“I always did something I was a little not ready to do. I think that’s how you grow. When there’s that moment of ‘Wow, I’m not really sure I can do this,’ and you push through those moments, that’s when you have a breakthrough.” – Marissa Mayer (CEO of Yahoo)
At 19 years Shalini was married to Major Avinash Singh. She continued her studies. Two years passed happily, and the couple was blessed with a male child in 1999.Major Avinash was posted to Kashmir at the time which meant long hauls with little or no connection. But the two made it work. Mobile phones were not common those days, so the only means of communication was the STD booth. To talk for five minutes both of them had to wait for about an hour. Shalini remembers how Avinash would enjoy listening to the meaningless chatter of his son.
Shalini was managing the roles of a mother, a wife, and a student, waiting for the day when the family would be united. But fate willed otherwise. On 28 September 2001, she got a message from Maj Avinash’s unit that he had been he had been seriously injured after killing four terrorists. He attained martyrdom at the age of 29 years. Shalini was a widow at 23 and a mother of a two-year-old son.
Initially, she was in a state of shock. She did not know how to react to people coming to offer condolences. She even thought of ending her life, but the face of her son made her change her mind. She gathered courage, calmed down and decided to live, if not for herself, at least for her son Dhruv, who was oblivious of the catastrophe that had hit the family.“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.
Some of her friends and relatives were supportive of her decision, but others tried to dissuade her given the tough training and difficult service conditions in the Army. Moreover, Dhruv was a toddler and dependent on her. Shalini thought that Dhruv was her greatest strength and she would not let it become her weakness. She focused on the future and decided that she would do all it takes, to become an Army officer.
She dropped out of her postgraduate course and enrolled for coaching to prepare for the SSB interview. Her efforts bore fruit, and she was called for an interview at SSB Allahabad in December 2001. Barely three months had passed after the death of her husband. As the interview was one week long, she asked her parents to accompany her. They stayed separately with Dhruv as they were not allowed inside the SSB campus. At a fixed time she would go to the nearby park, where her parents would be waiting with Dhruv. This was to enable her to feed him, as he refused to eat from his grandparents. Co-candidates who watched the events unfold lauded. She used to put up a brave face during the day, but couldn’t help crying all alone at night, as she missed her son.
Tears of joy rolled down her cheeks when she got the news that she had cleared the SSB interview. Shalini was required to stay for another week for the medical tests. She convinced Dhruv to return with his grandparents which he agreed happily. After being found medically fit, she reported for training to Officer’s Training Academy Chennai. On the one hand she was feeling the pangs of separation from her three years old son, and on the other hand, the grueling physical training was exhausting her daily.
The rigorous training of six months completed in Sept 2002, when she passed out as a commissioned officer. It was a sea change from saree/suits to OG uniform and army boots. So strong was her determination that she achieved her dream just three weeks before Maj Avinash’s first death anniversary.
When Maj Avinash was posthumously awarded Kirti Chakra(second highest gallantry award), it was Shalini who proudly received it from the then President Dr. 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 defense force to help her then 16-year-old son. After that, she worked in an MNC to support her son and plan for his future. Dhruv has appeared in the NDA entrance examination. His dream is to become a brave Army Officer and do his parents proud. Settled in Delhi, the former captain did not stop winning at life. Fifteen years after the death of her husband,39 years old Shalini went on to be crowned ‘Classic Mrs. India – Queen of Substance’ for 2017, a title apt for the woman of steel that she is.
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 husband 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. Her struggle and never say die attitude will continue to inspire women for years to come.