Back in 1999, only a few homes in Baroti village in Himachal Pradesh’s Hamirpur district had landline telephone connections. On most days, there weren’t many phone calls either. So on July 8, 1999, when Kanta Devi’s neighbour got a call from the “Army”, she knew it was important — and the news left her in shock.
She rushed to Kanta Devi’s home, and informed everyone – her mother-in-law, father-in-law, brother-in-law – but not her. Devi, then 21, didn’t bother to find out either. “I was busy with household work. Through the day, several relatives arrived at our home too. But that is not very uncommon in small towns,” says Devi, now 41.
It was in the evening, she recalls, that I got know what had happened. “My husband had died in the war.”
On July 6, 1999, Sepoy Deep Chand, a Rifleman with the 13 Jammu and Kashmir Rifles regiment, was killed by enemy sniper fire as his unit tried to capture Point 4875 in Mushkoh Valley in Kargil’s Dras sector. He had served in the Army for four years.
On the evening of July 8, 1999, his body arrived at his hometown. “Around 5 pm, all family members gathered in a room. Everyone was wailing. I knew something was wrong. As I walked past the crowd, I saw my husband’s body… I fainted right there,” she says, tears trickling down her face. She was four months pregnant then.
“We would watch the news everyday, but while most of the family members were worried, I had faith. I knew nothing would happen to my husband… I was wrong.” The couple were married in February 1999 — an arranged match — and two months later Chand had left for Kargil. “He would write letters to me… There was a phone call once in a while. But all he said was ‘Mai theek hoon (I am fine)’. We were newly married, and I was quite shy to ask him about anything else. After May 1999, there was no letter or phonecall,” she recalls.
The first few years after Sepoy Chand’s death were like “hell”, says Devi. “I was in depression. I would pray to God to take my life as well. I didn’t want to live.” It was only after her daughter’s birth five months later, says Devi, that she found the strength and the will to live. “Around that time, I also met the wife of an officer… She gave me advice, guided me. It was she who first encouraged me to get re-married,” she says. “But I thought I could never do it”.
For the next two years, Devi struggled with many things — raising her daughter alone, looking after the petrol pump that was given to her by the government after her husband’s death, and suggestions of remarriage.
Finally, in 2000, “after a lot of contemplation”, she married her brother-in-law Vijay Kumar, who was also serving in the Army at the time.
“It was the most difficult decision of my life, but I was determined to give my daughter a good life, I wanted her to have a father… My family members suggested the match… I could have either transferred my grief to my daughter or given her a happy childhood. I chose the latter,” she says.
But there was something still troubling Devi and her family, the fact that Vijay Kumar still serving in the Army. “My mother-in-law said, ‘We have lost one son, we can’t lose another one’. I was concerned too,” she says. So soon, Vijay Kumar took voluntary retirement, and returned home.
With the petrol pump bringing in a steady income, Devi settled into her new life. But as her daughter grew up, she faced another challenge. “I had never told her about my ex-husband. We had also removed all pictures of him and me from the house. She considered Vijayji her father,” she says.
But, says Devi, sometime when my daughter was in Class 6 or 7, she read a newspaper report and found out about her father. “I expected a big reaction. But she said nothing… Since then, it has all been out in the open. Over the years, she has become very proud of her father’s sacrifice,” she smiles. Sepoy Chand’s photographs are back on her walls too.
Her daughter, now 18, is pursuing her graduation in Chandigarh, and her son, born a few years later, is in Class 12.
Once my daughter knew about my ex-husband, says Devi, “I felt free”.
Despite what happened to Sepoy Chand, Devi was surprised when one day when her daughter told her that she wants to join the Army. “I won’t stop her… But the idea does scare me at times.”
And, after 20 years, does she still think about Sepoy Chand. “We lived together for only two months… All I got to know of him was that he was an honest, kind man who loved sports, his country… It is his qualities that I remember sometimes,” she says.
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