Reportage: A Ganesh Nadar. Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar and the Sarvanan family. Design: Dominic Xavier, Rajesh Karkera
After serving with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka for a couple of years, Lieutenant Colonel A Mariappan was finally returning home. But he could not make it to his family. En route, he died in a road accident in Bangalore.
His oldest son, Sarvanan, was only 14.
Saravanan, now a Major in the Indian Army, was also coming home. His body was being brought in a coffin draped in the Indian tricolour. The 27-year-old officer had died defending the peaks of Batalik in the Kargil war. His body had lain in the snow for a whole month, caught in a no-man's lands between Indian and Pakistani positions.
"Every time we go to recover the body, the Pakis open fire and if one of their men tries to claim the body, we open fire. That is why his body remains where it is," a senior army officer had then told rediff.com
Major Sarvanan's mother had lost her husband and now her only son.
"My son was the first to fall and the last to return," she said remembering him in her home in Tiruchi, Tamil Nadu.
Pictures of Major Sarvanan in his home; inset, his father Lieutenant Colonel Mariappan.
Major Mariappan Saravanan was born on August 10, 1972 on the island of Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu. His father Lieutenant Colonel A Mariappan was a doctor in the army.
After completing his schooling in various places -- Belgaum, Kannoor, Gurdaspur, Jorhat and Bihar, he joined St Joseph's College in Tiruchi which was founded in 1844.
"After college he tried to get into the National Defence Academy and landed up in the Officers Training Academy," says his closest friend Amalraj. He graduated from the OTA in 1996 and joined the First Bihar regiment as a lieutenant. He was made captain the following year and major in 1999.
"I was training with the army in Assam, his unit was there so we managed to meet, from there they went straight to Kargil," says Amalraj in palpable grief.
They were a bunch of three friends -- Saravanan, Karthik and Amalraj. A few years ago, they had made a trip to Kanyakumari. On the way, their bus driver fell asleep on the wheel and crashed headlong into an incoming lorry.
"Seven people died on the spot and many were injured. We students were in a shock. But not Saravanan, he was cool. He went about checking the dead. Then he helped the injured into passing vehicles and took them to hospital. It was his army background that made him react to an emergency so calmly and resolutely."
Amalraj is an IPS officer now and the superintendent of police in the Theni district of Tamil Nadu.
St Jospeh's College, Tiruchi; Major Sarvanan as a child.
'There was this Sippy theatre in Tiruchi. It used to show English movies," says the other friend Karthik, "We never missed even one. Saravanan was a bike freak. We even planned to take part in a Scissors rally. We could not find a sponsor and the plan fizzled out."
Karthik is now a businessman in Theni and recounts the college election as if it were just yesterday. "In our college, the chairman was always a member of some political party or a very rich kid. We changed that. We decided to make Saravanan the chairman in our final year and succeeded. It was the first time the college had an intelligent chairman in a long time."
Major Sarvanan with his mother.
Sarvanan's mother Amithavalli Mariappan was very sad the day I met her. It was her son's birthday. He would have been 32. Her daughters -- Chitra, a doctor in Chennai and Revathy, a software engineer in the US -- would call.
Her son was so industrious, she said. Always fixing his bike or other electrical items in the house. He hardly ever sat still. He was a good son who came home every year for his holidays and called her almost each day.
When he had told her that he wanted to join the army, she never discouraged him even after losing her officer-husband.
"He came home before the Kargil war. He had to attend a friend's marriage and stayed with us for one-and-a-half months. The last time he called was to tell us his unit was shifting. He never told us he was going to Kargil, we thought it was one of the regular postings."
Sarvanan told her he would call. He didn't call for 15 days after that.
Major Sarvanan with his mother.
The First Bihar regiment was in Assam when the Kargil war broke out. They were ordered to move to Kargil, Jammu & Kashmir. From the heat of Assam to the cold of Kargil wasn't an easy change. There wasn't enough protective weather gear.
On the night of May 28, 1999, Major Sarvanan was assigned the task of capturing a well-fortified Pakistani position at 14,229 feet in the Batalik sector. He and his men launched an attack at 0400 hours. Despite intensive firing from the enemy with artillery and automatic weapons, they charged into a volley of bullets.
Saravanan fired a rocket launcher into the enemy position that killed two enemy soldiers. During the combat, he was hit by a splinter and injured but the major continued fighting. His commanding officer ordered him to retreat because too many Indian soldiers had been injured.
'Ghenghis Khan fall back,' came the order.
'Not today sir, we are very close to the objective,' replied Sarvanan who was codenamed Ghenghis Khan. He killed two more invaders but this time he was hit by a bullet in the head.
Major Sarvanan fell defending his country, his body nestled in the snow. As if mother nature had held her child close to her bosom and kept him fresh.
He died at 6.30 am.
A friend in Bangalore called his mother and told her Saravanan had died in Kargil. "We switched on the television and saw it in a news bulletin."
Two days later, the official telegram arrived. "He was the first officer to fall and the last one to come back. Almost as if he did not want to leave the border till the enemy was thrown out," says his mother.
Major Sarvanan's body was recovered on July 8, 1999, 41 days after he died. The entire town of Tiruchi turned up to attend the funeral. "It was a fitting tribute to him," says Father John Britto, his college principal.
Had he lived, the family would have celebrated his wedding in June -- just a month after he passed away. They had liked a girl and sent her picture to him.
Major Sarvanan had agreed to marry her.
The funeral in Tiruchi
Major Saravanan's unit was the first to find out that the Pakistanis up there were heavily armed. Before that it was thought they were only armed with light weapons. His sacrifice brought out the extent of the weaponry of the enemy and his deed did not go unrecognised.
A grateful Indian Army gave him the title 'The Hero of Batalik.' The Tamil Nadu government has introduced a chapter in class VII called -- 'They brought home the hero dead,' which is a true inspiration to the children who read it.
The President awarded him a Vir Chakra for his admirable courage. His commanding officer came for Major Sarvanan's funeral and told his mother: 'You are not Saravanan's mother alone, you are a mother to the nation.'
"She is a very courageous lady," says Father Britto, "we invited her to a few functions after his death and she spoke very bravely. Probably the army background makes her strong."
His mother receives the Vir Chakra from President K R Narayanan.
In Major Sarvanan's home, the prayer room has photos of his father and him, both revered like the other gods in that room. "His name was Saravanan but we used to call him Saro," says Karthik, "Today I have named my daughter Saro after him."
When Major Sarvanan's funeral pyre was lit by his uncle, a retired army man, a multitude of people stood there in grief. They were friends, relatives and many others who did not know him while he lived. They had come to honour a soldier who had died defending his country and theirs.
"We tell his story to students as an example of bravery. He is an icon for them. They all want to be like him," says Principal Britto. On the college notice board is a colourful poster beckoning young people to join the Indian Army. Some inspired by Saravanan, have joined.
Five years ago, Major Sarvanan was martyred but he still lives on in the hearts of those who loved him. In the name of his friends' child, and in the annals of a grateful nation.