It’s the festive season. On behalf of our family, let me wish you all a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year in advance. While we are all doing our best to cope with losing Akshay in flesh and blood, we are also talking about him all the time and continuing to tell each other to stay strong, supportive, caring and loving. Because, Akshay has set very high standards of how to live life and embrace death, and the least we can do is try and emulate his way of bringing cheer and succor to people he came in touch with.
Akshay is remembered as this ever smiling, fun loving boy who radiated positivism but as a parent, I know he never had it easy. He worked hard towards everything he wanted to achieve and the path was usually rocky. In fact, Akshay faced some very tough challenges even after following his heart into the National Defence Academy, where he and Aditya continued to be together as ‘first termers in Echo Squadron’. Unlike the Air Force and Naval cadets who automatically get science subjects (called techies) for their academic degree, Army cadets may have to take up humanities (non-techies). Akshay had always been better at Science than at Social Studies but once he realized that many of his NDA course-mates had very high percentage of marks in their 12th Board exams, he was worried. Since many army cadets had overall % of marks in the mid-90s, Akshay had to not only keep his fingers crossed but also pro-actively try for BSc because he did not want to do a BA. Much to his relief, he succeeded in convincing the officer in charge! The next challenge was not only managing the really tough routine of military training, the constant physical and academic tests and the ‘ragda’ but also staying firm on a newly chosen path after having been denied a long-cherished dream of becoming a fighter pilot. Akshay was swayed by peer influence, some of who questioned why he opted for NDA and not for ‘commercial flying’, when his dad had given him that choice. Less than a month after joining NDA, Akshay, over a phone call, told Girish and me that he was considering leaving the academy and returning home. He added that some other cadets had run away from the tough life! I wrote Akshay a long letter reminding him of how driven he had been to choose this career, how he had overcome so many challenges right since his birth and to carefully consider and decide on what he really wanted to do. I also added that if he wanted to return, we would respect his change of mind and support whatever he chose to do. Akshay overcame confusion and chose to stay on. He never ever looked back. Even when a confrontation of the young cadets with senior 5th/6th termers took a serious turn and resulted in some of them being reassigned to other squadrons in their second term, Akshay remained motivated and cheerful. He moved on to become a proud and loyal ‘Kilo’ squadron-type, even as his soft corner for his ‘Echo’ mates never left him! When inter-squadron competitions became fierce, Akshay always said he cheered first for ‘Kilo’, and when it was not in the running for top spots, ‘Echo’ was what he rooted for! As a family, Girish, Neha and I visited Akshay more than a couple of times during his three years in NDA.
Akshay was always happy and proud to take family and friends around his squadron and talk animatedly about the vast facilities and activities that kept them on their toes from sunrise to sunset. I confess I was one of ‘those moms’ who visited her son in every term at NDA! Despite being told it was not the ‘done thing’, I seized every given opportunity to travel to Pune and visit Akshay because I missed him a lot and wanted to meet him as often as possible! My heart would swell just seeing our ‘little boy’ walking towards us, and listening to his unending stories on all he and his mates were upto, made my day. He would talk all about ‘cross country competitions to drill and PT, maths and physics classes in Sudan block to lectures, events and movies in Habibullah hall, ‘fake’ liberties and punishments to jam sessions and NDA Ball, basketball, horse riding and tennis to cream rolling, push-ups and ‘dhava’, the 10 metre board jump to racing up and down Sinhagad fort, cycling and samosas at gol market to sailing in Khadakwasla lake, the amazing NDA dining hall and fantastic menus to never having enough time to eat a full meal, the famous camps – Green horn, Rovers and Torna to the ‘Josh run’ back to the academy.’ There were many more interesting tales that I’m sure his friends will be reminded of.
We lapped up all that he would narrate, particularly when he was home during term-breaks, and we went through many emotions with Akshay. He was well aware of his weaknesses and strengths and was in awe of friends who excelled in an activity and were rewarded with a blazer or medal. He loved the wonderful camaraderie through the tough competitions and took pride in the fact that every single cadet’s performance contributed to the squadron’s position. That meant motivating each other to do their best for the squadron and never leaving a buddy or mate behind. Akshay was very proud of the stress NDA laid on character-building for ‘officer-like qualities’. He often spoke about the code of honour and how lying, cheating and stealing are the only vices not tolerated in NDA. Not owing up would result in a cadet being thrown out. The spirit of the ‘Cradle for Leadership’ had seeped in till it flowed in Akshay’s veins. Our charmer also had this innate and intuitive ability to reach out to help a fellow being faced with a problem. In their final term at NDA, Akshay called to ask if he could bring a friend home for a night. He went on to explain how the friend from an economically backward family was stressed because his father was unable to repay a loan. The family was being harassed by the money lender and the young son, a cadet like Akshay, wanted to help his family. Girish gladly gave the money and we got to meet and admire the grit and determination of another young officer in the making. Needless to say, the young man returned the money once he got his officers commission.
It was while on a break home from NDA that Akshay and Sangeeta took their initial friendship (they had earlier met through common friends) a step ahead. They spent hours on the phone late at night and Akshay began to sport that slightly goofy smile that the ‘falling-in-love’ types are famous for! While I wasnt really privy to details of their relationship at that stage, like most mothers, I could sense my son was happier than he had previously been in other ‘crushes’. As I come to the end of this part of Akshay’s story, flashback is merging with fast-forward. Recollections bring me to the ‘Hut of Remembrance’ in NDA. I remember Akshay telling me that the cadets themselves had built the revered memorial in the mid 1950s to honour the sacrifices of NDA alumni who laid down their lives in service of the motherland. The prayer when the Academy assembles to pay homage to the martyrs says “Merciful God, we earnestly pray, that those of us who are yet to be tested and shaped in the forge of the battle, may, when the call comes, be capable of the same devotion, courage and determination, in the service of our country, as those of our comrades – at – arms, whom we remember today, in this Hut of Remembrance. Let their noble example guide us to emulate them in their integrity and may their inspiration help us in the moments of our greatest peril to triumph over our shortcomings and weaknesses”. The names of 2/Lt Arun Khetarpal and Capt Manoj Kumar Pandey are legendary and Akshay would speak about their astonishing bravery and their gallantry awards. On a recent course re-union at the NDA, my brother Hari and friend Geetanjali sent us some images. The name of our son, ‘Major Akshay Girish – 51 Engineers’ is already enshrined in the sublime memorial. If only he could see his name in his alma mater’s Hut of Remembrance, that wonderful smile of satisfaction would light up Akshay’s face. I can picture that smile through blurry eyes.