January 16, 2016.
A quaint Saturday afternoon overlooks the Powai Lake as we step into the Baduni Residence. We are greeted by smiles so warm and genuine that we immediately find ourselves at ease. A framed Olympic torch witnesses the conversation from atop a bookshelf in the corner.
To test our recording equipment and set the mood for the interview, I ask a control question,
If you could be a movie character in real life, who would it be and why?
Kamal Baduni, 49 years old, laughs a child’s laugh and says with a confident glimmer in her eyes,
I would like to be Umraon Jaan. Colourful, brave, liberated, creative, beautiful, right?
Those virtues would more or less come to define the life story of this amazing lady and her two daughters, Snighdha (24) and Kanishka (22), that we were about to find out in the next couple of hours.
The Fifth Daughter
I’ve been told that when I was born people had cried. The only person happy was my father.
- Kamal Baduni (K.B.)
On 4th June, 1966, the Bhatts of a certain Garwhali community in Bombay added another daughter to the family. “In those days, being the fifth daughter was not easy,” Kamal recalls, speaking about the patriarchal society of the 60's.
I grew up with my nani (maternal grandmother) in Garwhal, away from my parents and siblings. When I came back to them at 10 years of age, I came back to a very strange family. I did not know anybody very well. The foundations of my personality had already formed by then. I later realized that I was very independent, and could influence people around me for good.
The transition from Garwhal to Bombay was anything but smooth. Her new school, the culture, the dialect, everything was alien to her. She did not know the curriculum, she did not understand the local language and at home, she felt like she was living with an unknown family - all very difficult for a 10-year-old to handle.
From the topper in my Grade 5 state board exams in Garwhal, I had to repeat Grade 6 in Bombay. But I never took failures as failures, they were always new opportunities for me. By the end of the year, i had made the best of friends and was the highest scorer again.
She finished her schooling in Bombay and joined Poddar College of Commerce for her Bachelors in Commerce (B. Com) degree.
I was the first girl from my family to go to college.
Her father was extremely progressive for his time. Sternly against the conventional notions of gender discrimination, he encouraged his daughter to study further and build a flourishing career. Though he had limited resources, he ensured a happy childhood for his children without betraying the slightest flicker of despair. To the extent that a school-going Kamal did not realize that repeating her dresses every alternate day was an indication of financial challenges. “I thought it was pretty normal,” she laughs.After completing her B.Com. degree and a course in Computer Applications in 1987, she started her career as a software programmer for commercial packages. She got herself an office at Maker Chambers 5, Nariman Point. A simple, 21-year-old girl in a swanky area. Living the Bombay dream.
The Soldier Who Wanted To Be A Professor
Upon failing to find a match that impressed his headstrong daughter, Kamal’s father turned to his best friend for help. He, incidentally, had an eligible bachelor of a son - Captain Sanjay Baduni of the Indian Army. Sanjay and Kamal had met a few times during their "growing up years" but she had had very little memory of, and zero interaction during, these encounters. After being incessantly nagged by her parents, she agreed to meet Sanjay during April, 1989, when he was scheduled to come down to Bombay from his posting at the Kashmir Valley. She had a simple plan - she’d reject him.
However, 6 AM in the morning of 19th February, 1989, Sanjay’s father was at her doorstep with news of his son’s early return and the fact that if a judgement had to be made, it had to be made on that very (auspicious) day (since he would be re-posted to Siachen for the next 3 months). Her Sunday morning turned upside down with everybody running about excited and before she could make sense of the hullabaloo, she was engaged to Sanjay by the day's end.
On the following Monday, Sanjay and I travelled from Church Gate to Dombivali to meet my cousin, only to find a lock on her door. That journey to and from her place gave us some time to get to know each other. I found him to be such a grounded person. A beautiful soul. I remember him telling me, “This will be tough for you because what you’re currently doing in your career will not be possible as an army wife. Teaching will probably be the only job that will work in those circumstances. So if you don’t want to go through with this, just let me know and I’ll cancel the wedding.” I immediately fell for that disarming honesty. The very next day I just knew that this was the person I wanted to marry. I saw a best friend in him.
