Second Lieutenant Ezhacherril Thomas Joseph was only 22-years old when he was killed by insurgents in Nagaland in 1992.
He had just finished his year-long tenure at the Battalion of the Fifth Gorkha Rifles, and had booked his ticket to go back home a week later.
All arrangements were made, but he never got around to boarding the train from Guwahati that would have brought him home to his parents and two sisters, who resided at Kanjiramattom in Kottayam.
Thomas was martyred on the morning of 12 June, 1992 in the service of the nation. He did not make the last journey home until 24 years later on October 14, 2016. His remains were exhumed from his grave in Nagaland and brought to Kerala, to be laid to rest at the Holy Cross Church.
At their home in Kanjiramattom, around 15 kilometers from Pala, Thomasâs aging parents are now at peace, since their son is finally home. They visit his grave every day.
âWe used to go to church only twice or thrice a week. But since Friday, we have been going to church every morning. After all, our son has come home after so long,â says 75-year-old Subedar Major (retd) AT Joseph, while speaking to The News Minute.
For 69-year-old Thressiamma Joseph, bringing back home her sonâs remains gave her the closure she was in search of. She had spent 24 years in haunting pain, at not being able to visit her sonâs grave.
Thomas's parents did not think it was possible for his body to be exhumed and brought back. It was by chance that one of Thomas's batchmates traced the family to Kottayam after 24 years. When Thressiamma met the officer, she had only one wish to ask for-to visit her son's grave. The officer then sought permission from the regiment and meticulously made all the travel arrangements for the parents to go to Nagaland to collect their son's remains.
It was a telegram that had informed her about her sonâs untimely demise. Nobody from the family other than Joseph who was then posted in Shillong could make it to the funeral in Nagaland, for the burial of his only son.
âEven when I received the telegram, I couldnât bring myself to believe it. He had come home only five months back, and was scheduled to return a week later. How could this have happened? All these years, I was hoping against hope that I would be able to see him again. Whenever I went out, I used to keep searching for him among the crowds,â Thressiamma shares, unable to bring herself to utter the word âdeadâ.
There was a reason for Thressiammaâs initial disbelief. A week after Thomasâs demise, the family received a letter from him. The lengthy handwritten letter -as usual- spoke about his daily routine at the unit, and held the promise that he would come home a week later.
âThe letter was posted a day after his death. He must have penned it earlier and given it to someone to post. It reached us exactly a week after his death,â recalls Joseph.
âHe always used to write letters to us. In those days, there were no mobile phones. He would write pages after pages, narrating every single detail of his life in the Army. He wanted us to partake of all his experiences. Daddy had many a time asked him not to include so many details, but he would never listen,â smiles Thressiamma, trying hard not to let her emotions get the better of her.
The journey to Nagaland to collect their sonâs remains was a daunting task for Joseph. âShe would ask me -almost on a daily basis- to take her there. But I could never bring myself to go back there, not with my familyâŚâ he breaks off mid-sentence.
Joseph received the news of his sonâs death at around 8pm on that fateful day, almost 15 hours later. Even after all these years, he remembers every precise detail of the four-day long journey of about 1000 kilometers that he had to undertake to attend his sonâs funeral.
âThat night, I started from Shillong with a few of my colleagues. On reaching Guwahati, there were no passenger trains to Nagaland at that hour. We then got on to a goods train. But when we reached Nagaland the next morning, there was a âbandhâ on, and we were advised not to travel by road. We couldnât travel to his unit, until the day after,â he recollects.
ET Joseph's grave in Nagaland. Photo from 1992.
By the time Joseph made it to his sonâs unit in Nagaland, Thomasâ body had begun to decompose. Bringing him back home was not practically possible. In another four hours, Thomas was laid to rest, and Joseph returned to his own unit in Shillong.
Then an Army man with 30 years of service, the first thing he did when he got back to Shillong, was to request for voluntary retirement. Six months later and two years short of retirement, Joseph came back home for good.
âThe inspiration came naturally to ThomasâŚafter all, he is my son. He joined the Army at the young age of seventeen-and-a-half. But I was not too keen on sending him, unless it was in the officer cadre. He made it to NDA, and later joined IMA in Dehradun. His first posting was in Nagaland for the mandatory one-year of field service, before he could proceed to Madhya Pradesh for training to join the militaryâs intelligence cell in Pune,â Joseph recounts.
Thressiamma remembers the last time Thomas came home in January 1992.
"He was so upset that we couldn't make it to his passing-out ceremony at the IMA. He had wanted us to stand beside him at the âpippingâ ceremony (when âstarsâ are officially pinned on to the shoulders for the very first time to mark an officerâs commissioning into the Armed Forces). It was the first time that he had come home in January after his commissioning. He was supposed to come on the second of January, but so eager was he to see us, that he arrived a day in advance. How happy we wereâŚnone of slept the whole night. We kept listening to all the stories he had to tell usâŚeverything was so perfect. Little did I know then that our joy was soon to be marred forever.â