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Kargil’s children

Accounts of the loss and fortitude of a handful of youngsters, children of fallen soldiers, who visited the war zone for the first time last month to commemorate the 26 July victory

(Clockwise, standing from left) Diksha, Arif, Bhavya, Bhim, Palwinder, Vishal, Nanjundayya and Neha—children of army personnel who lost their life in the Kargil war. Photographs: Pradeep Gaur/MintPremium
(Clockwise, standing from left) Diksha, Arif, Bhavya, Bhim, Palwinder, Vishal, Nanjundayya and Neha—children of army personnel who lost their life in the Kargil war. Photographs: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

I can’t describe the feeling

My heartbeat was really fast

I screamed for Diksha

I started crying; everybody started crying

I thought I wouldn’t be able to breathe.

I thought this is how you must feel when you die.

—Neha Dwivedi

Every night we prayed to God. Daddy has gone to war, make him come back safely. When we heard daddy was no more, I said: But we pray every day for him to come back. This is betrayal.

—Diksha Dwivedi

In the summer of 1999, Diksha, 8, and Neha Dwivedi, 12, were escorting home their father’s coffin with the Indian flag draped over it. “I remember thinking we’re all on the same flight, just not together," says Neha, 29. “We were very dependent on him. He would take leave for our exams. Almost embarrassingly, I started thinking: Who will teach me math now?" That year when Major C.B. Dwivedi, a Gunner with the 315 Field Regiment, died in artillery shelling was also the year Neha failed her math exam.

“Gunners don’t have much choice to hide when they are firing because they are sitting right at the top of their artillery guns facing the enemy, looking at them eye-to-eye," Diksha, 25, wrote for an online storytelling platform recently. “That’s where my daddy sat. Right at the top. Fearlessly."

India won the Kargil war, a fierce high-altitude battle that caught us in a surprise chokehold when the Pakistani army broke a pact and sneaked up several peaks in the Drass and Batalik regions of Jammu and Kashmir 17 years ago. These included the menacing, snow-topped, almost perfectly triangular peak of Tiger Hill at 17,411ft and its relatively benign-looking neighbour Tololing.

Indian soldiers had to scale these bare peaks well after the Pakistanis were comfortably ensconced and firing from key posts vacated by the Indian Army in winter according to an agreement between the two countries. That strategy of throwing men at the enemy resulted in the loss of 547 soldiers; 1,363 were injured.

The army wasn’t able to say how many children faced the sudden loss of their fathers, but these accounts of the handful of Kargil’s children who visited the war zone for the first time last month to commemorate the 26 July victory reflect the coming-of-age stories of the children of other fallen soldiers.

Tololing, which lies splat just beyond what is now the Kargil War Memorial, is only a few kilometres from the arterial Srinagar-Leh highway (NH1D), which was the first target of this attack. The Line of Control (LoC) lies around 10km behind this mountain.

They were so close. That’s the first thing you think when you see Tololing. Unless there’s another reason you can’t stop staring at it. Bhavya Pundir, daughter of Squadron Leader Rajiv Pundir, who visited this year for the army’s annual memorial, could only see the place her father’s Mi-17 helicopter was downed by a missile. He was one of five air force personnel who died in Kargil.

“I remember dad every day of my life but coming here is very overwhelming," says Bhavya, 25, who took time out from her postgraduate degree in medicine to make this trip. There’s a memory that’s stuck in her head from when she was eight years old. Her father was home and they were scheduled to go on a family vacation. That morning, Bhavya woke up early but her parents were not in bed. She found them outside the house, standing by a van. Her father had been called back. “That’s when I said my final goodbye to him. He told me to take care of mum," she says.

Palwinder Singh, 20, looks at Tiger Hill in the distance. “I can’t draw my eyes away. I’m going to go home and show it to all my friends on Google Earth."

If loss lined Neha’s gut with a pessimism that she finds difficult to shake off, it had the reverse effect on Palwinder. She decided early on that she would enjoy and stay bindaas (carefree) because “life ka koi pata nahin (life is unpredictable)". So she ignores lectures from her flight attendant friend about eating too many carbs and losing weight; she binge-watches TV shows such as Oggy And The Cockroaches, to her mother’s despair; imitates teachers and dances to loud music when she’s not studying for her nursing exams.

