Shikha Saxena, the author of Nation First
Listening to Shikha Saxena, the author of Nation First, is like experiencing life in the armed forces, learning military values that civilians can emulate, and enduring an emotional roller coaster that only defence forces personnel and their families undergo. One may think her passion for all things military is the result of life as an army wife. But the opposite is true. It is what she experienced just three months after her wedding with Capt. Akhilesh Saxena.
They got married in February 1999, three months before the Kargil war broke out in May. Even as the book gives a peak into Shikha and Capt. Saxena’s lives before the war, the real story begins with the events leading up to the war. The narration weaves a detailed picture of the deadly events that unfolded on the border and the deep impressions the war left on individuals while it was ongoing as well as after it had ended.
As the war progressed and the adversary’s artillery shelling got formidable, the Indian Army realised it had to involve its own artillery to support the infantry battalion, the 18 Grenadiers, who despite several attempts had failed to capture Tololing peak. With the command of the Drass sector going to the 8 Mountain Division during the war on June 1, the 1889 Light Regiment was deployed near Draupadi Kund. Alongside 2 Rajputana Rifles, tasked to capture the Tololing ridge, the artillery was asked to lend support. Here begins the story of Capt. Saxena, an artillery officer who led 2 Rajputana Rifles to the Tololing peak. As soon as he volunteered to join 2 Rajputana Rifles in Drass, he was told to join the unit at Matayen, where they were prepping for the attack. In order to prepare an artillery fire plan, Capt. Saxena set out to see Tololing. This was when he had the first brush with the adversary at close range.
As he embarked on the mission to capture the Tololing Peak, the Hump and the Three Pimples Area, his left palm was severed in enemy shelling. The injury changed the lives of the young couple. The left palm had to be recrafted. During his time in the hospital, repeated operations were carried out to reset the hand, including the bones, tissues and nerves. Capt. Saxena remained in the hospital for a year. Even after he was discharged, his physiotherapy sessions continued for a long period. While the palm was restored to a large extent, he was unable to hold a weapon in his hand. This meant his chances of being posted in frontline areas were almost nil.
The army offered him peace postings as the injury had rendered him incapable of fighting on the frontlines. But with a heavy heart, he decided to hang up his boots and a career in uniform and decided to start a new chapter in the corporate sector. The decision was not easy as the young army officer had to restart studies while Shikha, an IT professional, who was carrying the couple’s first child at the time, decided to set up a multimedia company to resume her own career while also taking care of her husband, who needed constant care and attention.
Although the Tata Group offered Capt. Saxena a job, he did not accept it. Instead, he undertook the long and arduous journey of doing MBA at the Faculty of Management Studies (FMS) in New Delhi to enter corporate life. The constant challenges in the initial years of marriage tested the young couple but steeled the duo to build a solid future for themselves. A ‘rollercoaster ride,’ as Shikha put it. She said the army environment is very harmonious and comfortable to stay in. “Leaving that kind of atmosphere behind was of course a challenge. The comfort of staying in the cantonment is very different and we initially were afraid to leave it.” In the book, Shikha comes across as a pillar of support and a sane voice, guiding her husband all through his hardships.
On what she went through while writing the book, Shikha said: “I had to relive those memories to get myself to write. So first I decided on an objective. It is important for the writer to know what they want the reader to gain out of the book.” She started writing the book during the Covid-19 pandemic. The uncertainty during that time coupled with the constant news of death due to the deadly virus made her relate to her own situation during the Kargil war. Shikha said the fear people felt during the pandemic was a reminder of her own fears when Capt. Saxena was fighting at the border.
“I thought I should write this story so that people may get the courage of dealing with the situation. What motivated me to write the book was the fact that if we could do it, everyone else can. We are not superhumans, after all. The only thing to be kept in mind is that you must stay positive in any and every circumstance. You have to keep fighting. The Indian Army does this. When the Kargil war started, there were a lot of failures the army faced. Initially when the adversary had taken over the mountain peaks, they were in an extremely advantageous position.”
