Pallavi was only 22 when she met Ashutosh at a Coaching Institute in Dehradun. It was Ashutosh’s 13th and last attempt for SSB. Perhaps destiny knew what laid buried deep in future if Ashutosh adorned the uniforms; he would not only bring laurels and pride for Indian Army but he was also destined for a glorious death in Handwara leaving behind his beloveds. Perhaps destiny did not want him to leave so soon but Ashutosh was determined,it was the only dream he ever knew otherwise he would have faded away long back. Relatives would mock him,the pressure of not doing anything when rest of the friends were settled was mounting up. His elder brother Piush Sharma shared with me
“Ashu was very passionate about joining Indian Army. He had fought a long battle to adorn uniform. He always cleared written but could never clear the interview. There was a lot of pressure from family,friends, relatives. Every time results came and he failed he would cry at Pir Baba for hours. I would try to console him. For six long years he kept fighting his battles under immense pressure but eventually cleared SSB in his 13th attempt which was also his last attempt.”
It was exactly that time, June 2000 when Pallavi his lucky charm met him in a tiny room of a SSB coaching institute where she herself was preparing for Army. The usual interactions over study material and common goals soon converted into general fondness. Pallavi provided him unconditional support,boosted his morales and gave courage to give his best. Ashutosh who was destined to register his name in golden letters in the history of Indian Army and nation by embracing an illustrious death in Handwara actually cleared SSB that year.
He is a gallant proof of how senior command in Indian Army leads from front. His stories are going to be taught in prestigious Army colleges to new generation of soldiers about how a leader should be. His alma mater OTA is especially proud about how this prestigious institute has given to nation an officer as illustrious as Colonel Ashutosh Sharma, CO of 21 Rashtriya Rifles, the Commanding Officer to receive the prestigious sena medal twice for gallantry during counter-terrorist operations; a Sena Medal bar.
Pallavi is a Punjabi and Colonel Ashutosh Sharma was from Uttar Pradesh. Theirs was a love marriage. Pallavi was a NCC cadet and initially wanted to join Army. Her twin sister Surbhi in fact, did joined Army but since Colonel Ashutosh Sharma cleared SSB and joined OTA Pallavi pushed back her priorities for a stronger relationship. She shared how she held different aspirations initially but she always kept Ashutosh’s wishes on pedestals. Call her traditional or simply drenched in true love but that is how she had always been; devoted. She says
“We met in June 2000 in Dehradun and in August 2000 Ashutosh accompanied me to Delhi for my SSB Medicals. We were there for few days. He was a deeply religious person and held respect for all the religions. I remember visiting Gurudwars and temples with him. Once he also took me to Nizamuddin Dargah. I prayed for Ashu to qualify SSB and he actually did next month. I even had a word with Ashutosh’ s dad and he was very sweet with me. We both knew he had liked me a lot. That kind of sealed our relationship and once Ashu joined OTA he shared how he wanted a settled life and a family. I knew if I would join Army perhaps our relationship would not go longer and I had found one true soul mate in Aashu. There were many things common between us including the same names of our best friends. His best friends’s name was Ashutosh and mine was Pallavi. We connected deeply with each other. Perhaps our souls knew that we only had twenty years to spend together and they wanted to make most of it. I chose to support him, I did not attempted for SSB after that. My mother had been upset with me for a long time but I was happy just standing beside him.”
Their courtship period was for four long years and Colonel Ashutosh Sharma was posted in Gurdaspur when they got married in a simple ceremony comprising of around 10 people at Shanti Kunj Haridwar on 22nd April 2004. He was a man of high thinking,the useless splurging in Indian weddings never made sense to him. He was in school when he told his mother that you fulfill all your wishes in Piush Bhaiya’s wedding,my wedding will be very simple. And both the families honoured his wishes. They knew Ashutosh was an idealistic man and he had found a perfect partner in Pallavi. Ashutosh’s family opened their hearts for Pallavi. It was as if she had always been part of Ashutosh’s close knit family.
Ashutosh would always express how he wanted a daughter who he would name Tamanna and God indeed blessed the happy couple with a daughter who they named Tamanna. It was a fairytale. Colonel Ashutosh kept rising in his career from a short service commissioned officer to a staff college officer to become 2IC of a prestigious unit like 21 Rashtriya Rifles to commanding the same. His career graph never went down for once. He in fact was a Sena medal bar, earning gallantry twice for his gallant acts which is no common feet even in Army.
His elder brother Piush Sharma shared
“I could not adorn uniform but I lived my dreams through him. I took pride in the nobel work my brother would do at every level. I remember how excitedly he would share about the newly installed roti makers for jawans which reduced their work and brought fresh rotis on the table to how he ensured nicely maintained barracks for his troops. He also looked after their personal welfare calling district administrations for helping the jawans family back at their native places. He also took great interest in Army goodwill schools and was personally involved in orphanages in Handwara. Locals loved him. They put lot of faith in him. He would also share how not all Kashmiris are anti-India but only a few picked up guns to create problems. He would always be full of praises about local Kashmiris. Stone peltings were at their lowest during his tenure,if his vehicle stopped at a place where stone pelting would be happening and locals knew he had come they dispersed, such was the respect he held in the area. He had also renovated Bhadrakali temple in handwara and even arranged for Navratri puja when some Kashmiri Pandits contacted him and expressed their feelings to worship.”