She heard the story of her father’s death for the first time during this visit to Kargil. It made her feel proud but she doesn’t usually like discussing how Lance Havildar Baldev Singh of 3 Punjab died. It’s a trait she probably gets from her mother who, according to Palwinder, hasn’t once expressed her emotions in front of her two children these past 17 years. Lots of things make Palwinder angry, from the length of her name to the times when her college friends keep discussing their fathers.

For Kargil’s children, being present, finally, at this high-altitude battleground that swallowed up their fathers is a surreal experience. “Beneath this earth young warriors sleep," reads the inscription on a wall in the pink sandstone memorial. The names of all their fathers are on this particular roll call.

Nanjundayya, 24, son of Lance Havildar Mallayya of the 315 Field Regiment who died of artillery shelling, took three days to get to Drass from Koppal in Karnataka (via Hubli-Delhi-Jammu-Srinagar). “Dad died on 2 July," he says. “Had he survived only 24 days more, he would have come home."

When he was a young man, Mallayya left home without telling his father and joined the army. After Mallayya died, Nanjundayya wanted to follow in his footsteps too, but he couldn’t clear the National Defence Academy exams (I can’t help thinking that the army needs a mentoring programme for the children who get left behind).

For Nanjundayya, this visit has filled in some blanks. “I remember him a lot. I never knew how he lived, what his daily life was like. Now I understand," he says.

Of course the area looks dramatically different from the string of sleepy hamlets it was back in 1999. The stamp of army deployment is all over western Ladakh now. After the war, India posted additional troops, artillery infrastructure and surveillance equipment. The Kargil War Memorial, with its Bofors gun, MiG-21 fighter aircraft and Pakistani bunkers marked with that country’s flag pinned upside down, is on the tourist circuit now. “I can say with confidence that another Kargil can never happen," Northern Army Commander Lt Gen. D.S. Hooda said at the memorial service. The Northern Command is the army formation that has the unenviable task of keeping an eye on the borders we share with Pakistan and China.

For those who had a front-row seat to the war that did happen, coming here is an emotional trigger that can take you straight back to the day the news changed your life.

Arif (like his father, he goes by one name) was 9, the eldest of five children, and living in Mainpuri, Uttar Pradesh, where a Dalit couple was recently axed to death because they couldn’t pay a shopkeeper 15. He didn’t even know the Kargil war was on. All he knew was that his mum stayed tense. His dad, CQMH (company quarter-master havildar, usually in charge of managing the logistics of a company) Amruddin of 22 Grenadiers, had already prepared his wife for the logistics of his possible death.

They’ll come and tell you if I die, he had said. So when a bunch of important local officials came knocking, asking her questions about her family, she fell at their feet crying. Amruddin had died during one of the bloody battles to recapture the strategically important Khalubar Ridge. By the time his body was extracted and brought home, it was badly decomposed and unrecognizable.

Arif’s glad the army helped him leave that godforsaken town shortly after and enrolled him at the Rashtriya Military School, Dholpur, Rajasthan; he never wants to go back to the place that was once home. After flirting with boxing (he still has the body of a boxer), engineering (his classmates were almost evenly divided into those who chose the army and those who opted for the Indian Institutes of Technology), modelling, acting, and long motorcycle trips, he began his own start-up, Chai and More, a year and a half ago. “Nobody told me anything, nobody guided me on my life’s choices," he says. Sometimes Arif feels good that he cracked life without any assistance, at other times he craves his father’s counsel.

Three of his four siblings plan to join the army. He wonders if he would have been better off in the army too, away from the monotony and stress of corporate life. If dad had been around, Arif would definitely have signed up. But you’ve done so well, I point out. What do you think your dad would say about your achievements if he were alive, I ask. “Bigad gaya hai," he replies instantly. You’ve lost your way.

I guess the weight of dad’s expectations can be hard to shrug off. Havildar Tam Bahadur Chhetri of 1 Naga always wanted his son Bhim to be an officer. Bhim, 30, didn’t clear the exams. “Maybe I didn’t study enough, maybe I wasn’t good enough," he says in his typical self-deprecating manner. He’s spent most of his adult life going from job to job, an eternal journeyman, looking to fit in. This is the third time he’s come to Kargil. He preferred his last visit when he was alone, and a soldier told him about the role the Naga Regiment had played in winning back Tololing and other peaks. “I got emotional. Every visit is different," he says.

