Shalini was only 19 when she married Major Avinash Singh. He was perhaps the most benevolent army officer and family man, she knew. While it was common for many women at the time to trade education for familial responsibilities, Shalini’s marriage did not deter her from continuing her studies. The couple was blessed with a baby boy two years later.
Major Avinash was posted to Kashmir at the time which meant long hauls with little or no connection. But the two made it work.
A mobile phone was a luxury back in the day. So whenever the couple connected, it involved phone calls patched through many Army Exchanges or the ones that required long waiting durations. At these times, the officer would be waiting in line, among the other 1,000 soldiers at the only STD booth available.
In 1999, the couple was blessed with a baby boy.
Speaking to SSBcrack.com, Shalini recalls, “Considering the quality of the connection and the rarity of it, each successful conversation was like a battle won. He used to love listening to the meaningless chatter of our son over the phone. Life was a true wonder, as we would desperately wait for those phone calls.”
Shalini was happily juggling between her various roles–that of a mother, a wife, and a student–until one call from Kashmir turned her life upside down.
It was early on 28th September 2001, when the fateful call came. It was from Major Avinash’s unit. He had sustained gunshot wounds and was battling for his life.
Major Avinash posted with the 8 Rashtriya Rifles unit had single-handedly killed four terrorists. But due to the cut-throat fight, the brave officer had succumbed to his wounds and attained martyrdom at the age of 29.
Shalini was 23 and the mother of a two-year-old. She had lost her husband, and her son had lost his father.
She told SSB Crack, “My mind went still, and my body was numb. Time was passing in a haze, like a glint of darkness in a pale, dull universe. I did not know how to react when people gave condolences. I could see the faces, feel the movement around me and hear the buzzing sounds, but everything seemed unreal. Nothing made sense. Nothing had meaning. My life had lost meaning so early in life, all of a sudden.”
But even in this darkest phase of her life, all hope was not lost. She would have to find a way to live. If not for her, then at least for the two-year-old baby who lay in her lap, giggling, clueless about the catastrophe that had befallen them.
“Dhruv brought life back in me. I had to be strong, for him. I decided to join the Army. I was not sure how I would do it. I was very fragile and delicate physically. I was a pampered child of my family. When I met his unit officers at my home, I told them that I had decided to join Army,” she says.
While her family and friends were receptive and supportive, some did try to dissuade her stating the challenges.
“They had seen me as a delicate army wife, so some of them were sceptical too,” she adds.
She knew the selection was going to be tough and the training even tougher. But even as a few naysayers tried to strike fear in her mind about the frequent and remote postings, they said that Dhruv was still young and dependent on her.
“But I had decided that my son is my biggest strength, and I will not let him be a weakness. I was not listening. I had just one thought in my mind. I have to be strong. I have to wear the uniform and hit back at life. For us,” she said.
Shalini quit her post-graduation midway and channelised all her energy into preparing and getting adequate coaching to crack the Service Selection Board (SSB) interview.
She stepped one step closer to her dream and honoured her martyred husband’s memory when she was called for a week-long interview at SSB, Allahabad, in December 2001.
It was three months after she had lost Avinash. But a week was too long for Dhruv to go without her. So she decided to take him along with her parents. Though they were not allowed inside the SSB centre due to protocol, Shalini would often travel to the nearby park where her parents would wait with Dhruv, at every break. All of this was just in a bid to feed the little boy who refused to eat from his grandparents.
Her co-candidates who watched the events unfold lauded Shalini for her strength and determination.
While she put on a brave front during the selection process, she would often break down at night, when she missed her son.
But all her efforts bore fruit when the results were declared. She had successfully cracked it. Tears rolled down, only this time they were of joy and pride. She rushed to her parents and informed them. They huddled in an emotional embrace, remembering Major Avinash.
But this selection meant that she would have to wait for another week for the medical tests. She knew it would be taxing to ask her parents to continue to stay and wait at the park. She spoke to Dhruv and explained why he would have to go with his Nana-Nani.
For the first time, to her utter surprise, the boy did not cry or throw a tantrum. He happily gave her a smile, a wave, and a flying kiss. He was bidding her goodbye.
She shares, “I controlled my tears. I am still grateful to him for his understanding. We connected through our soul. And he understood my pain and the need for him to stay away from me. He became my strength.”
This separation of a week, just helped the little boy prepare for the many such long hauls when his mother would be posted for months at a stretch.
In March 2002, Shalini meticulously trained for six months at the Officers Training Academy (OTA), Chennai.
She recalls, “Life had changed 360 degrees. From sari/suit to uniform and army boots… I had never imagined in wildest of my dreams ever. But I was there. Such is life. The training was very tough. To put it bluntly, it was beyond my imagination and physical stamina. At times I used to cry in pain, overwhelmed by sadness and silently angry at my destiny, but I couldn’t have given up.”
Her dedication paid off on September 7, 2002, just three weeks before Major Avinash’s first death anniversary, when Shalini was a Commissioned Officer in the Indian Army.
When her near and dear ones shed joyful tears, Dhruv, three years old at the time, pulled on to the epaulettes on her uniform.
Major Avinash was also posthumously awarded the Kirti Chakra (Second Highest Peacetime Gallantry Award) which Capt Shalini received in uniform from former Late President APJ Abdul Kalam.
For six years, she dedicatedly served the country and fought to break the glass ceiling as a single mother working in a male-dominated environment. She only quit the defence force to help her then 16-year-old son. Settled in Delhi, the former captain did not stop winning at life.
She went on to be crowned ‘Classic Mrs India – Queen of Substance’ for 2017, a title apt for the woman of steel that she is.
“I only wish to see my son grow big in life and live up to his father’s name. That’s what I tell him. That’s all that I want and wish for. If he does well, my sacrifices of this life does not matter at all. I will thank my stars for being kind to us now,” Capt. Shalini says, signing off.
We salute Capt Shalini for setting such a spectacular example, not just for the many army widows who undergo tremendous difficulties after the loss of their husbands but also women and girl children across India. Her story will also remind them to not give up, not even in the face of personal loss.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)