During the 11 months between her engagement and the wedding, Sanjay and Kamal communicated through letters. Theirs was a classic love story. Unfolding via the Indian Postal System in crisp, coloured sheets that carried unbridled emotions spiked with the smell of their surroundings. He was deployed at the world’s highest battlefield, while she worked in the city of dreams. The postman’s arrival was a cause for celebration at Kamal’s home. To this day, those letters are safe in her possession.
For being the one posted in Kashmir, he made quite the effort. He would write beautifully in coloured sheets with lovely envelopes and pretty cards. He wrote poems, maintained journals and even scribbled messages behind every photograph he sent me. He used to tell me that if he hadn’t been the only son of his parents, he would have studied English Literature. He was a voracious reader. He wanted to become a professor.
On 14th January, 1990, Sanjay and Kamal tied the knot in Dehradun. Happiness knew no bounds.
Love And The Uniform
After spending the first 6 months of her marriage in Devlali, the couple moved to Firozpur’s army station in Punjab. This is where Kamal accidentally landed her first stint as a teacher. “I had gone to D. C. Model School to accompany a neigbour who wanted to give them her CV. And after a talk, the Principal offered me the job instead of her. It was so unexpected,” Kamal tells us with a grin. Shortly afterward, her first major step towards being a teacher happened at St, Joseph’s Convent, Firozpur. She taught Math and Computers.
Against the backdrop of the Punjab militancy in 1990 and within a humble defence lifestyle, Sanjay and Kamal led a happy married life together.
We were allotted a wonderful house - a Captain’s accommodation, but we did not have the money to buy curtains. I would find it very awkward. When guests came in, we’d paste brown paper sheets on the windows to block the heat. So with my first salary of 900 rupees in Firozpur, I bought curtains for the house. The next month, it was a water filter. The month after, a casserole. Both of us would go to CSD Canteen in the evening to celebrate these little joys. I still have those things.Their first daughter, Singdha, was born in October, 1991, followed by their second daughter, Kanishka, in 1993. Kamal took a 3-year-break from teaching during the period.
Life was as good as it gets.
Fate, unbeknownst to her, had other plans.
The Last Vacation
In 1995, Sanjay was posted with the Rashtriya Rifles in Kashmir. Kamal moved to Dehradun with Snighda and Kanishka. To put things into historical perspective, it was when the Uttarakhand Movement was at its peak. She took up a job at St. Mary’s and resumed her teaching career. The Rashtriya Rifles participated in counter-militancy operations and Sanjay was a part of Operation Rakshak in J&K.
Sanjay delighted his family with a surprise visit in May.
The only memory i have of my father is of his last vacation. I remember because we were not expecting him. We had this divan in our drawing room and I was sitting there and studying. I suddenly looked at the door and saw my father standing there. It was a big surprise as I was somehow very close to him.
- Snigdha Baduni
He extended his vacation till Kamal’s birthday on 4th June. “He implored me to understand where all the papers were. Perhaps he could see it coming because of the environment he was in,” Kamal tells us.
On the 24th of August, 1995, I remember waking up in the morning with a nightmare and then leaving for school and coming back at 10 AM because the school was shut due to civic unrest. It was a weird, unique day. I did certain things which I usually didn’t - like cleaning the pathway to our house. It was the Monsoons. I remember Snigdha getting ready with beaming excitement to go to someone’s house with her grandmother. But she had a sudden mood swing and came back saying she didn’t want to go. It was in the evening. Sanjay had suffered a bullet injury at 5:15 in the evening. I don’t know if this was coincidence. The first information we received was at 8:30 PM when two army officers rang the doorbell and my father-in-law went to answer it. I wondered what was taking him so long to come back in. He had collapsed.
