to stories of Vibhuti and his bravery. Leading his QRT to stop terrorists at the cost of his own life…courage, valour and supreme sacrifice that has been recognized and honoured with the Shaurya Chakra.
Nitika and I often speak to each other and although we have never met, it feels as if I have known her for long now. My heart broke when I saw her on TV, looking at her husbands face for the last time, speaking to him, blowing a kiss, saying ‘Jai Hind’ before breaking down with ’I love you Vibhu’. The mother in me and maybe the daughter in her share stories of our bravehearts and of our own feelings and emotions over the phone. We laugh sometimes at funny incidents of Vibhuti and Akshay. At this point, I feel I must share something that struck me about Nitika. From the very first conversation, my respect for this young woman with a mind of her own and heart in the right place has been immense. Married barely a year to her long-time sweetheart before her beloved was martyred, I distinctly remember her sweet voice and words, trying to be strong, telling me she is ok while sounding broken, over-working to still her thoughts and cope with her loss, and yet so very compassionate towards Vibhuti’s mother and sisters. ‘I feel really sad for Ma…she is like a baby and whenever I see her face, though she bravely says she is ok, I can see how much she misses Vibhu….and I wish I could do more to protect her from her pain. I wish, but I can’t. I want to do something that will make Vibhu proud of me’. Touched beyond words, I tell her ‘He is already proud of you Nitika.’
Recently got to know that this young wife, on her own initiative, has ensured she shares half of the monetary benefits with Maj Vibhuti’s mother and has given standing instructions to her Bank. ‘Ma kept saying mujhe kuch nahi chahiye…mein kya karoongi paise ka… but aunty, if I don’t do this, how will I sleep at night?’ In a world as materialistic as the one we live in, a world where we sadly know that families break apart over money, she comes like a breath of rare fragrance. Not just strong, kind and loving but also righteous and fair. Sure her Vibhu is very proud of her and loves her more than ever. Nitika, God bless you and may you and ma always be a beacon for others to take inspiration from.
An hour and half drive from IMA takes us to the Bengal Sappers Regimental Centre at Roorkee. Known for showcasing the magnificent ‘Jal Tarang’ Water Exercise every year for all IMA Cadets. History and contemporary training come together in one of the largest Regimental Centres of the Indian Army. Writing about it would need a year-book so I will focus on just the Battle of Guznee which we learnt about at the very well-designed Museum. I am also sharing this information as a tribute to our Indian soldiers who fought heroically over a hundred years before India became Independent and are hence probably unsung.
When he stayed and trained in Guznee Company soon after he became LT Akshay Girish, I wondered at the choice of name. The reason is now clear. In 1839, as the British Army headed towards Afghanistan, Guznee was an impenetrable fort that stopped their forward movement. The enemy was strong and secure within the high stone walls of the Fort and rained bullets at the troops of Indian soldiers led by a British Officer. The gates that seemed impossible to enter were opened up because of the bravery of our soldiers. Led by Subedar Devi Singh, 13 men of the Bengal Sappers, unmindful of their lives as they were fired upon by the enemy, made a dash to the Kabul gate of Fort Guznee carrying bags of charge (gunpowder). The charge was then blown up by a flame and in the massive explosion that followed, the gate was blown apart and Guznee fell to advancing columns in the battle. History was also made as Subedar Devi Singh and the 13 brave sepoys were honoured with the first Gallantry Awards ever given by the British to Indian soldiers. All were awarded with the ‘Indian Order of Merit’, equivalent to the Victoria Cross, for their unimaginable bravery and sacrifice.
the warmth with which Akshay’s seniors took care of Girish and me will forever be cherished. Even more joy came from the stories we heard about Akshay! Navneet told us of how she first met Akshay in Roorkee when he and two other newly minted Lieutenants were invited home. ‘I remember only Akshay from that day aunty. He came well dressed in formals with a scarf, bringing me a pink and white flower bouquet. I was pregnant with my second child and he didn’t let me get up or do any work! Insisted on bringing in food from the kitchen and serving it.’ Akshay’s immediate senior and friend spoke about how Akshay was always cheerful but was also sensitive and spoke his mind when he felt strongly about something. His wife Smita recounted an outing while they were together in Kanchrapara near Kolkata. ‘We unit families went out for dinner one evening aunty….and after eating and paying the bill, as we were leaving, we heard a crash of crockery. The waiter clearing our table had dropped a pile of plates which broke. Akshay turned back and took out Rs 2000/ to give to the waiter so he would not have to pay for the broken mess. When I tried to stop him, Akshay said ‘count blessings maam, not money’. That is my raja beta. Always felt for the poor and was most generous. Almost 3 years since Akshay, grateful that we are still learning so much more about our son. He lives in so many minds and hearts.