Army dads routinely miss the births of their children. Their annual holidays rarely coincide with the day baby took her first steps or said her first word or turned 18. Yet somehow they manage to notch up their share of classic dad memories in the short time they are back home. So all these years later, apart from that sense of overwhelming pride that your father died serving his country and that early life lesson in selflessness, what’s left is mostly that dad-time you got.

Arif was disciplined every time he skipped school. Nanjundayya still has the cricket bat his dad bought him from Kashmir; also his regiment cap, glasses and trunk. “He loved me a lot," he says. “Kapil Dev was his favourite cricketer." Bhim’s dad taught him how to cycle and play cricket. He encouraged him to eat more vegetarian food. “Every father tells his son to be a nice guy, be good in studies, do a good job. He told me that," says Bhim. From her dad Bhavya learnt swimming and that there’s more to life than academics. She believes she became a trained Kuchipudi dancer because of the way he emphasized extracurriculars.

In our digital world where every baby step and sound is recorded and where social networking sites such as Facebook have apps titled “If I Die" that let you post a final message for after you’re gone, it’s difficult to imagine anyone who doesn’t have baby pictures with their father. Those who were lucky enough to have a dad who enjoyed cameras can keep going back to those precious records of his love. If there are enough images, you can even have favourites:

“Mine is my mum and dad and Diksha sitting on the bed. I cut off his face when I took the photo," says Neha “He let me have his camera so that’s my favourite photo."

“Mussoorie on a boat," adds Diksha. “We were both frowning and hugging him."

“I’m sitting on the roof of our fawn-coloured Maruti 800 and he’s there beside me. In another, I’m wearing his air force cap. He taught me how to swim. There’s a picture of the first time he took me to the swimming pool with my brother. I’m wearing floats but I’m so scared. I look like I think I’m going to drown," says Bhavya.

“We’re playing cricket. It was the last time he was home. He’s batting, I’m bowling," says Bhim. “Also the ones he sent from Kashmir carrying mortar and guns. And one natural one where maybe he was scolding someone."

Fathers have a way of influencing the lives of their children long after they are gone, right? So Diksha always knew she wanted to do something that would touch the lives of people. She didn’t want to go to war so she picked journalism. “I wanted to get better at it, and tell his story. Most heroes haven’t got the recognition they deserve. We forget so quickly," she says.

Her sister Neha was sure she wanted to marry a man in uniform (and she did). Her ideal of a man, a husband, a dad was shaped so dramatically by her father, she knew she was bound to compare all men to that impossible image. She wanted to join the army after completing her degree in medicine too, but the timing didn’t work out.

For Vishal, it was the memory of his father Naik Shiv Basayya (of 16 Engineers) that propelled him through a vocational course in mechatronics and robotics. He got a job in a neighbouring state but his mum didn’t want him to go. She stopped him from joining the army too. “I can’t handle my son also leaving," says Nirmala, who is reluctant to let us chat alone. Sit straight, she tells him gently in Kannada when I want to take a picture of him with my phone.

At the end, the story of Kargil’s lost fathers is also the story of young mothers who had to buckle up and fill in the void. “My mum never let anything lack in my life," says Palwinder. Her mother told her not to join the army too. “Her fear is still sitting in her head," adds Palwinder.

Of course, for every mother who kept her child away from the army, you’ll find another whose son or daughter signed up. A soldier’s regiment is his extended family even after he’s gone.

Neha and Diksha’s mum Bhawna was a pampered, loved “chhoti baby" to her husband. After his death, she learnt to drive and opted to move away from the security of family to a big city for the sake of her daughters’ education. She’s come a long way from the nights she spent sitting on the living room sofa, talking to the framed photograph of her husband she held in her hands. Every time she hears of a family living in the same city who has suffered the loss she did in Kargil, she goes to their house. She doesn’t wait for a call, an invitation or someone to accompany her. She simply goes there and stands in a corner during the prayer service. Eventually she walks up to the woman who has lost her husband and tells her what to do and how to hold it together. She’s just returning the favour from 17 years ago.

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Updated: 12 Aug 2016, 08:58 AM IST
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