After recently seeing a South Indian flick revolving around the story of an army man and his valiant death in the service of the nation, I’ve been thinking of Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan (15 March 1977 – 28 November 2008). He was an officer in the Indian Army serving in the elite Special Action Group of the National Security Guards. He was martyred in action during the November 2008 Mumbai attacks. He was consequently awarded the Ashoka Chakra, India’s highest peacetime gallantry award, on 26 January 2009. He was the only son of retired ISRO officer K. Unnikrishnan and Dhanalakshmi Unnikrishnan.
It’s been almost 10 years since his passing and I was looking at the narrations and thoughts of his proud mother. She gets a new T-shirt for her son on the day of his birthday. Recently actor Tovino Thomas visited their home after she expressed an interest to meet him after he starred in an army movie. She gifted him one of those T-shirts and cooked for him appam and stew, her son’s favorite dish. Probably because I was in the mood after watching the flick, but I’m deeply moved and ardently melted by these gestures and the strength of their family.
Ajay Sukumaran writes on Outlook India
Over these 10 years, Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan’s parents have grown used to spending a large part of their time travelling to events or meeting people. A few months ago, they were in Kerala to speak at a school, despite Dhanalakshmi’s nagging backache. “I will go and speak as long as my health permits,” she says. She has so much to share with people about her son. “After he has gone, we have only him to talk about.”
Upstairs in their two-storey home is a gallery, a labour of love for their son. “He would keep his things very carefully. So we were wondering what to do with them. And that’s how we created this,” she says. There’s an astonishing collection of personal articles and memories, painstakingly put together four years ago. A harmonica, a nursery-class gift from his father which Sandeep treasured; the first cup he won in a school sports tournament and several other accolades that followed; his clothes and shoes, all neatly pressed and polished, in a glass wardrobe; the Ashok Chakra medal and citation; the bag with a change of clothes that he carried into Operation Black Tornado and his entire kit; the dirt from the spot he fell, at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which the family visits every anniversary (a sofa from the room is now at the NSG’s headquarters in Manesar); the Indian flag his body was wreathed in.
On another side of the room, a glimpse of the personal side of a man dedicated to his profession—His 1999-model music system, an old point-and-shoot camera, his small collection of movies, among them Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. He had told mom to keep the CDs safe, and so she did. There are other mementos: the towel she wrapped her four-month-old baby in when the family moved to Bangalore in 1977; a T-shirt the one-year-old had worn. It is still work in progress, she says. There are so many more articles to add.
Every year on Sandeep’s birthday on March 15, his best friend from school brings a bouquet which his mother keeps alongside his photo until the next birthday. His military colleagues stay in touch and schoolmates, many abroad now, drop in with their kids. “Frankly, if you ask me, why was he so popular? I would say he deserved it,” says Unnikrishnan, who is in his mid-seventies. “Sandeep is living in many minds.” The family lives by the ideals that Sandeep set for himself. “We have learnt a lot from him,” says Unnikrishnan. “I always make sure I dress well,” his wife adds. “That’s how Sandeep liked it.”
Sandeep’s Ashok Chakra, the country’s highest peacetime gallantry award was received her mother and the citation in it reads:
“Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan led the commando operation launched on 27 November 2008 to flush out terrorists from Hotel Taj Mahal, Mumbai in which he rescued fourteen hostages. During the operation, his team came under intense hostile fire, in which one of his team members got grievously injured. Major Sandeep pinned down the terrorists with accurate fire and rescued the injured commando to safety. In the process, he was shot in his right arm. Despite his injuries, he continued to fight the terrorists till his last breath. Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan displayed most conspicuous bravery besides camaraderie and leadership of the highest order and made the supreme sacrifice for the nation.”