Gore gave her son that assurance in the hope she would never have to honour it. On 26 September 1995, however, he was killed in Kupwara. He was just 26 years old. True to her word, Gore never cried in public after his death. But she also made herself another promise: that she would keep his memory alive.
At the age of 65, Gore also teaches children as part of her voluntary work. The day before we meet at her home, Gore had taken a group of deaf-and-mute students to see a Navy submarine. Gore’s living room has a large image of Vinayak. He has his mother’s smile, and resembles her in a few other ways as well. Below this photo is another small picture of him with his unit. It was found among his belongings by a colleague and sent to her after he was shot—a victim of terrorists, as she writes in one of her books. In this frame, Captain Vinayak sits looking seriously into the camera. He has the bearing of a soldier, but there is also an air of innocence on his face.
Back in 1991, this house, a ground-floor flat in a housing complex surrounded by many others in a quiet lane of Vile Parle, is where the family—Anuradha, her husband, and their daughter—had celebrated Vinayak’s joining the Army. It had been a moment of jubilation. He had gone for entrance tests to Dehradun’s Indian Military Academy (IMA), and Gore had received a phone call from two boys with him who were on their way home because they did not clear the tests. One of them told her that Vinayak was still there as he had to undergo medical tests. “When we learnt that,” says Gore, “we realised he had been selected by the Academy. Medical tests are usually conducted after all other tests. We were sure he would clear them. We decorated his room in celebration.” Later, when Vinayak left for his training, he was seen off at the railway station by his entire family, including some relatives from Calicut in Kerala.
Gore talks about her son with pride: Vinayak had always been different. Her uncle and aunt lived nearby, and, as a boy, he would often spend time at their house, where her uncle, a voracious reader, regaled him with tales of valour. Gore is from Satara and her mother’s house had a sword, an ancestral heirloom, that Vinayak would play with on visits there during vacations. He was an avid reader; by the time he was in class VI, he knew by heart almost all of Babasaheb Purandare’s 700-page biography of Chhatrapati Shivaji, the region’s great warrior-ruler of the 17th century. The boy’s father, Vishnu Gore, who later retired as an ICICI executive, would sit with him every evening and make him read aloud the main editorial of The Indian Express, apart from chapters of the Gita. “Perhaps that made him aware of the political situation,” says his mother, “He was also influenced by the talk of Krishna, who tells Arjun to pick up arms to fight injustice.”
It was while he was in school that Vinayak said he wanted to join the Army. His family encouraged him, and he started working towards that objective, excelling in academics and sports.
In 1992, he graduated as an officer from the IMA. He had returned to duty after a visit home when he was killed. Gore does not want to talk about it, but says, “There were different versions of the incident. I decided to just accept that my son was dead and not go into the details.”
What changed Gore’s course of life was a phone call a few days later. It was from the principal of the school where she taught. She wanted Gore to resume work. “Countless Vinayaks are waiting for you,” she said. And this is when Gore felt the need to do something for those who had stood by her in her grief. “I felt I owed something to them,” she says. Soon after, a school in Thane invited her to give a talk on Hutatma Diwas. It was the first time that she spoke about soldiers and how hard they worked to defend the country. After this, she made a speech to thousands of listeners at a stadium on the invitation of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the Sangh Parivar’s youth wing. She held the audience in rapt attention, and was convinced that this was a good way to support the forces and their cause.
“Vinayak used to say ‘I am on two missions’,” says Gore, “One was Mission Kashmir and the other was Mission Join the Indian Army. He used to walk up to youngsters chatting by the roadside or wasting time in college canteens and talk to them about joining the Army. Soldiers normally don’t do this. But he would go out of his way to try to convince them of the adventure awaiting them if they joined. I decided I would give talks in at least 100 schools in the same way. I have long since crossed that number.”
