"Even my family members urged me to return, but I didn't give up. Many people thought that I had lost my mind."
Vijendra Singh Rathore works at a travel agency in Ajmer, Rajasthan. Every now and then, he travels to various heritage and tourist places as a part of his job, but a trip to Kedarnath in Uttarakhand in 2013 was to change his life, forever.
That year, Vijendra and his wife, Leela, decided to undertake the ‘Char Dham yatra.’ Like the 30-odd passengers who were travelling with them, the couple were hoping to complete the pilgrimage successfully.
Little did they know they were reaching Uttarakhand just as the devastating floods had affected the state.
In the havoc that was a result of the floods and landslides, Leela got misplaced, and unfortunately, there was no way that either of them could contact each other. It is likely that Leena must have been frantically searching for her husband, but the chaotic situation in the flood-affected area coupled with the damaged roads led her further away.
Speaking to the Times of India in 2015, Vijendra had said, “On June 12, 2013, my wife and I left for Char Dham yatra.
I had taken 30 passengers on the bus of the travel company I worked for. I had last spoken to her on June 16, 2013, when the floods struck Kedarnath and devastated the region.”
It was an unfamiliar area, and neither Vijendra nor Leela knew anyone there. But Vijendra was not one to lose without putting up a fight—even against mother nature and their cruel fate.
Even with the water levels rising and buildings tumbling down, Vijendra started searching for Leela. His only resource? A photo of hers that he would show every single person he met, asking if they had seen his beloved wife.
One day turned to week and one week turned to one month. Vijendra could not find his wife, but he wasn’t about to lose hope. “Even my family members urged me to return, but I didn’t give up. Many people thought that I had lost my mind,” recalls the devoted husband.
Vijendra also had to take care of his children, Raj Lakshmi, Pinki, Pushpa, Seema Devi and Sagar, who were eagerly waiting for their parents to return.
He badly wanted to ensure that he didn’t come back with bad news.
“Since that day [when Leela got misplaced], I never left Uttarakhand and must have gone to a thousand villages in the hope of finding her,” an emotional Vijendra told TOI, adding, “I had faith in God and in destiny that I would meet her again and that she was alive.”
After a few weeks, the state government declared Leela dead since she could not be traced. However, Vijendra refused to believe this and even rejected the compensation of Rs 9 lakh, that the government was giving the kin of the deceased.
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Over the next 19 months, Vijendra intensified his search and even sold his ancestral property so he could fund himself and keep his children back home safe and well-fed. “His love and faith kept him going,” a source who knows Vijendra told the Hindustan Times, adding
“He spent difficult nights on the roads with no shelter or food but refused to accept the compensation that the government was offering.”
His dedicated efforts were not in vain. “On January 27, , some people of Gongoli village in Uttarakhand told me that they had seen a woman in a mentally unstable condition who resembled my wife,” Vijendra told TOI. Elated at the hope of meeting his wife again, Vijendra followed the villagers, and to his amazement and joy, the woman turned out to be Leela!
Sadly, due to the trauma that she had suffered, Leela was a changed woman and had become withdrawn, silent and uncommunicative. However, Vijendra was delighted to have met his wife again.
The Rathore family has been making efforts to bring her back to her old self, and she seems to be making progress. “We’re not talking to her about what happened, but trying various things to make her normal and bring the smile back on her face,” he said.
It has been three years since the family was reunited, and we sincerely hope that Leela has recovered and is happy to be with her family.
Vijendra’s efforts to find his wife, when even the government had declared her dead are nothing short of heroic, besides being incredibly heartwarming. It has been reported that Siddharth Roy Kapoor has acquired the rights to his story and will soon make a feature film on him.
The kind of love, dedication and perseverance that he showed undoubtedly deserves a large audience because this man is a ‘hero’ in the truest sense.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)