As Geetha Gopakumar sat talking to Onmanorama in her low-roofed ancestral house in Thiruvananthapuram, it was easy to be distracted by two pictures, one black and white and the other colour, held within a single frame right behind her on the wall, just above her head. It looked as if the graph of her life can be plotted on these two pictures; the glory, the tragedy and then the fightback.
The B&W picture is from 1971, Geetha's husband Major Raman Pillai Gopakumar receiving the Vir Chakra from President V V Giri in 1971. The other is from 2019, her son Col Sanjay Gopakumar receiving the Vishisht Seva Medal from Lieutenant General Y K Joshi, the General Officer Commanding in Chief (GOC-in-C), Northern Command.
Captain Raman Pillai Gopakumar, who was later promoted to Major, was a 1971 war hero. Ten years after he received the gallantry award, Major Gopakumar died of a massive heart attack in Nowshera, a small town just within the Line of Control on the west of Jammu and Kashmir. He was not even 40.
Keeping the flame alive
But the nation has not forgotten its hero. A 'Victory Flame' (Swarnim Vijay Mashaal) lit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on December 16, 2020, from the eternal flame (Amar Jawan Jyothi) of the National War Memorial to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1971 Indo-Pak war that saw the liberation of Bangladesh was handed over to Geetha Gopakumar by the Army on July 4. “It felt nice to know the country remembers him even after 50 years,” Geetha said.
The 13-day war, one of the shortest in history, began with Pakistan air strikes on Indian air stations on December 3 and ended with the Eastern Command of the Pakistan military signing the Instrument of Surrender in Dhaka on December 16, 1971.
The original plan was to take the 'Victory Flame' to the houses of all Indians who had taken part in the 1971 war. However, the constraints of COVID-19 made the government limit the flame's movement to the houses of the bravest. Major Gopakumar's was one of them.
Undercover in Dhaka
During the 1971 war, the young captain, who was with the 9 Madras (Travancore) Regiment, was posted as the General Staff Officer (GSO-2) (Intelligence) at Eastern Command. His task was to work undercover and train young Bangladeshi guerilla fighters called Mukthi Bahini (Liberation Army). His area of operation was North East Bangladesh, mostly in the Sylhet sector.
Geetha had no idea of the dangers involved in the operation. “At that time we were not married. He was called to Dhaka after our ring exchange. I was told by others that he was part of an elite team selected by Indira Gandhi,” Geetha said. Later, she came to know that her fiance had grown a beard as a kind of disguise during his days in Bangladesh.
All the photographs she has of her husband shows an unbearded wiry young man with a long horizontal moustache that extended almost to the centre of the cheeks and curled at the sides.
Here is what the Indian Army's citation says about Captain Gopakumar's heroics during the war. “During the 1971 war in the Bangladesh sector he organised a mixed group of personnel into a highly motivated and effective team by his zeal, boundless energy and hard work. He successfully commanded this group in a series of bold and courageous actions against the enemy.”
These actions included the capture of a highly fortified enemy position that eventually led to the surrender of enemy soldiers. It was this “courage, grit, initiative and determination” that won him the Vir Chakra, the highest 'gallantry in the face of the enemy' award after Param Vir Chakra and Mahavir Chakra. As a token of respect, Mukthi Bahini's Dhaka Rural Zone military wing commander presented Captain Gopakumar with a Mukthi Bahini pistol.
Marriage and a surprise gift
More than a month after he received the Vir Chakra from President V V Giri, Captain Gopakumar married Geetha. The day was February 11, 1972, and it held a surprise. The Vir Chakra recipient and his bride were invited to the Darbar Hall in Secretariat where the then Chief Minister C Achutha Menon presented them a cheque of Rs 5,000.
“My father (B R Narayanan Nair) was then a government under secretary. I remember Achutha Menon telling the small gathering that the bride was the daughter of one of our officials,” Geetha said.
Honeymoon in ruins
Though a war hero, the young officer was clearly overwhelmed by the occasion. An Indian Express report that appeared the next day had a single column news titled 'Wedding gift to army officer'. “Chief Minister Achutha Menon presented the cheque to the young Major who came to the simple function almost blushing after his marriage in the morning,” the report said.
Soon after marriage, the young Captain took his wife to Bangladesh where he was still posted. “I saw the ruins of war there. Destroyed bridges, roads and buildings,” Geetha said. “We also went to the houses of young guerilla fighters who had lost their lives. I saw Bangladeshis coming forward and touching the feet of my husband. Indian soldiers were looked upon with great respect after the liberation,” she said.
Courage and separation
Daredevilry but is not conducive to romance. A resolute soldier like Captain Gopakumar was always given tough postings, to places where he could not take his young wife who was only 19 at the time of marriage. “I have heard relatives of mine who were also in the army say how fearless he was. They used to say it was unbelievable, his kind of courage. But that also meant he was far away from us most of the time,” Geetha said.
In the little time he got to spend with his family, the soldier did not waste time speaking about his exploits. “He has never told me what he had done at work. He was not the filmi kind of soldier who constantly boasts of his deeds,” she said.
Narrow escape and death
During one such holiday he had purchased a new Bajaj scooter. One day, while returning home after picking his dry-cleaned clothes in his new scooter, he was hit from the back by an unidentified vehicle near Jawahar Balabhavan at Vellayambalam in Thiruvananthapuram.
“He lay in a pool of blood in the road and everyone passing that way drove away fearing trouble,” Geetha said. Finally, a doctor carried him to the Medical College Hospital, from where he was shifted to the Military Hospital. He had suffered a serious head injury but gradually recovered.
“Otherwise, he was very fit and healthy,” Geetha said. The head injury had clearly not prepared her for what happened two-and-a-half-years later. Her husband, while in the Nowshera sector in Jammu, felt a mild pain and was quickly admitted to the military hospital. It was an attack. By afternoon, there was a second attack, a bigger one, and Major Gopakumar succumbed.
Letter that arrived late
“Before this happened, he had written to me saying he would be coming and wanted me to book a return ticket. But I received the letter after his death,” Geetha said. The news of her husband's death had frozen her in a literal sense. Geetha said she could not move her hands or legs. “She went into a kind of coma for four days,” her son Colonel Sanjay Gopakumar said from Bangalore. He has now retired from the army.
Sanjay was then seven years old, and his sister around three. It was Sanjay who was taken by his uncles for his father's funeral. “I was too young to remember anything. But I remember it was too cold then in Jammu. My father's body was very cold. When they broke the pot of water I was holding in my hands, I was shivering,” Sanjay said.
Though Geetha was initially wary, she went along with her son's passion for the armed forces. Her son joined 9 Madras (Travancore) Regiment, the very same unit his father had joined in 1965. What's more, he went on to command the regiment in 2014. In 2019, finding a place along with his heroic father, Colonel Sanjay was awarded the Vishisht Seva Medal.