At 8 Am everyday, when Colonel (retd) V N Thapar makes his way to work, dressed in a crisp white shirt and tie, there are many reminders of his son ‘Robin’ “who loved the outdoors, who was always dreaming” — his neighbourhood Vijayant Enclave, the Vijayant Thapar Park a few metres from his home, the Captain Vijayant Thapar Marg, the Vijayant Thapar Chowk, and finally his workplace, the Vijayant Thapar Petrol Pump.
“I named him after the Army battle tank Vijayant. It means victorious in the end. The motto of his unit, 2 Rajputana Rifles, was also Ever Victorious. It was a perfect fit,” says the 75-plus Army veteran, putting on a blazer, as he settles into a couch at his home in Noida. His wife Tripta gently brushes his hair with her hand and sits besides him.
Nearly twenty years after their first-born, Captain Vijayant Thapar, was shot in the head on June 29, 1999 during the Kargil War’s Knoll assault, the Thapars still feel the “vacuum” of his loss.
“Time makes us proud of him, of his sacrifice, but it doesn’t heal. We miss him everyday,” says Col Thapar, adding that his son was in fact “victorious in the war”.
“Right before his death, he led the capture of the bunker on Tololing Top. It was the first victory for his unit.” Vijayant had served in the Army for only six months before the war.
It was a phone call from the Army’s casualty unit that informed Col Thapar of his son’s death. “I was in Alwar then. I was hoping he was only wounded, but the worst had happened… I retired that year too,” he says, adjusting his glasses over his sunken eyes. It’s been a long time since the 22-year-old’s passing, but the family has been holding on to his memory firmly.
The living area in their house has a large framed photograph of Vijayant in uniform with a crew cut and sharp moustache. The pictures in his room, which is “still as it was”, tell the story of a passionate young officer whose life was cut short abruptly — an image from his time in Kupwara shows a strapping man in Army fatigues and a big beard, and another from his days at Delhi University’s Sri Guru Tegh Bahadur Khalsa College has him showing off his muscles with a friend.
There is a collage of photographs from his childhood, and trophies and honours from his school, college and days in the Army are organised neatly in a cabinet. “He made a mock fighter plane cockpit here as well. He would put a joystick between his legs, which the other children would use to play video games, and pretend to fly a plane. The Air Force was his first love,” says Tripta, her gaze fixed at her son’s photograph. “My son was different.”
Col Thapar joins in, “I realised he was different too, but only after he passed away. Even as a child he didn’t want to do the things that the other children did. By Class 9, he had fired all infantry weapons. When we spoke about going for a holiday, he would want to go for a boat ride… When he was very little, we took him to an Air Force base to watch night-flying. He was sitting in my lap, the roar of the engine scared him, but he didn’t flinch, didn’t cry…”
For a family whose four generations have served in the Army, Vijayant’s selection into the Indian Military Academy did not come as a surprise. “That was all he wanted to do. I remember him sitting in our garden with my father, forcing him to tell stories about how the Pathans fired at the enemy,” recalls Col Thapar.
His mother adds, her face now lighting up, “When he would play with his younger brother, he would always make him a Pakistani and beat him up. My younger son would always complain about it. He once dragged his brother to Arun Khetarpal’s (who was martyred in the 1971 war) house in the heat, and just stood there staring at the gate.”
While for Col Thapar it is his son’s “bravery, patriotism” that has given him strength all these years, for his mother Tripta, it was his “kindness” that still melts her heart. “He would get Rs 50 as pocket money for the entire week when he was in college. Once I saw him hand the entire amount to a beggar. When I asked him how he would mange, he simply said, ‘I will, don’t worry’… He believed in frugal living,” she says, adding, “When a box of his belongings came from Kargil, all it had was Rs 300 and some chocolates. He loved chocolates.”
His kindness also reflected in his last letter to his family, where he asked them to send money to Ruksana, a six-year-old who he had met during his Kupwara posting, whose father was killed by terrorists. “In one of his last phone calls, he told me to get a few suits stitched for Ruksana, and that he would take it with him when he comes on leave… But he never came,” she says. The family has been supporting Ruksana since.
For the family, the first year after Vijayant’s death was particularly tough. “But we had to make a choice,” says Col Thapar.” “We could have continued to be grief-stricken, or we could have honoured his sacrifice by being dignified. We chose the latter. We wanted his sacrifice to be a source of inspiration, and that is what we have been working on for the past 20 years… Being a martyr’s family is a big load on one’s shoulder, but we shared our pain with the other families, the country.”
Over the years, Col Thapar has also kept another promise he made to his son, of visiting the site “where the Indian Army fought for your tomorrow” every year. “He had mentioned it in his letter and so I go to Drass every year… It’s like meeting him. I can feel him there. I have also seen the treacherous peak, which is almost at an 80 degree incline, which he climbed… I still shudder when I think of how he did it,” he says, walking up to his room again slowly, and pulling out an album of his trips.
“See this is a temple that we have made for him… The Drass helipad is also named after him. That’s me, there was a snowstorm that year…,” he says, pointing to a picture of a his younger self at the Drass memorial.
“For the past three years I have to be carried to the spot… I am old now, my morning walks, golf, it has all stopped… I have now been thinking of getting a book written for Vijayant. He was born to fight, he was a true patriot, the world should know that even after we are gone.”
But before all of that, he has to keep his next appointment with his son. On July 26, Kargil Vijay Diwas, Col Thapar will be in Drass again, to meet Robin.