“When I had a job, my work was my first priority. It was the same for Hanif. His death is a big loss, but I am proud that he died doing his duty,” says Hema Aziz, her eyes welling up.
Twenty years ago, in the early days of the Kargil War, Captain Hanif Uddin was deployed at an altitude of 18,000 ft in the Turtuk region to capture a position which would help the Army monitor enemy troops better. On June 6, 1999, having made significant strides for two days, the 25-year-old Rajputana Rifles officer fell to a counter-attack. He had run out of ammunition.
“I was visiting my sister in Bengaluru when I got the news. My older son called me from Delhi… The press, family members, neighbours… the house was filled with people. But my son’s body wasn’t there,” recalls Aziz, sitting in her sparse apartment at the Veer Awas residential colony in Sector 18 of Delhi’s Dwarka area.
Hanif’s body could not be retrieved till the end of the war due to enemy firing. “We got his body 43 days after his death. It was the toughest time… Every few days we would get a call saying the firing has stopped, or the weather has cleared… But nobody would turn up. We just couldn’t get closure,” says the 70-year-old who worked with the Armed Forces Entertainment Wing and then with the Delhi Kathak Kendra as a singer for 18 years.
Aziz hails from Kerala and her husband, who passed away when Hanif was eight years old, was from Uttar Pradesh and worked in theatre.
“Our family was always more inclined towards culture and the arts. When Hanif cleared the entrance exam for the Indian Military Academy, he was pursuing a BA from Delhi University’s Shivaji College. He was also enrolled in a computer course. And, of course, he was into music and singing. When he came home before leaving for Kargil, he bought books to pursue MBA,” says Aziz, sporting a rare smile.
During her stint in the Armed Forces Entertainment Wing, says Aziz, she had travelled for performance to several Forward Posts in Jammu and Kashmir, and was aware of the tough conditions the soldiers lived in. “When Hanif told me about clearing the IMA entrance, I thought it would be difficult, but why not? He was fit for the job,” she says.
As she looks back at that time, Aziz says she isn’t surprised her son gave up his life for his job, “but I didn’t know that he was so brave”. “When my children were growing up, I was always working. When Hanif was just 40 days old, I had to go on a tour. He grew up to be very independent. By the time he was 12, he would study, play football, then come back home and make toast, eggs, paranthas… He did every job well,” says Aziz.
“I never took unscheduled leave. I didn’t want anyone to say that because I was a widow with three children, I was taking advantage of my situation. My children, including Hanif, understood this. He never missed a day of school even when I was not around.” Even his hobbies, Aziz says, were very constructive. “He would buy comic books and magazines with his pocket money. Then, he made a library of those books, and loaned them to the neighbourhood children for 25 paise.”
Coping with Hanif’s loss, what made the family most uncomfortable in the early years was “the money people gave for him”. “The money was for my son, we didn’t want to take it. Everywhere we went people handed us a polythene bag of notes. I understood their sentiment… I just kept it,” she says. The family also “opted out” of the petrol pump offered to them after Hanif’s death. “My sons had their careers… I didn’t know how to run a petrol pump,” Aziz explains.
But they wondered what to do with the money lying in the house. “My older son suggested we open a school in Hanif’s name. So we rented a small plot in Himachal Pradesh in 2000 and set up a school with two rooms. My older son stayed there for 12 years. We took minimal fee and hired a few local teachers… But we didn’t add ‘shaheed’ to the name of the school. For us, Hanif had never left…” says Aziz, whose older son now works as a professor in Delhi and the younger one is a music composer in Mumbai.
It is music lessons that keep Aziz busy still. Apart from a framed photograph of Hanif in the living area, very few of his belongings lie about the house. In a cabinet, a scale with the message ‘We change lives’ is kept safely though.
“While he was serving in Siachen, he had this with him at all times,” says Aziz, pulling out the wooden scale. Behind it, wrapped in plastic, is another memento, Hanif’s Vir Chakra. “I don’t keep it outside, it gathers dust. It needs to be polished too,” she says, running her finger over the medal, before keeping it back in the plastic bag and the cabinet.
Also inside is an old alarm clock Hanif used. Aziz takes a look at it and then shuts the cabinet.
“You know, we are not that kind of family jo seena peet ke rota hai (We don’t grieve publicly). We have to respect Hanif’s sacrifice, we have to be dignified, we have remember him with pride..,” she says, but soon her eyes are filled with tears again.
Perhaps, that is why Hema Aziz did not see her son’s body when it arrived from Kargil. “It came in a box, we paid our respects and then performed the last rites. I didn’t want to see my son dead. I only wanted to remember him as a responsible son, a soldier who did his job well.”