If life was a game of overcoming hurdles, Captain Shalini Singh would win gold! From being widowed at the age of 23, and serving in the Indian Army, to bouncing back after a life-threatening accident and becoming a beauty queen, her life has been full of experiences – both painful and enriching.
Raised in a sheltered and conservative household, it was her marriage to Major Avinash Singh, an army officer, which set the wheels in motion for her life to follow. Two years after their wedding, they were blessed with a baby boy. Life was idyllic, but it wasn’t to remain so.
How she turned tragedy into triumph
“I still remember the day, September 28, 2001. My husband was posted in Kashmir’s Doda district, fighting terrorists. We received a call, and I was told by his family that he was injured, when in actuality he had already lost his life at 4:45 AM while killing four terrorists.”
Singh dressed up to go to the Lucknow airport, wanting to stay strong and cheerful for her injured husband. Just ten minutes before they reached, she was informed that he was no more, and she had to receive his coffin wrapped in tricolour at the airport. “I collapsed on the spot, and for days after that went into a deep depression. I contemplated suicide, and even wanted to end my child’s life along with mine. I had always been sheltered, and wasn’t a tough or strong woman, so the thought of facing life without him was daunting.”
Hope came to her in the form of her comforting father, and a senior army officer who told her she met the age and qualification criteria to apply to the Indian Army, under a provision for Army widows. “I didn’t take him seriously – I hadn’t even played any sports, forget army training! Mentally and physically I was very meek and delicate. But I thought about it, and since I was at a dead-end, decided to give it a shot so that I could be financially independent for myself and my son.”
In two months, Singh appeared for the SSB (Service Selection Board), cleared the exam and trained at the Officers Training Academy for six months. The training was gruelling, but on September 7, 2002, just a few days short of her husband’s first death anniversary, Captain Shalini Singh was commissioned into the Indian Army.
“My most memorable moment is walking up to the podium to collect my husband’s gallantry award – the Kirti Chakra awarded posthumously – from the late president, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam,” she says. “What made it more special, was that I went up in my uniform to receive that award, since it was the biggest tribute I could have paid him.”
When walking out of an abusive marriage made her stronger
After serving for five years in the Indian Army’s Short Service Commission, Singh completed her MBA and worked in the private sector in multiple companies, slowly rising up the corporate ladder. In 2008, she decided to marry again, and it seemed like her life was slowly coming together again. But she became the victim of domestic violence – both physical and emotional – and it came to a point where she had to walk out.
She points out that leaving was a very difficult decision, especially since she had already been widowed once. Stepping out of her second marriage could mean to people that she was the one who was unlucky in marriage. “But we shouldn’t be thinking about society, or how they’re judging us,” she says. “At the end of the day, nobody else is going to live your life for you. So, we should gather the courage to take the decisions which we think are right.”
The lesson she walked away with, personally, was simple: “As women, it is assumed that it is our responsibility to run relationships, not anybody else’s. You have to just keep all this aside and listen to your heart or brain, whichever works for you, and take the decision which you feel is right.”
Courage under fire
Soon after her divorce, Singh also suffered a bad road accident, with multiple open fractures, and was bedridden for over eight months. “Even now, as I speak to you, I am not fully comfortable as I have implants in my body, and permanent disabilities that are not visible. I was told I could never walk normally again and would always have a limp. I wanted to prove them wrong, so I slowly started working towards that, one step at a time. Today, I am a marathon runner.”
In a departure from her gritty persona, Singh surprised people when she became a beauty pageant winner. She also went on to participate in an international pageant under a category for divorcees or widows. “The Director of Mrs India wanted to enter me under the ‘single parent’ category, saying that because of the stigma attached, they hadn’t been able to get anyone to participate. So I became the first Indian woman to do so, and since then, for the last few years, we’ve had entrants!”
Transforming lives through words and politics
Captain Shalini is also a motivational speaker and politician “A lot of motivational speaking is because I wanted my story to transform a life. If it can bring change to one life, or bring back a smile on someone’s face, that gives me a lot of satisfaction.” On becoming a politician she says, “It was a very difficult decision as I was not a ‘political’ person. But with the kind of work I was doing as a social activist, somewhere I felt that a lot of things got delayed, because certain connections were required. So I did this to broaden my horizons, to reach out to as many as possible. It’s been two-and-a-half years now.”
Ask her what independence and freedom mean, and she says the two words have completely different meanings for her, although they are interchangeably used. “Independence is being able to take care of your own material needs so that you can do things that you want. Women need to be financially independent and stand on their own feet. A lot of times, we see that women are strong but they’re still financially dependent on somebody else, and that is why they’re not able to do the things they want. So, it is very important to stand on your own feet. Freedom on the other hand is the freedom of words, freedom of choice, freedom of where you want to go, and what you want to choose. These two things can only work together when you try to implement them both correctly. You have to first be independent and then you can have the ‘freedom to be free’.”