Pallavi could have insisted for a peace posting for command especially when he was posted 2IC in the same area but she did not because she knew her husband loved 21 RR and also Kashmir. This was where he wanted to be. She gracefully accepted to stay behind with Tamanna in Jaipur close to residents of her in laws. She knew her husband loved being in action. He had not visited them in past 14 months. He would always say I would take a flight next day once the operation will be done and Pallavi says he was true to his words.
“He returned home soon after his operation but wrapped in Tiranga.”
Pallavi had never been a demanding wife,always a supportive Army wife who understood the pressures of the job and rank her husband held. He was always busy sometimes on course ,sometimes on various appointments but last five years in Handwara Kashmir had been particularly hectic. Lot many things happened during his tenure as 2IC and then as Commanding Officer. Abrogation of article 370,various elections,even Corona pandemic where he would work closely with civil administration. Her friends and many a times fellow Army wives would ask
“aapko dar nahi lagta Mrs Ashutosh?”
and she would laugh it off because she always felt confident about Aashu but this confidence in his well being was missing past three-four months. Many a times she found herself at unease,trepidation engulfing her soul without any reasons. I also remember how his elder brother Piush Sharma mentioned that he did not come home past fourteen months who knows perhaps he was preparing his family for inevitable.
When Colonel Ashutosh received his first Sena Medal in Handwara Pallavi was there for a short visit (As per Army protocols) she could hear firings nearby while she sat firmly with Tamanna firmly,not a streak of fear on her face. When the encounter was over and Ashutosh finally visited her all she wanted was to hug him but the presence of troops and people around her prohibited her to do so and she shaked hands shyly with Colonel Ashutosh who would not stop smiling. It was a dreaded operation and none of his boys involved under his lead received even a scratch. It was exactly when a local Kashmiri who was there for some work and saw Pallavi during the whole encounter came forward and said to Colonel Ashutosh
“Your wife is a Sherni.”
And who knew how right that random Kashmiri man was! The way Pallavi carried herself and presented before the world is truly commendable. Her pictures of holding Tiranga firmly during the last rites of the love of her life would be printed in people’s mind forever as a quintessential Army wife, as a woman behind the men who sacrifice everything for the nation. She epitomized all Army wives when she called Aakriti , wife of another braveheart Major Anuj Sood who also immortalised himself in Handwara Encounter on 2nd May 2020. She also ensured to call every other member of 21 Rashtriya Rifles family at the time of deepest grief which was the most on her heart. She asked them to keep calm. I was stunned and when I asked her how could she gather strength to do so she said
“I just did my duties as a Commanding Officer’s wife. Ashutosh would have wanted me to perform my duties no matter what. He was an idealistic man. Now that he is no more it is even more important to me.”
When she called Aakriti first thing she said was
“Aakriti, I am so proud of Anuj.”
When Aakriti asked her if they are strong enough, Pallavi replied
“We are strong enough,so it happened to us. I am sure Aashu would be the first one to take the bullet .”
When she went to Jaipur airport she was wearing the same lemon coloured salwar suit Ashutosh had once bought for her lovingly. The moment she saw her Aashu’s face all her pain and complaints flew away,she found him very calm. she whispered in his ears
“Aashu I set you free from all the commitments you had for us. I will fulfill all your wishes. I know you are watching me and I hope I am making you proud.”
When she returned from last rites of Colonel Ashutosh Sharma, she carefully kept his ashes on the front passenger seat of their car while she placed herself at driving seat to drive back home with him as he always wished. She remembered how many a times Aashu had expressed that When Pallavi would learn driving that day he would cozily sit beside her at the passenger seat. She was awaiting his return to give him a surprise how she had learnt driving in his absence and she fulfilled his wishes. Had not she always done this? Fulfilling everything he always wished for? It was for nothing that she truly,deeply and madly loved him.
At home she kept his ashes on the swing made tea with lot of ginger in it like he always liked and sipped tea with him like they always did whenever together. She promised him to do everything he wanted her to do. She promised him to look after Tamanna ever more now that he is free but her commitments had increased. She promised she would never let him down.
Past two years while Colonel Ashutosh was away on his duty Tamanna and Pallavi have been keeping an extra pillow on their bed for Colonel Ashutosh when they go to sleep. then Tamanna asks her mom
“Do you love Papa.”
“How much Mumma?”
“Very Much Beta.”
“I love you papa. Goodnight”
“I love you Aashu. Goodnight”
They still do their little rituals and intend to do it life long. Pallavi is trying hard to keep things normal for their daughter Tamanna. She smiles all the time because she don’t want to hold Aashu worrying over them. She knows he is watching them.
When on 26th January and 15th August we unfurl Tiranga which flutters high in its full glory it is not because of the air but because of the blood that thousands of men have spilled for it and also because of thousands of women behind them who crushed themselves for the glory with which our Tiranga flutters all across our nation called India which for many is just not a nation but worship. Jai Hind!!