Prarthana Sarkar grew up with stars in her eyes - of the kind shining on her army officer father's epaulette. At 19, she can feel proud about the sparkle in her father's eyes as she stands in front of him in her National Cadet Corps uniform, clutching her special silver-inlaid baton.
Prarthana was adjudged the best senior division navy cadet among her peers from 17 NCC directorates across the country at the Republic Day camp this year. She is the first navy girl from the West Bengal and Sikkim directorate to get this honour.
"It was an honour to be nominated for the Republic Day camp and I was determined to go ahead and get it (the award). I had confidence in myself....but you have to work hard and compete since everyone else is also fighting for the same thing," she told Metro.
The first-year student at St. Xavier's College had missed her semester examination last November to be part of a five-month camp in Kalyani, where cadets were eliminated at every stage through tests to determine their mental and physical strength.
"If you had the stamina, you went ahead. If not, you were kicked out of the camp," Prarthana said of her experience at the camp, which began in August and continued till December.
The cadets who survived the grind were selected for the Republic Day camp, only to realise that "the running isn't over yet". The Delhi drill included assembly at 5 in the morning, followed by stamping in the same position for two hours holding a rifle weighing almost 5kg over her head.
In the competition, Prarthana used her 7.62mm self-loading rifle to target the bull's eye from 50 metres - 15 rounds of shooting in the lying, kneeling and standing positions.
"The cadets who are part of the Republic Day parade are selected on the basis of how well they do the drill. But the best cadets are selected on the basis of multiple parameters such as drill, shooting, cultural ability and leadership qualities," said Capt. B.B. Singh of the NCC's West Bengal and Sikkim directorate.
To become the best cadet, Prarthana also aced a written test, a group discussion and a personal interview with the director-general of the NCC that accounted for 300 out of the 700 marks at stake. As the emcee of a 30-minute programme on national integration that the West Bengal and Sikkim directorate presented, the 19-year-old was apparently the star of the show.
Maj Gen. A.K Ghosh, additional director-general of the NCC's Bengal and Sikkim directorate, said Prarthana epitomises the qualities that the NCC seeks to build on - girl power and leadership. "It is not only about training people for the army, navy or air force. We aim to build confidence, discipline and a positive attitude."
Prarthana had joined the NCC's senior division in "open vacancy" when she was a student of Class XII at the Army Public School in Ballygunge, surprisingly late for a girl who had always wanted to be like her father, Lt. Col T.S. Sarkar. "I would look at his uniform and wonder how much time I would need to don that," recalled the political science student, who stands tall at 5 feet 7.
And now that she has the Best Cadet trophy in the cupboard, no less, what next for Prarthana? For now, she is looking forward to visiting Raj Bhavan this Friday to receive the "governor's medal" for her achievements as an NCC cadet.