For years, Siachen had been at the back of Gore’s mind. She laughs while recalling how Vinayak, as a little boy, would sit on the tallest stool in their house and say, “I am in Siachen.” She was to learn a lot more about this icy battlefield after her son’s death, when a mountaineer called Harish Kapadia, whose son Lieutenant Nawang Kapadia had also been killed in Jammu & Kashmir, gave her a book on it. Kapadia was among the few civilians to have visited the glacier (only the armed forces are allowed there now). Gore realised there was no book on Siachen in Marathi, and decided to write one. “My book is not based just on information from other books,” she says, “I have also spoken to many retired soldiers who served there.” An officer once asked her how she would write such a book without having been there. “I told him it is like the classic story of the six blind men interpreting an elephant,” she says, “So some people may think it is like a rope, some may think it is like a fan. I just want them to know more than what they do now about the hardships our soldiers face in Siachen.”
All that the typical Indian knows of Siachen is that it is the world’s ‘highest battleground’. But it is also the harshest. Temperatures dip to –50º Celsius, the only drinking water available is molten ice, and with all the lack of oxygen and perils of frostbite and avalanches, soldiers are at constant risk of disorientation. One cannot eat spicy food as digestion slows down, and the extreme cold causes ailments that make water gather in the lungs or brain.
Gore has collected many experiences of soldiers who served in Siachen—which ironically means ‘the land of abundant roses’. One officer told her about a post with which communication was lost. It took about 16 days for soldiers from another post to get there. They found it buried deep in snow along with the eight soldiers posted there.
She tells the story of an officer who fell ill in Siachen. He could not be evacuated in time because of harsh weather conditions. When he recovered, his entire right leg and part of his left leg had to be amputated, and his body’s left half remains paralysed. He does a desk job now. “Yet,” she says, “His last wish is to be born again to join the Army.”
The Indian Army has been in Siachen since the 1980s. It was only after soldiers began being posted there that the Army got round to dealing with its extreme conditions. At first, there were many fatalities. It was only later that the Army realised that a soldier can only be safely posted there for 90 days at most.
Gore speaks of one officer who went blind because he could not be relieved of duty by another officer in time. He recovered, but still suffers memory lapses. But, she says of the spirit of Indian soldiers, “Despite knowing the difficulties of serving in Siachen, most soldiers want to serve there. One soldier named his children after Siachen. Sia and Sachin!”
Gore doesn’t know when she will finish her book. Each day brings with it new information. Each day also brings with it some other task to be done to fulfil her promise to Vinayak. His colleagues, and even those who joined the unit after him, have kept in touch with her. Meanwhile, she fights hard to stop herself from crying and keep her voice in check in public. As a martyr’s mother, she knows she must soldier on.
Gore’s friend and former Deputy Secretary of Maharashtra for Irrigation, Madhuri Talashikar calls Gore a very brave woman, always ready to help others. “Everyone in Vile Parle knows her,” she says, “The building where she lives is going to be redeveloped and she is looking for alternative accommodation until then. Many people whom she approached to rent their flat told her, ‘Ma’am, we won’t say anything. You decide the rent.’”
Many others have been deeply influenced by her courage. Rohini Gokhale, a well-known Bharatnatyam danseuse, for example, was worried when her son wanted to join the Army; media reports of Vinayak’s death had left her disturbed. But she decided to visit Gore to find out more about the forces. And when she saw Vinayak’s picture, she broke down. Gore and her husband consoled her. “She said there is a need for intelligent officers, for young men and women to serve the country,” says Gohkale, “I am sure she remembers her son every moment. But she never shows it in public. She never cries in front of people. That is a big responsibility. How will people allow their sons to join the Army if someone shows their loss? Her work is very important.”
Gore is stoic in her maternal sacrifice for the nation. “What happened was destiny,” she says, “There are very few women in India who can say they had a son like Vinayak who sacrificed himself for the country. I regret that politicians forget what our boys have done for the country. But I don’t regret that Vinayak joined the Army.”