A write up by an Army wife about another Army wife

Courtesy Ms Neeharika Naidu

Life and Fate: how the 1962 War tore a family
Neeharika Naidu

This is not a new story. This story is not one looking for sympathy or pity, as all of these days have been left far far behind. This is not a common story of the loss and desperation of a family but rather it is the story of a very brave woman’s struggle with life and its vagaries, in face of a terrible calamity. A very long long time ago,
there lived two little princesses in a small mofussil town
called Mhow. In those faraway days it was quiet, much
quieter than now with small well-maintained houses, few cars that only the privileged owned. Life was absolutely idyllic. Nothing seemed amiss in the lives of these princesses who went to school, came back to adoring parents, played badminton and cycled in the evenings, had Vimto in the DSOI and then shared stories and hearty laughs on their dining table with their father and mother. Sundays were meant for family picnics and vacations meant long road trips to Saurashtra or to the family home in UP. The princesses had everything.

But someone, somewhere had other plans. “There are no fairy tales,” he must have told himself when he saw this family’s complete happiness. So, then came the 1962 War. The man of the house, the beloved father, the mainstay of the family, left a shell-shocked and young wife and two little lost girls within a matter of 48 hours. The days of hope and faith were shattered by bad news one day and the little ones were left fatherless in less than one month.
Overnight the queen turned into an outcast and her little princesses into little Cindrellas, except that they had no roof over their heads and no shoes to look forward to.
The wretched and real day found her and her two girls sitting on black boxes, painted with Mhow to —- written on them, on the roadside. Rain was pelting down and the queen did not know where to take her luggage and her girls. The rain hid her tears from her girls as they mixed with each other on her soaked cheeks.

A very kind-hearted and generous family, passing by, just took them home, piled her luggage in the verandah and looked after their broken souls and bodies, for a few

Back in those days, educated women were few and far between. Not many had attended a university and even lesser number had the distinction of having been tutored by luminaries like Harivansh Rai Bachchan. The queen looked for a place to hide herself and her little girls while she found a job to support them. But no help was forthcoming from any quarter. She enrolled herself for a post-graduate degree so that she could get a teaching job. Months passed on and not being able to tolerate the pain that her girls underwent and the regular barbs and taunts from the relatives where they had found temporary but very reluctant shelter, the queen placed her girls in a hostel, in another town.

Every weekend she would travel to see her beloved daughters: take one train that arrived at her destination at 1 pm. She would rush to the school and feed her girls some homemade ‘aloo puri’ and rush back to the station to take her 3 pm train back to the place she called home for a few months. Since she could not afford a coolie, or a rickshaw or new flat-soled sandals, she trudged on her old high heels, painful remnants of her past life, to the school. Her feet were torn and hurt. They ached and pained from having had to walk miles…actually not walked but run… as she had a train to take back. Her back hurt from having to toil over books. She burned the midnight oil quite literally to get her MA degree. By the end of it, she had spectacles.

But adversity brought out the best in her. Over the years, she carved out a place for herself. Her daughters studied in a very well-known, expensive boarding school. She braved it. She became strong. After all she was a queen, the wife of an Army officer, who had laid down his life for the country. She got a job of a lecturer in a government college and in her paltry salary of few hundreds, proceeded to bring up her girls single-handedly. The girls went from strength to strength. They did well at studies and were aware of the sacrifices that their mother was making for them. They participated in extra-curricular activities and shone in them all. The older one was better at music. She won several awards which made her mother proud.

Then, like all growing girls, the older princess found her prince charming… Alas, he too was in the Army. The Mother did not bat an eyelid and did not once say that she had her reservations because another loss of a loved one was too much to think of. But she killed her fears and married her girl off with great pomp and splendor. There were elephants and horses to welcome the baraat and the town talked of the wedding for months.

The younger princess qualified to be a doctor and the brave mother ran from pillar to post to secure a good scholarship as financially it was a daunting task. But she managed it somehow. Today that little one is a very successful doctor in the US.The older girl grew up to be
an Army wife….once again thrown into the same life style
as her father’s time. The happy couple moved from place
to place, following the drum. And like all growing young
people, they had two lovely children who needed
grandmotherly attention every now and then.

Once the couple had to go abroad as the young officer had qualified for a Staff College assignment. The queen volunteered to take care of the very young children single-handedly so that her daughter could accompany the husband abroad. She stayed awake through the nights, tutored the young kids, went to work everyday and toiled endlessly, selflessly. At every step, her support
became invaluable. She brought up her grandson as it was not possible to send a young boy to small places where no
schooling was possible. The princess traveled up the ladder as her husband did well in life. From a little lost girl, with two frocks and torn shoes, she became part of the senior lot in the hierarchy. From a small rented room where she slept on the floor, the princess moved to large mansions with several bedrooms and several people to take care of her comforts. Her mother began to live with her and provide a home to her. Life was just too busy to ever be at home and to look after it properly. At every step, it was the mother who stood by her daughter. Her graciousness and elegance became legendary in the regiment as also in the Army elsewhere. She was spoken of as NANI…to all.