The officers could only tell her that Sanjay was injured with a bullet wound to the neck. With her incorrigible optimism, she told everyone that he was going to be fine. She packed her bags, left Kanishka with her mother-in-law and took Snighdha with her to Udhampur, J&K. They travelled through the night to arrive at the hospital. Only to be informed that her husband was no more.
I am really proud of him because I later learnt that his unit had cornered the militants in a village hideout. He was given permission to blow up the house but he refused, saying, “There are two kids in there. I have two baby daughters myself. I can’t do this until they are safe.” He was killed in the ensuing encounter.
During the cremation ceremony, people tried explaining to Snigdha that the body was her father's. But her three-and-a-half year old brain could not process the information. All she remembers are the balloons and the tri-colour flag. Kanishka does not remember anything at all. She was one-and-a-half.
Back in Firozpur, he once returned from an officer’s funeral and told me with pride, “This is how a soldier should go. Wrapped in the tri-colour. This is how I want to go. For a soldier, it is the greatest achievement.” I had rebuked him for being so morbid.
At 28, when most people are worrying over their promotion at work or looking for a prospective groom, Kamal Baduni was a war widow with two daughters. Sanjay always loved the yellow saree she wore at their engagement. Whenever he was asked for a wardrobe suggestion, he’d always ask her to wear that one saree. He said she looked beautiful in it.
Kamal gave it away to be put in the coffin. So he could keep it with him. As a parting gift.
She has never worn anything yellow ever since.
Challenge would be an understatement to describe life after Sanjay’s death.
Kamal went back to college within 6 months to do her B. Ed. (Bachelors in Education). She was teaching, studying, running around for interviews and keeping her family together.
It was tough. I used to go to school in the morning and then to college immediately after. My classmates didn’t even know that i was married, let alone a mother. My mother-in-law would take care of my daughters during the day. I’d come back home at 6 in the evening, tuck them into bed and study for the next day after working on my assignments.
During the time, Snigdha’s kindergarten teacher (Upper KG) asked Kamal to do something about her daughter - she was not as she used to be. Snigdha Baduni had always been a chirpy girl and had earned the nickname of Batuni, a chatterbox, from her teachers. But after her father had passed away, she had fallen dead quiet. Everybody noticed the four-year-old girl staring outside the window during class. Lost.
And then one day, Kamal decided to do something about it. She explained things to her daughter in a language that she knew she’d understand.
During a walk after school, I told her, “Snuggy, your father is not coming home. He is a star in the sky now. He is there with us, but we cannot be there with him. And he is watching everything you do. So what are you going to do?” That was the day I got my daughter back. I knew I had to become both their parents.
Batuni had returned to form. And Kamal moved to Dagshai, Himachal Pradesh, after completing her B. Ed from DAV College, Dehradun.
One-and-a-half years after her husband’s death, Kamal was teaching at Army Public School, Dagshai. “I had no idea where life was taking me amidst all the hardship, but I just wanted to lead the sort of life and be the sort of person which made my husband fall in love with me. When I settled in Dagshai, I just felt that this was going to be the place, you know", she tells us.
She received a compensation as per Defence policies but the support was not sufficient. Since this was pre-Kargil, she didn't have the privilege of all the other schemes that came in only after the Kargil War.
What I feel is that there should be a rehabilitation program for war widows. When a woman loses everything, she does not need a lump sum of money. Instead, she needs a continuous flow of aid. See, when you lose your husband you lose your home, you lose hope. And the financial compensation only takes away society’s empathy - nobody really sees your personal loss. I think to effectively restart your life you need a steady support structure. A good job, good schooling for the children and a Government accommodation for at least some years would give a lot of confidence to a woman.
However, Kamal was blessed with people who came forward to help and guide her in Dagshai. They functioned like a family and built happiness where there was none. Snigdha and Kanishka have their fondest of memories from this particular period of life (Kanishka starts narrating her childhood from here, whenever asked).
Dagshai is also where she met Amit Singh. An encounter that would change both of their lives forever.