She said despite repeated failures, if a soldier can do it then others can also face challenges. She pointed out that while fighting the enemy, it’s not only the enemy that the soldier is fighting. “When a soldier on the border without shelter and other facilities can discharge his duties, then anyone can do it. And the enemy is not the only thing he is fighting. Temperatures drop to their lowest. The terrain, hunger and thirst also must be battled. Food and water are available but due to the temperatures, they freeze. So, why can’t we, sitting in AC rooms, face challenges,” Shikha asked.
Being an advocate of a disciplined military life, Shikha said: “Imagine if we all think in such a manner, the scenario would be completely different. While writing the book, I thought maybe this will help in giving some inspiration to the readers. So even if half the people after reading the book say they will do their work with the dedication of a soldier I will have achieved my objective of writing the book.” Shikha hopes that her book reaches the younger generation.
Asked whose suggestion was it to write the book, Shikha said: “The idea was mine but both of us wanted to convey this message. Between the two of us, I got the time to write it. My husband gave me the required inputs related to the war since he served on the frontline.” Before embarking on capturing the three peaks, her husband wrote what he thought would be the last letters to his family. Such letters by soldiers are kept inside a box and only if a soldier does not return are they posted to the families. Shikha found those letters when Capt. Saxena was undergoing treatment at the hospital for a year.
Shikha recalled her husband waking up in the middle of the night in pain and agony. He used to narrate to her how ugly the war was. “Wounds heal and go away but the mental scars don’t,” she told the FORCE. Asked if they went through counselling, Shikha said, “No because there is no such concept in India. We think we will go through it, and we do.”
Speaking about General V.P. Malik (retd), who was the Chief of the Army Staff during the Kargil War and who has also written a foreword for her book, Shikha said, “General Malik told me he had not read a book like this one. He appreciated the book and personally called to tell me about it.” According to Shikha, Mrs Malik, too, took great interest in the book. “Mrs Malik, who has also contributed to the foreword, finished reading the book in a couple of hours and video called me to tell me how much she had enjoyed reading it. Her writing the foreword brought tears to my eyes. The couple was there for us during Kargil, and they are here with us today too.”
The author has included perspectives of different people who served in the war, including Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa (retd), Brig Amrinder Singh Kasana (retd) and Col M.B. Ravindranath (retd) among others. “I included stories from all these people to carry different points of views in the narration to make it holistic. It was important for me to give the reader an understanding of the role the air force played. Similarly, while most perspectives from the frontline are my husband’s, I felt compelled to include even the efforts taken by the administration,” Shikha said.
She has written elaborately on what transpired between Capt. Saxena’s family and her after he left for the war and after his injury. She gives a peak into the Indian society and its many drawbacks about women. Shikha came to be blamed for all that had happened to her husband. She was perceived to be ‘unlucky’ for the groom and his family. Speaking about this she said: “This is not just my story. It is every wife’s story whose husband went to fight the war at a young age. I believe it was a way of coping with the trauma of having to send their young sons in harm’s way.”
After braving adverse thoughts of how she would cope with life if her husband did not return from the war, Shikha found inspiration from fellow army wives who had lost their husbands in the war. She said: “I decided that I would dedicate my life to the army in some way or the other. I saw how wives of officers were coping with the situation comparatively well because they were educated. They were able to understand the new policies that were coming in. But the wives of jawans, who come from the hinterland, did not know any of these things. They did not know what advantages they could seek. Even as my husband was serving, I dedicated myself to making wives of jawans aware of how they should go about the paperwork. Even to this day I am associated with an organisation to help with such things.”
Regarding the Army Wives Welfare Association (AWWA), Shikha is of the view that there is no such organisation in the world. “The AWWA is extremely firm in extending its support to wives even after soldiers die and the women are no longer directly associated with the army.” Shikha has immense confidence and pride in the working of the AWWA.
Shikha is an optimist. The one thing that she repeats not once but several times is that despite everything, one has to deal with whatever life throws at you. Despite having to leave the army early, Shikha feels she experienced the functioning of the army and the AWWA fully, especially during the war. She says in only a few months, she got the support that army wives provide each other. “My life in the army was short and crisp, but the experience was complete,” Shikha said.