A woman loved, for her substance. She became an author and a poetess, having published two books and several magazines and TV channels covered her brave journey. She moved with the Page 3 circuit. When she passed away, her bier bore a wreath from the Chief of Army Staff himself. Her life was celebrated and feted by a host of well-known people. For us, it was a proud moment. It was a long road from penury and widowhood. But she made it with tenacity, grace and a large heartedness. The soldier would have been proud of her.

I should know. I am her daughter: the elder of the princesses. I am Neeharika Naidu, wife of Lt Gen. Milan Naidu, PVSM, AVSM, YSM,ADC, former Vice-Chief of Army Staff. She was Sushila Avasthy, the queen, wife of Lt Col Brahmanand Avasthy, Commanding Officer, 4 Rajput, killed in action in 1962. This brings us to a question. Should people who have lost their reason to survive be made to grovel and beg for their rightful place under the sun?
Should not have those, for whom my father gave his life,
stood with us and helped us to live a life of dignity,
respect and comfort just like they were? Was it his fault or ours that today those years of 1962 onwards are a memory that I dare not invoke without inviting a sense of deep pain and ignominy? Can someone answer me? Anyone?
The powers that be, the people that are, or those who were. Can anybody give me back some vestige of what we lost? Why is it that his bravery and that of those who fought and fell with him were not recognised as of those in the more recent wars? No roads are named after them, no songs in their praise and certainly no government organisation, school and colleges hold remembrance ceremonies. No petrol pumps and special bounties
were handed down to their families. Why? Were they nobodies, just cannon fodder?

(This story about Lt Col Awasthi is based on the narration of LN Subramanian)
Blood Soaked Last Letter and a Tearful Homage.

In January 1989 a jeep carrying a lady was winding its way through Tawang. As it neared a bridge in Dirang the local people gathered around. The lady beckoned to a girl and asked her if she knew a place called Lagyala Gompa. The girl replied ” Yes – we go there for our spring festival and worship and there is tiger’s grave to which they offer flowers”. The tiger was Lt. Col. Brahmanand Avasthy of 4 Rajput and the lady was Mrs Sushila Avasthy.

In one of the last battles of the 1962 war, the men of 4 Rajput fought a valiant battle to the last man last bullet. This is their story.

Last Moments of 4 Rajput

Lagyala Gompa, the last monastery is located on a high feature overlooking the Morshing Valley as well as the route Avasthy was taking. There was a plateau just before it made its steep climb to the monastery. It was an ideal
killing field. Unfortunately a 500 strong Chinese unit had
already moved in behind and one group was waiting in ambush at Lagyala Gompa. As Avasthy and his troops approached the Gompa, they came under heavy fire from the Chinese.

Avasthy and his men hit back. They could have probably chosen to fall back and look for another way around but decided to fight the Chinese. Although lacking heavy firepower Avasthy launched a 2 pronged counter attack. The battle was fierce and the Chinese annoyed by the casualties they were taking tried to isolate Avasthy and cut him off. But Avasthy’s men surrounded their gallant leader and fought to the bitter end. Finally it came down to hand to hand combat and after a few hours the Chinese prevailed. The battlefield was a ghastly sight. Over 200 Chinese bodies and 126 Indian bodies littered the area. Every Indian was killed or wounded ie 100 percent casualties. Among them were Avasthy and his fellow
officers. A shepherd boy who later became the Head Lama of the monastery is the only witness to this heroic episode. The Chinese dug a mass grave for the Indians and left a flattened ration tin with the names of the officers. After the ceasefire the bodies were retrieved. Avasthy’s body was found with a blood soaked letter to his wife. Epilogue
It is an irony that the war started and ended with Rajput battalions bearing the brunt of Chinese attacks. In Lt Col Bramhanand Avasthy the Regiment and the Indian Army lost one of its finest officers. Considered one of the best COs in the Indian Army he was responsible for many of the drills still followed in the Indian Army. One General remarked that if he had a few more officers like Avasthy the story of 1962 would have been very different.

As Lt Gen SK Sinha (Retd) said that if Avasthy had survived he would have certainly risen high in
the Indian Army. It is one of the sad ironies of war that men like Avasthy never received any honour because there was no one left to cite them or those who were there are too ashamed to come forward and have their role exposed. There must be many more such heroes whose deeds are known to a few. Other than the Army and their family the rest of the country remains ignorant of their sacrifice. In fact it has been their families who have continued untiring efforts to keep their memory and try and get them the recognition they richly deserve. Lt Col Avasthy left behind a wife and 2 young daughters. His wife Mrs Sushila Avasthy had to pull herself together and bring up 2 daughters all alone. In spite of this she never flagged in her attempt to keep his memory alive. She has written poems, has proof read other books on the war and continues to hope for due recognition for her late husband. The country has not done much for people like her but the least it could do is visit this painful past and right some of its wrongs. This is why it is important to publish the Henderson Brooks report which may contain information on many such unsung heroes.

About Shiv Rana

Retirement life is series of transition: from Olive Green to civvies, being woken up a buddy to fetching morning milk from the milk booth. And now trying to adjust with new-normal due to pandemic - CORONA.
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