The One With The Torch Within
At APS Dagshai, the students loved Kamal Baduni. It was a boarding school and she was strict, but always took special care of her students. Hers was a tough love.
When Kamal became the House Mistress, she noticed a little girl who was extremely disobedient and absurdly mischievous. She realised that her bahaviour was a ploy to seek attention. She started counselling her regularly while digging for details about her background. At the same time, a boy from a senior class kept coming over to inquire about the girl.
It turned out that the boy was Amit Singh and the girl was his sister.
Amit also belonged to a Defence background. He had lost his mother. At that stage in life he just wanted somebody to listen to him. So Kamal stepped right in. And listened.
He was a confused teenager and what I did was just hear him out. I told him that if he ever needed support, I’d be there. That’s all I did. I just heard him out on every little thing he told me.
After finishing school, Amit went to Bangalore to do his B. Tech. (Bachelors in Technology). During college, he participated in an essay contest organized by Coca Cola where he asked to write about his role model. So he wrote an article on Kamal.
This particular tribute impressed the organizers so much that they invited Kamal Baduni to be a part of the Olympic torch bearing ceremony in Delhi for the 2004 Athens Olympics. It was the first time that the torch was circumnavigating the globe and it would be arriving in India for the first time in 40 years. She was one among the 105 hand-picked torch bearers from across the nation. Mostly comprising of celebrities, very few civilians and just one teacher - her.
Initially, I was apprehensive about the offer because I didn’t know much about the ceremony. But once I reached Delhi and saw the size of the event, I realized how big a deal it was. Present in the induction program was Sunil Dutt and Aishwarya Rai and Aamir Khan in his Magal Pandey look (I can’t forget that day. he looked so handsome!).
Clutching the Olympic torch tightly, as Kamal jogged out in front of a hundred cameras, with the likes of Kapil Dev by her side, in a flash of a moment all the dots connected. From her being the 5th daughter and people crying, to her coming back and making them proud, from waiting to say No in April but getting married in February, from falling in love with her husband - the soldier who wanted to be a professor, and then losing him to death, and then finally making him proud as a teacher- everything was one big, beautiful pattern. Everything fit perfectly. Like little pieces in a divine jigsaw puzzle.
After her Olympic run, she quit Lawrence School and moved to Chandigarh in mid-2004 to take a break. She completed her ongoing distance MBA (Masters in Business Administration) from Symbiosis University and moved to Mumbai. In search of new challenges.
She currently works with GECOM Private Limited where she heads the academic technology department.
Armed with a diverse range of degrees (a B.Com., a PGD in Computer Applications, a B.Ed and then an MBA in HR & IR) she intends to contribute to re-shaping the education system.
I was initially making a difference to the lives of students but now, my focus is on mentoring the teachers. I feel that teaching as a profession needs to undergo serious thought. The quality of teachers and their profiles needs to be upgraded. The education system is actually crashing. We are not producing employable children. When children come out of schools and colleges, they have no idea about how the world works. They have to fend for themselves. Teaching is never a priority career to anyone because it is not looked at as THE profession; only a last resort.
Her elder daughter Snigdha is currently doing her Masters in Elementary Education from TISS, after studying from Lady Shriram College. She has also completed a fellowship and worked with Teach For India. The younger one, Kanishka is a brilliant physiotherapist. Both doting examples of their mother.
As of the day of the interview, all of them live in Mumbai. The city where it all began all those years ago. When a daughter was born of humble means. The fifth of her family, the first to go to college and the one to never settle for the ordinary. Life, has come full circle.
It is 6 in the evening as we finish the interview. We notice that their belongings are in a state of being packed for transport. The Badunis have recently purchased a new house in the city and are in the process of moving in.
The world around Kamal seems to reflect a state of perpetual motion. Perhaps it is a metaphor for her story.
On our way back to Pune later that night, none of us talk in the bus. We sit in silence and stare out of the window. Thinking about the life that was bared open to us. Looking for a soldier-shaped star.
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