The Ashoka Chakra citation for Havildar Gajendra Singh Bisht and a photograph of his wife Vinita receiving the posthumous honour from former president Pratibha Patil adorn one of the walls of the National Security Guard (NSG) commando’s house in Dehradun. On another wall are photographs of Bisht’s children, Preeti, 18, and Gaurav, 20, most of them shot in the years after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, their father absent in their growing-up frames.
Yet, Preeti slips easily into memories of her father – how he would often carry her around on his broad shoulders and how the siblings would pester him with their daily demands. “We used to live on the NSG campus in Manesar and we would call papa every evening, asking him to get us things from the market. So last month, when we went back to the Manesar campus for an event, I momentarily forgot he was no more. I even looked for his number on my phone,” says Preeti, breaking into quiet sobs.
Havildar Bisht was among the commandos who had been sent to secure Mumbai’s Nariman House after terrorists attacked the Jewish community centre on the evening of November 26, 2008. He sustained injuries from a grenade explosion but continued firing, forcing the terrorists to retreat into a room in the building. Bisht ultimately succumbed to his injuries and was later conferred the Ashoka Chakra, India’s highest peacetime military decoration, for his “supreme sacrifice”.
“It has been nine years, but it’s still hard to believe papa is not around,” says Preeti, adding that 26/11 and the days after are etched in her memory. “I was nine then. I remember coming home from school and seeing a crowd that had gathered at our house in Manesar. There were a lot of people… wives of Army officers and others. I couldn’t understand a thing. I thought my mother was ill, but then somebody told me papa had been injured in the Mumbai attacks and that we had to go to Dehradun to meet him,” says Preeti, a first-year BBA student.
It was only when the family reached Bisht’s ancestral home, in Dehradun’s Ganeshpur village, that Preeti realised her father was no more – his body had been placed there for people to offer condolences.
“I remember I cried and fainted several times. The sight of my father’s body was unbearable. I couldn’t believe that he was no more,” says her brother Gaurav, a second-year BBA student, adding that he was in “a state of shock” as he performed the last rites.
After Bisht’s death, Vinita and her children moved to Dehradun, where the government allotted them a petrol pump. While Vinita, 40, says she has “no financial worries” now, her husband’s death left a “big void” in their lives. Preeti says she misses her father the most when she sees her friends with their dads, while Gaurav says he feels his absence when he is either “very happy or very sad”.
“People look at us and think what worries could we possibly have after the government compensated us after his death. Koi ye sara paisa le jaye aur mera pati mujhe de jaye (someone take all this money and return my husband to me),” says Vinita.
While Gaurav has decided to finish his graduation and help his mother manage the petrol pump allotted to the family, Preeti says she wants to join the Indian Army as a tribute to her father.
About three kilometres from their home, at Bisht’s ancestral village in Ganeshpur, is a memorial that Vinita built for her late husband in 2012. Built on a 250 square-yard plot, the memorial serves as a reminder to people in Ganeshpur of Bisht’s martyrdom. But to Vinita and her children, the memorial and the life-size statue of Bisht in his uniform is simply a comforting presence. “Whenever I miss him, I come here,” says Vinita.