Sunday, February 25

“Nation First”: This inspiring memoir of an army wife showcases the bravery of Indian soldiers and the courage of their families

  • The book “Nation First” by Shikha Akhilesh Saxena describes the turmoil endured by the families of military officers in the face of conflict.

  • Two decades after India’s resounding victory at Kargil, stories and accounts of the war continue to be narrated with immense pride. Yet, one pertinent perspective has been largely overlooked – that of the army wives.

  • As a young couple, Shikha and Akhilesh unexpectedly found themselves in the midst of war. Shikha deftly depicts her own experiences as well as those of Akhilesh, who took part in missions at Tololing, the Hump and Three Pimples. What does a soldier go through, when marching off to a near-suicidal mission? And what does it take to survive, even thrive, having sustained serious injuries in battle? This is a story of grit, determination and heroic patriotism shown by the men and women who give their all to safeguard the country.

  • Read an excerpt from the book below.

Cantonment mornings begin much before the first ray of the sun; there is no excuse for last night’s pegs. Soldiers are on the running tracks with the officers leading from the front. During drills, the sound of their direct moulded sole (DMS) boots can easily be heard in the balconies. Akhilesh took me around to show me the regiment. At the gate, there was a symbol with the line: Sarvatra Izzat O Iqbal (Everywhere with honour and glory). It’s the motto of the Indian Artillery. They believe they win whenever artillery guns are fired. The guard opened the gate. A well-maintained, vast area with a lot of greenery was before me. The pathway soil was brick-red in colour, white-coloured bricks marked both the edges of the path, and the buildings were yellow. The combination of the three colours enhanced the entire place. To the left of the gate, I noticed a structure I had never seen earlier in my life. It was a building with symbols of all the religions of India together on the wall. Inside, to my surprise, representations of various gods of all religions were placed on one platform under the same roof. This unique and fascinating structure is called the Sarv Dharm Sthal.

‘This is not unique to our regiment. It is a common feature in every regiment of the Indian Army. At any religious ceremony, whether Hindu, Sikh, Muslim or Christian, the CO or Subedar Major performs the regimental havan, and people of all faiths come together in devotion under a common roof at the Sarv Dharm Sthal,’ Akhilesh explained.

Such a wonderful tradition that weaves the untearable fabric of the Indian Army, with the acceptance of all religions and beliefs. It was then that my heart accepted the Indian Army as the most magnificent organization on earth.

After a short while of sitting in devotion at Sarv Dharm Sthal, Akhilesh took me around to see the regiment’s batteries. The soldiers and the officers of the artillery regiment are divided into four batteries; Papa, Cubic, Romeo and Headquarter. The first three batteries handle the maintenance and execution of six big guns, which require at least 10 soldiers to fire a shell/missile. The last battery, Headquarter, takes care of administration. Next, we went to see the office but I didn’t enter, as it was in operation. I left Akhilesh there and returned to the guest room with an even deeper admiration for the army.

We moved into married accommodation within a week. The house was adjacent to the main road, and we had a small quarter on the first floor, above Capt. Sidhu and his family. I saw some hens and a dog in their garden. I thought, Amazing! They are fond of pets. Until the next morning, when our doorbell was rung. A soldier stood in front of me with a small box filled with vegetables, eggs and bread, placed on the ground, and a rooster in his hand.

‘What is all this?’ I asked.

‘Memsahib, aapka ration hai (these are your groceries/ food rations). It is all fresh,’ he replied, and then asked, ‘Where should I put it?’ He pointed to the rooster and the box.

‘No, no, I am a vegetarian. Please take this rooster away!’ I told him without wasting a minute.

‘Oh! Memsahib, list mei toh non-veg likha hai (but your name is in the list of non-vegetarians).’ He was confused.

‘It must be a mistake. Please change it,’ I said. From that moment, I turned into a ‘vegetarian’ as I could not handle the ‘fresh’ rations of the fauj! I realized then why Capt. Sidhu was fond of ‘pets’.

For at least half an hour in the evening, Akhilesh and I both laughed holding our stomachs when I narrated the incident. He listed our names intentionally as he was aware of the consequences. He just wanted to see what lengths I would go to for chicken, one of my favourite foods. ‘Oh my God! You are such a fraud,’ I said while still holding my tummy, which was aching after laughing so hard.

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