He loved his dal, Chasen Lowang recalls suddenly. It must have been a habit he picked up in the army. So every time he came home on leave to Borduria village in Arunachal Pradesh, he and their two children, Roukhin, 10, and Senwang, 7, would eat dal and rotis while Chasen stuck to her fermented or boiled vegetables.
Today’s the first time she realizes he’s gone, she says. Back home, she could still imagine that her phone might ring early on a Sunday morning, her husband calling to remind her to take the children to church and to pray for the troops with whom he served.
The Don Bosco village church was where their romance started too. They went from exchanging glances during Sunday mass to meeting with friends to marriage in 2004. When she’s alone, she can almost imagine that he will come home and that they will all hop on to his Pulsar motorcycle and drive down to Khonsa, 12km away, for some tea and snacks by the river.
But here there’s no escaping her veer naari (army terminology for brave widow) status.
At the Republic Day parade on Thursday morning, she received the Ashoka Chakra, India’s highest peacetime military award for valour, on behalf of her husband Havildar Hangpan Dada, who died in Kashmir last May, his AK-47 still in his hands. (Read Priya Ramani’s column titled Portrait of a soldier here)
She’s scheduled to have tea with the President at Rashtrapati Bhawan a couple of hours after we meet. Everyone, including the chief of army staff and the Prime Minister, has paid their respects.
Dada, an Assam Regiment soldier posted in a Rashtriya Rifles battalion, killed three terrorists in a fierce gun battle somewhere in the remote Shamshabari range near the Line of Control (LoC) before he succumbed to an injury.
They called her at 10.30 that night to tell her he was critically injured, but she only found out the truth later when his body arrived by helicopter. The entire village attended the funeral.
Some days Chasen knows she will have to live by the Assam Regiment’s pithy motto: Tagra Raho (stay tough). She’s decided to send her children to a nearby boarding school so they can make something of their lives and so she doesn’t have to talk in whispers about their father’s death when people visit. She herself works as a clerk in the district collector’s office.
Other days she questions why a good, god-fearing man like her husband, always helpful, always the one to defuse fights, always the first to volunteer, had to go. She wonders if Dada knew he was going to die. He always told her that if anything happened to him, she shouldn’t be sad. Stay strong for the children and, remember, my regiment will always look after you, he used to say. “Now it’s all happening exactly like he said,” she says, weeping silently into a white handkerchief. Dada is the regiment’s first Ashoka Chakra and Chasen will always be a guest of honour at all regimental events, like she was at its platinum jubilee in Shillong recently.
I’m gently prodding Chasen to share stories and food seems a safe topic in the minefield of memories of their life together. He was always a better cook than her and during those visits back home, he made pork or chicken momos for the children. He boiled and shredded the meat, added bamboo shoot, fermented soybean, chopped onions and seasoning, then mulched the mixture with his hands. Come learn, he would tell Chasen and her younger sister Cha Jo.
Chasen, which means most beautiful or most lovely, is dressed in an electric-blue mekhla with a white jacket, her hair tied in a single braid that goes halfway down her back and held together with a silver-grey bow. She will record the stories nicely, her sister tells her about me. Narrate them properly, with details.
Chasen tries. She tells me about how her husband never liked her reprimanding the children. About how he was always the playful parent. Dada loved to take photographs and fool around with them on the computer. So he replicated an image of hers multiple times and laminated it. It’s an old photo of her in an off-white salwar kameez, sitting on the grass, their church in the background, orange lilies in the foreground, taken in a time when they didn’t have a cellphone.
I show her a photograph that I know is going to make her cry again. It’s the first time I saw this lovely couple, when they popped up on my WhatsApp with that all-too-familiar line: Salute to the martyr. Tell me this story, I say.
There are enough clues in that photo for anyone to tell it was taken during a holiday in Agra. Turns out it’s now also an image of their last family holiday. That year, the family visited Dada in Lucknow, where he was posted, and hung out with him from Diwali until the year-end. After celebrating New Year’s Eve with friends, they hopped on the train to Agra. Dada and the children ate lots of petha, that famed sweet of Agra. They hung out with his paratrooper buddies (Dada started his life in the army with the Para regiment) and reached the Taj Mahal in the evening. It was a perfect holiday. Last Christmas they were scheduled to visit the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata but then life changed. She tells me many more stories until she stops. I can’t tell you any more stories, she says. There’s nothing more I can ask.
Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable. She tweets at @priyaramani and posts on Instagram as babyjaanramani.
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