The chirping of birds and the beautiful dawn brought hope the next morning. I saw Akhilesh again when the nurse went into the room to change his drip. His eyes were still shut. She smiled at me and asked, “Just married?” I nodded in affirmation.

“He will wake up in a couple of hours. You can freshen up in the meantime,” she suggested.

I too wanted to look good when he opened his eyes, so I walked down towards the guest house, feeling content and at peace. We returned to Ortho Ward 1 around 8 am. The team of doctors was on its rounds, so we waited outside. My father was also an orthopaedic surgeon, so he and Dr Col Sikdar clicked instantly. The doctor made us aware of the severity of my husband’s wounds and the disability he would have to live with.

“He has lost his left palm. I have put in an iron rod for support. The nerves have also broken, so it will take months to bring back functionality to his hand. We will try our best, but his left hand will remain weak. He will require assistance with his day-to-day routine. Moreover, he is traumatised. He has such horrible memories of the brutal war that it will take a decade to overcome them. It is good that your daughter is with him. He is lucky to have her. And she is lucky that he is back.” Dr Col Sikdar explained the case details to Papa while I stood at the side.

Then he turned to me. “I can only provide medical treatment, but his wellness is in your hands. Just take care of him.” His words were like guidelines for me. I just smiled in response.

While Papa and the doctor were still talking, sharing their army service and government service experiences, I went inside the room. Akhilesh was sitting up in bed. His chapped lips broke into a smile, and his eyes were warm with affection. Ma sat on the chair by his bed while I kept standing. Capt Reddy brought me a chair, lifting it with one hand.

“Please, don’t lift the chair. I will do it myself.” I was embarrassed.

“Ma’am, I have broken my hand, but I’m still an army officer. I can’t sit while you are standing,” replied Capt Reddy.

“He will not be able to have breakfast today. You should eat in the dining hall as breakfast will not be served after 9 am,” the nurse announced as she entered the room. Akhilesh was weak and on a liquid diet. I helped him sip some tea while the others went for breakfast.

“Inform my parents that I’m here at Base Hospital, Delhi Cantt,” Akhilesh said in a low tone.

“You haven’t told them yet?” I asked in surprise.

“I wanted to be fully conscious when they met me. Otherwise, my condition would have upset them deeply,” he said.

“Yes, you’re right. I will inform them today,” I assured him.

He slept most of the afternoon as I sat by his side. The nurse came in a few times to change the drip. I went out in search of an STD booth and found one near the entrance gate of the campus. While searching for the phone booth, I met Major Rathore, who was admitted in the room next to Akhilesh’s in the same ward, and his wife. Most of the officers were in casual clothes except for Akhilesh, who was in uniform. He wore it so I wouldn’t be shocked to see him in that condition, but his weakness revealed everything at first glance. In the evening, I was sitting on the stairs adjacent to the garden. An ambulance arrived again, and a ward boy brought out one more wounded officer in a wheelchair and took him inside the room of Maj Rathore. He was Dr Capt Somnath Basu, who had received a shrapnel wound on his left foot. I found out later that he was the same doctor who had administered first-aid to Akhilesh when he came down from the peak.

There was one TV in the room shared by the three patients, but there was no conflict as everyone wanted to watch the same thing – news channels. One could hear the sounds of news bulletin across the corridor from every room. The video telecasts of the funerals of our officers and soldiers. Live reports from the peaks of Kargil. The war was still on. The nation mourned the deaths of its most loyal and sincere sons. Victory seemed to pale in comparison to the sacrifices that soldiers and their families made to achieve it. Everyone was carrying tears and sadness in their eyes.

Dinner was ready to be served in the dining hall, but no one showed up to eat it. Slowly, Akhilesh’s face reflected the agony he was feeling inside. I was observing him while we watched TV. The agony of the death of his war buddies aggravated his pain. He squished his eyes and cried, and his face began to turn purple. I called the nurse immediately.

“Sister, I’m experiencing unbearable pain, as though someone has cut my hand,” he told the nurse. His voice was throbbing with pain and his eyes were moist with tears, as he held his left hand with his right. I supported his right hand as I was scared to touch the injured left hand covered with bandages. Looking at his condition, my eyes turned moist too. Capt Reddy too came close and sat by the side.

“If both of you cry, then who will console him?” the nurse said with a firm voice. “The splinters hit you. The pain is obvious. Now be as brave as you were in Kargil, while coming down to the first-aid station after being injured,” the nurse said while injecting Akhilesh with a painkiller.

“I see! When you’re alone, you can bear the pain, but if you have someone taking care of you, you let go of yourself. Ma’am is here, so you’re trying to get her sympathy,” Capt Reddy joked in an attempt to ease the situation. He then smiled, and his smile was truly infectious as it made Akhilesh smile too despite the tears in his eyes.

Capt Reddy’s trick seemed to work as Akhilesh seemed to feel slightly more at ease. “I’m not exaggerating. I am actually suffering. She is my wife. I don’t have to earn her sympathy,” he said lightly.

All four of us were smiling now, but the pain was still there. The casual conversation had lightened the mood, but it didn’t decrease the pain. Still, it moved our focus away from the tragedy and helped us forget for a while. The nurse permitted me to stay beyond visiting hours. I guess she understood it was the need of the hour. Her patient needed love and attention more than medicine at this point.

Excerpted with permission from Nation First, Shikha Akhilesh Saxena, Hachette India.