The letters have been her constant companion. The letters that began with ‘Priye Rekha’, and sometimes ‘My dear Rekha’, have given her strength when the times got tough, consoled her when she broke down and guided her when she felt alone.
Twenty years after Rekha, now 46, lost her husband Naik Mangat Singh Bhandari in Operation Vijay during the Kargil war, the bunch of letters he wrote to her from remote Army bases in their eight years of marriage lie safely in her closet.
“In the first few years after his death, I read them very often. They were all I had. Now, sometimes, when my children are at school or college, I pull out a few and read them,” smiles Rekha, who was 26 when her husband passed away. Her children, Neeraj and Neelam, were four and two then, and she was pregnant with her daughter Monika.
Dressed in a red salwar kameez, Rekha browses through the letters scattered on a coffee table in her living room, and adds, “Do you see this, some of them are written on red inland letters and the others on green. Red meant he was writing from a conflict zone, green meant peace zone. I always hoped for green.”
On December 24, 1998, she received his last letter.
After being posted to Udhampur in Kashmir, where he served for three years, Mangat’s 18 Garhwal Rifles unit was moved to Kargil in 1999. On June 29 that year, when his contingent was engaged in combat with enemy troops to capture the bunkers at Point 4700 in Dras sector, he was seriously injured and later succumbed.
Due to the absence of a motorable road to his village Kirmolia in Pauri-Garhwal district of Uttarakhand, his body was buried in Daugadda, a nearby village, with full state honours.
Sitting at her home in Delhi, at the Veer Awas residential colony in Dwarka’s Sector 18, Rekha pauses as she recalls the events of June 29, when she was informed of her husband’s death.
“Some Armymen had come to the house. They told me… I was eight months pregnant. I didn’t know how to react. I didn’t go for the funeral… I just felt helpless,” she recounts, now walking around the house where many shelves are filled with mementos and pictures of her late husband.
Rekha says her struggles really began a month after her husband’s death, and when her youngest daughter Monika was born. “Living in the village was difficult. The home, the relatives constantly reminded me of him… Also, people looked at me with pity,” she says. “There was also talk of remarriage, but I was firmly against it.”
So, in 2003, along with her three children and in-laws, Rekha moved to Dehradun. The family lived there for three years. But as her children grew older, she says, she wanted them to attend better schools.
In 2006, when the option to get a home in Veer Awas, dedicated to families of Kargil War heroes by the Delhi Development Authority, came up, she agreed. “Even to get my children admitted to the Army School needed a lot of work. I have only studied till Class VIII and it was very difficult for me,” she says, as Monika arrives.
The 19-year-old, who nurtures ambitions of acting and modelling, has never seen her father and listens intently as her mother narrates his stories, many of which she has heard while growing up. Rekha’s son Neeraj, 24, runs a gas agency in Pauri-Garhwal, given to the family by the government after Mangat’s death. Her elder daughter Neelam, 22, is pursuing her Master’s from Delhi University’s Hansraj College.
Rekha says she never had any specific conversation with her children about their father’s death. “They got to know in bits and pieces…,” she says.
“It was in 2006 that I finally learnt that my father was a martyr,” recalls Monika. “Since then I have missed him everyday.”
As Rekha stacks her husband’s letters in a pile to keep them away, Monika pulls out one and says, “Every letter of his ended with ‘I will try to come home soon’.” Then, she adds, “The letters also always mentioned my older brother and sister. My name was never there. I wasn’t born then.”