My father was my super hero, I wanted to be like him. He was a second generation soldier, having joined the British Indian Army in the early years of the second World War. He brought in a lot of commitment, love and integrity into the family, and along with my mother’s innate offerings of order, fun, organization and passion, the children were blessed in their upbringing. I was the youngest of four siblings in a military family.
I was drawn to the romanticism of being a soldier from my early years; it happened with me, but it necessarily doesn’t happen to everyone. Like my elder brother never felt drawn to the profession of arms. After graduating with honors in Political Science, I quit a fairly cushy and promising job in the private sector (much to the agony of my boss) to join the Indian Military Academy (IMA), Dehra Dun, when I cleared the tough selection process. My dream life was about to unfurl!
When you have to break a young man down from his past conditioning and habits and remold him into being a tough soldier, an inspiring leader and an ageless gentleman, one has to be put through a daunting grind affecting the physical, mental and emotional entities in all the cadets. There is no soldier-officer who doesn’t remember his days at the academy with mixed feelings, though the aftertaste is always sweet and fulfilling.
What a fantastic place the Army was to continue one’s education about life. The qualities of commitment, bonding, love, bonhomie, integrity, focus, ‘can do’ attitude, fearlessness and responsibility come bubbling forth in the life of a soldier. All these things keep the blood racing through your veins all the time, it keeps you alive and excited, it keeps you in a space of love all the time.
I married the first lady I fell in love with. We were married, all of a sudden, a little over a year of knowing each other. In June of 1984, with war clouds (so I thought then) hovering overhead, I had come home on a short spell of leave to ‘attend’ my sister’s wedding. While my operational exigencies prevented me from getting home in time for my sister’s wedding, it saw Chitra and I tying the knot instead. When I’d told her of the impending likelihood of a war, she insisted (as opposed to my initial protests) that we must get married then. And we were, the very next day. The next 32 years I spent in the army, saw us having to live away from each other in spells and living together in spells. Along with the blessings of two boys to complete our beautiful family we experienced a life of love and agonies, comfort and challenges, pain and blessings. That’s what life is all about, equal ups & downs. In my 37 years long military career I have had a fair share of mortal danger, fear, agony, pain, sorrow, disappointment, frustration, courage, elation, victory, love, success, satisfaction and fulfillment. A grateful nation to has honored my experiences by citing me both for bravery and dedication to duty. I feel full and blessed.
Then, virtually all of a sudden, came the time to shed my uniform and hang up my boots. As I have mentioned that I had lived and given the best years of my life for almost four decades to this unmatchable way of life. I couldn’t just change tracks in my life so suddenly without taking stock. It dawned on me that the one thing I owed all my satisfaction, fulfillment, love, well being and blessings to was the sacrifice of my fellow soldiers. They sacrificed their only treasures (their lives) not only for me and their fellow buddies, but also for the nation and its citizens, whole lot of faceless people they had never even known. How big is that! How many of us would willingly give up our lives for the safety and freedom of people we don’t even know? While some of these gallant men are recognized for their deeds of courage, the sacrifice of most virtually go unnoticed & unrecognized, save for an honourable military funeral. And then, the worst, they begin to fade from the memories of the very people they sacrificed their lives for.
I decided, soon after I hang up my boots, I would pay my respects to these virtually (and often) forgotten heroes of our nation. I just had to do that before I could put my nearly four decades of military life behind me. I found out that there were just under 21,000 such heroes since the nation attained independence from colonial rule. I devised my personal homage to them in the form of a solo cycling journey around the country, passing through all the 29 states, as our fallen heroes come from every corner of the nation. I had given myself a mandate of cycling two minutes (as we observe two minutes’ silence at memorial services) in the memory of each fallen hero of our country, totaling 42,000 minutes. This would take me anything up to seven months and I would have traversed somewhere between 10 and 12,000 km.
The journey – A Veteran’s Homage Journey began on October 19th, 2016, 18 days after I retired, accompanied by my better half Chitra, who traveled in a car and took care of the challenging logistics of our private journey. The slow and arduous journey began from Ambala Cantonment (Haryana), my last station of duty, and headed eastwards. Traveling at a pace anywhere between 50 and 150 km a day, we moved from one town to another, initially fairly incognito. Every day I would set out between 4 and 5 am and finish the day’s journey after anywhere between 7 and 12 hours on the road. Besides the exotic marvel of nature, the one thing that touched us profoundly on this journey was the people we encountered in the different parts of our huge country. We met with and were hosted by all hues of the nation’s citizens, not just the military fraternity, but the entire spectrum: farmers, police, business people, students, people in public life, bureaucrats, peasants, social workers, ordinary rural or urban folk, just anyone. And what an invigorating and life altering experience it was! We found everyone, without an exception, to be caring, loving, patriotic and wanting to do something good for the society around them. But, quite unfortunately, most of us are so embroiled in the daily struggles of our lives that we are unable to give vent to our sentiments. This journey was a great leap in our ‘grounding’ in our life. It was a huge emotional accomplishment. My journey was a kind of a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage without a ‘destination’, the journey itself was its fulfillment. All the soldiers who sacrificed their lives were my comrades-in-arms, and I owed it to them!
Now I could realign the focus of my energies to my ‘post retired’ life. What was it going to be? I have always been averse to planning too much with my life.
Chitra and I had dreamed quite early in our lives that we will not lead a ‘settled’ life after I’ve hung up my boots. So we were free from the hassles of ‘investing in’ and ‘acquiring’ ourselves a house or a flat to settle into. Our intention was to lead a life of travel. Not travel in the touristy way; that is done by people who have a ‘home’ base to get back to.
We began giving our stuff away about a year before I was to retire. The idea was to bring ourselves down to about a suitcase worth of ‘possessions’ each, thus creating the conditions for our future nomadic lives.
My life is not done. Not yet. In the years I have experienced in this life I have learnt, both through disappointment and elation, that life (the short span between birth and death) needs to be lived to the fullest extent possible (no half ways, no half efforts). Do what you love, or love what you do; they are both immensely possible. I have experienced that. Everyone isn’t born to be rich, or to be famous, or to be doing something ‘big’. Life is best lived ‘in little bits’, as life comes at us, irrespective of what we engage ourselves with. My wife has been besides me all these years, we are living our dream life!
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Story By – Mansi Dhanak | Mission JOSH