THE call came on Sunday morning, but Pallavi Sharma says she already feared the worst as she hadn’t been able to get through to husband Colonel Ashutosh Sharma, the Commanding Officer of 21 Rashtriya Rifles, all of Saturday night.
With their daughter Tamanna, 12, sitting beside her at their Jaipur home, Pallavi said, “I couldn’t contact him. I called the unit and got to know he was stuck somewhere. When so much time passes with someone being stuck, you know something is wrong.”
The Army called the family to inform them that Colonel Sharma, 44, had died along with another officer, Major Anuj Sood, 30, and three other security personnel, in an encounter in Chanjumullah area of Handwara, North Kashmir.
Major Sood’s family got the news of his death the same day as he was scheduled to return home after a gap of six months. While he had finished his two-year stint in Jammu and Kashmir in March, he had been told to stay on due to the lockdown. “He was to come home for a month-long leave and then join at Gurdaspur in Punjab,” his father Brigadier (retd) C K Sood, who was in the EME Corps and also served in Kashmir, told The Indian Express, at their home in Panchkula, Haryana.
In their last conversation, on Saturday, Anuj told him he was heading for an operation, the Brigadier said. “I later texted him to ask about his whereabouts. He texted back saying they were chasing two militants.”
His eyes welling up, the retired officer said Anuj had been married just two-and-a half years and spent barely two-three months with wife Akriti in that time. The two got married in September 2017, and recently Akriti quit her job at a private company in Pune to live with Anuj at his Gurdaspur posting. She is currently in Dharamshala, at her parents’ place, and the Army is sending vehicles to get her to Panchkula in light of the lockdown.
Colonel Sharma’s family, including his elder brother Piush, 47, and mother, last spoke with him on May 1, the 26th
Raising Day of 21 Rashtriya Rifles. The last time Pallavi met him was on February 28, when he received the Sena Medal for gallantry at a ceremony in Udhampur, Jammu.
She said she would visit Sharma in Kashmir “as per Army protocol”, adding that she knew that “things are not good over there”.
Piush said Sharma always wanted to join the forces. “Our family has an ‘Army culture’. I wanted to get into the Army too but couldn’t due to certain family issues. I lived my aspirations through Ashutosh,” Piush said, calling his younger sibling “my only friend”.
Originally belonging to Bulandshahr district in Uttar Pradesh, where they still own some land, the family came to settle in Jaipur some years ago. A cousin, Sunil Pathak, said they decided to move after father Shambhu Dutt Pathak’s death.
Talking about Sharma, Pathak added, “Whenever we met, he would recount anecdotes about the Army and used to motivate us to join the forces.”
Daughter Tamanna, who is in Class 6, said she too would join the Army like her father.
While Major Anuj was the third generation of the family in the Army, Sood said he did not want his son to join the forces. “He was a brilliant child, an all-rounder, good at sports, studies, extra-curricular. I wanted him to join the corporate world, have a full life. But he had a calling. This is what he wanted to do since as far as I remember,” Sood said.
In Class 11, Anuj shifted to Punjab Public School, Nabha, with a history of sending alumni to the NDA, to better his chances of joining the Army.
A friend at the school, Manjot Singh Chadha, read out a note from his school diary, where Anuj wrote about hoping to go on a date with Hollywood actor Angeline Jolie, and listing Om Shanti Om, Lakshya and Die Hard as his favourite movies.
Headmaster of the school Jagpreet Singh said on Sunday: “We are proud of our students like Anuj who make the ultimate sacrifice for the country. This is in the DNA of our every student.”
Anuj’s elder sister, who is currently in Melbourne, won’t be able to make it for the funeral. Younger sister Harshita, also in the Army, is headed home from Army War College, Mhow, where she is undergoing some training. Anuj’s mother passed away in January 2011 of cancer.
With Sharma’s body expected to arrive home on Monday, Piush broke down, saying this is not how he hoped to meet his younger brother again. “He had promised he will come soon. He is indeed coming, but wrapped in the Tricolour.”
Brigadier Sood said he was proud of his son. “Kuchch karke gaya hai voh. Desh ka beta tha, desh ke naam ho gaya (He died for a cause. He was a true son of the nation). There is war and there is sacrifice. There is no fear in this job.”
He also recalled asking Anuj once what he would do if he couldn’t clear the NDA exam. The boy who won horse-riding nationals in Kolkata in 2005 said, “with a cocky smile”, “international jockey banoonga”.