Love. Laugh. Repeat.
I wasn’t the academically inclined, career-oriented woman. A regular job, big goals and bigger targets seemed mundane to me. I was a national player in badminton but didn’t want to choose it as my profession. I just wanted to enjoy life, get married and set up a home. So, when my family started to discuss my marriage, it didn’t bother me. I was 21, the eldest among three sisters and already a graduate. I enrolled in a post-graduation degree simply because I didn’t know what else to do with my time. My father was in the Indian Army and I was awed by the uniform. The man of my dreams had to be an Army officer! In my mind, I had painted a picture of an ideal partner and a life in military cantonments.
My dream came true when I met Sanjeet. He was an Infantry Officer and though it was an ‘arranged’ set up, there was no consideration of caste and region. He was from Bihar and I was a Dogri Punjabi. Being raised as a fauji kid, such differences didn’t matter. I felt an instant connection with him. Both of us found what we were looking for and tied the knot in December, 1992.
At that time, Sanjeet was posted in Suratgarh, Rajasthan. I continued to stay in Amritsar before he could make arrangements for me to join him. In the meantime, he asked me to finish my post-graduation. He must’ve tried everything, from convincing to pampering me, but I decided to leave the degree midway and act like it never happened! Every weekend, he would catch a train to visit me until I moved with him. We stayed together for less than a year but I got to know him better and he made me feel special in so many ways. He was perfect and I was thrilled to find the best man!
The Army Life
When he aced the Junior Command Course, he let me feel as if I was behind his success. Before he went for UN Mission, I was expecting our first child. We were blessed with a beautiful daughter, Tanisha, and I eagerly waited for Sanjeet to come back. I wanted him to see that our love now has a face. Shortly after his return, his Unit was deployed in Kashmir. In those days, families were not allowed to live there. It was a setback because Tanisha had hardly seen her father. I couldn’t imagine two more years without him after a long separation already. He told me that the only way to be together was if he qualifies the prestigious Defence Services Staff College exam. It meant moving to the Staff College where we could be together again. The idea lured me and for the next few months, I ensured that my daughter and I give him ample time to focus on his studies. We waited for him to take a break and even a slight movement of his study room’s door was an opportunity for us to sneak in, sometimes to just be around him.
In September 1997, Sanjeet gave his exams and left for Kashmir. Tanisha and I went back to my parents. That year, Diwali was on 31st October and unable to stay away from my husband any longer, I got my tickets booked for the next day to go and visit him. I had never felt so zealous on Diwali and to make the festival brighter, I got a call from Sanjeet telling me that he has cleared the exam! He made it in the Competitive list which was a matter of great pride for all of us. We were thrilled and like always, I happily took the credit of ‘allowing’ him all that time away from me to study! We laughed and, in that moment, everything seemed dreamy.
But little did I expect to encounter my worst nightmare in broad daylight.
The Darkest Night
We talked in the afternoon and soon after
that, his unit was tasked with an operation in Srinagar. Along with his team,
he left for the location, unaware that he would never return. An IED blast took
away his life and that of many others.
I was told that Sanjeet had struggled to live. Eye witnesses said they saw him get up and walk a few steps before he fell again. When his Commanding Officer reached the spot, he pleaded to be saved. He said he wanted to meet his wife and daughter the next day. He was rushed to the Base Hospital in Srinagar but couldn’t survive.
On a Diwali night, the unbearable horror of losing him darkened every corner of my being.
In a few years of marriage, Sanjeet had occupied every extent of my imagination. I had put him on a pedestal that was above everything and everyone else. I hadn’t prepared myself for a time when he wouldn’t be around. His body arrived at his hometown after two days. I remembered how I always told my mother-in-law that I reserve the right to see him first because I am the wife! Whenever he was back on leave, she used to laugh and say, ‘See, YOUR Sanjeet has come!’ Now that we saw the coffin, we broke down inconsolably. He was unrecognizable except a single white hair at the back of his head which became my only acceptance of reality.
It was time I had to figure what to do next. I was young and had my whole life ahead of me. I couldn’t be sitting idle. I had to set a strong example for my daughter.
What ensued was a life I never imagined for myself. I went to Delhi and enrolled in an MBA coaching center. At the same time, I read in the newspaper about a waiver for ‘war widows’ in SSB. For further guidance, I went to meet the first war widow who became an Army Officer. Donning the uniform was an entirely new idea but it was the closest I could be to Sanjeet, in spirit and service. The preparation for yet another entrance exam, and this one of a very different kind, wasn’t easy. I went to Chandigarh and joined an SSB training academy. All this while, Tanisha lived with my parents. Since the academy had no lodging facility, I stayed in a children’s hostel at a boarding school.
From being a girl who didn’t want any interaction beyond ‘Hi, how are you – I am fine, thank you’ with strangers, I was learning to speak on open forums in front of Army aspirants. In a batch of 70, I was the only girl in the Academy. Every step of my journey amazed me. I was determined to make it through, however impossible it looked. On completion of the course, I came back home. My day started with a morning run, followed by more tuitions and endless sessions of essay writing. In all of this, I also tried to give as much time as possible to Tanisha. After all the toil, I did not only clear the MBA entrance exam but also cracked SSB!
In September 1998, I joined the Officers’ Training Academy at Chennai. On Sanjeet’s first death anniversary, I was preparing to be an officer myself.
Tanisha and I
My daughter and I have made great sacrifices to be where we are today. As a child, she saw me overcome infinite challenges and became a great support. She was raised by her grandparents while I was building a better future for both of us. She was just a toddler then! The pangs of separation were unbearable and so were the years when I had to put her in a boarding school. For whatever time we’ve been together, we’ve made the best of it. She’s grown up to be graceful and intelligent, just like her father.
Both of us are proud of each other. She is
proud of me for taking charge of my life and changing its course. I am proud of
her for being a wonderful daughter and I’m sure, up in the heavens, Sanjeet is proud
of us too.