We also heard many words of pride in Akshay for his actions in Nagrota…..and anguish expressed by senior officers that he has not been duly honoured for so courageously leading the QRT and fighting to the end, saving lives of women, children and men that fateful day. How it feels to see Akshay’s name along with Chittaranjan’s, in the historical War Memorial, is very hard to explain.
Last month, after 4 days of Naina running high fever, Sangeeta was helped by Anirudh for timely hospital visits and tests. I felt my heart fill up with emotion to see a ‘frightened of the needle’ Naina bravely go through a second blood test. Back home, unable to sleep, as I went around switching off the lights and drawing the curtains before retiring for the night, I stopped to turn back and talk to Akshay in the picture. ‘You better get your little baby better soon’, I found myself telling Naina’s papa. He always seems to look back at me, gaze steady and reassuring half-smile! After three bouts of fever lasting a month, Naina has made a slow but steady recovery and has bounced back in time to enjoy her birthday.
The thought that comes to mind is this. She is growing up and many more questions are likely in the years to come. Hope before she is old enough to ask ‘why my papa was not given due honour for his valour and supreme sacrifice’ the system responds. A mistake is ok. It is in not taking corrective action that Akshay the soldier has been insulted… and this has caused us unbearable anguish. His brothers in arms, regiment and beyond, many in and out of uniform, friends and also strangers have reached out to share such feelings and yet, why haven’t those in decision making stood by a soldier who took on the leadership to save precious lives in such a dangerous, hostage like situation? To the few who say ‘these things happen…not everyone gets a gallantry award’ and ‘some who deserved less got more while there are other soldiers who did so much and got left out,’ I remember reading what Lt Gen Ata Hasnain wrote. Its ok if those who deserved less got more. But to not duly honour soldiers after gallantry in going beyond the call of duty, is shunning responsibility. To us as a family, the system not standing by a soldier who gave his all to the nation, saving lives of many people, is not only very painful but almost unforgivable.
That takes me back to Nagrota – Akshay’s Karmabhoomi. While Girish and other family members made visits, I could not bring myself to go back after February 2017. This time, we parents went back together….on a sort of pilgrimage. As we lit lamps for all soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice that fateful day of November 29th 2016, we met a doctor who had been among the many rescued from the residential block where Kunal, Akshay and Chittaranjan fell in action. ‘18 of us were evacuated from this one building alone’ he said, eyes disturbed, as we blessed him for getting through the ordeal.
This year has been one of strange coincidences in terms of celebrations. Vijaydashmi coincided with Air Force Day and Girish’s birthday on 8th October. In this same month, on 28th October, Deepavali is coinciding with Naina’s birthday. We together with Sangeeta and Anirudh, Akshay’s grandparents, Neha-Pardish and the extended family & friends, will joyfully bring in Naina’s 6th. With hope and faith that the lamps will also light up the lives of all our people and bring unity peace and prosperity to fully integrated Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh.The Sarv Dharm Sthals in our Armed Forces are a shining example of religious harmony and respect for diversity.
Here is a cute moment of this day, 4 years ago when Akshay is teasing Neha while she has mehendi on her hands! Akshay had taken a whole months leave for his darling sister’s wedding to Pradish and the ‘Bro’s’ had barely bonded a year when Akshay was called away for a greater cause. Some bonds though, no matter how short, last a lifetime?
As Naina grows up, I hope she will always remember her papa happily as ‘Tu Mera Hero’, setting the stage on fire for childhood friend Pooja’s wedding to Viraj, along with Neha-Dhruv-Priyanka-Sangeeta. Video quality isn’t great but do copy paste and enjoy Akshay’s charm and finesse even in a silly song and dance!
Thank you for being part of our continuing journey and supporting our work in taking forward a courageous legacy of service and sacrifice through Major Akshay Girish Memorial Trust. In just over 15 months, we have been lucky to have made a difference to the lives of many students in schools and colleges through our work aimed at strengthening patriotism and contributing to nation building.
We also continue to visit and bond with families of bravehearts and salute the sacrifices of real heroes who paid the price for us all to live and enjoy our freedom. Salute Sepoy Sohan Lal (Assam Rifles, martyred fighting militants in North-East) and family of little daughter Arohi, his wife and parents in a village beyond Jammu and Constable H Guru (CRPF Jawan recently martyred in Pulwama suicide bombing) and his family in a village near Mandya, Karnataka. Do keep families coping with grief and loss in your thoughts.
Happy Deepavali to each one of you and to your extended families. May you all meet often, love and bond in this extended festive season right through Christmas and New year.
As always, your comments, suggestions and sharing of experiences are much appreciated so please keep them coming.
Stay happy and stay blessed.
P.S. If you would like to watch and share this message to motivate and inspire students to never give up, please do see the Vedantu-Biotonic link: