I got baptized into the army six years ago, when I got married to my husband, who was a young captain then. While my husband reported for duty soon after, I sat at home, my heart brimming with nervous anticipation of the dinner parties, the ball room dances and other exciting stuff that made for the “royal life” of army officers and their wives, (which they show in TV as part of the “Do you have it in you” promotional ad of the army.) But soon I realized that life in the army is no ball-room dance. It is very demanding and comes with its pleasures as well as pains (meaning responsibilities).
The last five years before marriage, I had an almost carefree life, studying in a different city away from my parents, living in a hostel at first, and then working and living alone. When I was in University, I had attended classes, sometimes wearing T-shirt, shorts or pyjamas and even bathroom slippers. (I was a ‘liberated soul’ who considered myself to be beyond the worldly requirements of ‘good clothing’, since, for me, books were more important than clothes or footwear.) And here I was, in the Indian Army, among the best-dressed and finest ladies one can ever find in the whole country. (No wonder, so many of the top bollywood actresses, models and beauty queens are from army background, since these girls saw their beautiful mothers dressing up for the different theme parties, ladies’ meets and other social events, from a very young age, their fashion sense as well as social skills, honed to perfection by years of sheer observation of their mothers. There is a definite connect between the ‘fauji’ and the ‘filmi’.) So, at first I felt like a fish out of water.
Initially, I did a lot of things “unbecoming of a lady” (pun intended) although my experiences may be similar to every other lady, who gets married to an army officer. Like, though my husband had briefed me regarding the ‘code of conduct’ which a lady has to follow in the unit, by way of addressing the officers only by their ranks, and the senior ladies by their surnames, when I saw my husband’s CO for the first time, I called him ‘Sir.’ I also embarrassed myself, by calling my immediate senior lady “didi,” and one of the junior officers, by his name. Once, when we were attending a function, when a Subedar Major welcomed me with “Namaste ma’am, I promptly responded to him with a “Namaste bhaiyya” which made me the laughing stock of all the officers and ladies present there. (A JCO is addressed as “saab” in the army and it is a little offending to call a very senior JCO as “bhaiyya.” The rank of an officer is to be recognized from his uniform).
Once we were invited for dinner by one of my husband’s seniors, immediately after marriage. When I entered the house for the first time, I removed my sandals at the entrance, as is customary in South India.
I had quite an unnerving experience when the whole unit consisting of almost 25 to 26 people ‘bounced in’ unannounced one night into our “quarter.”The house was unkempt and I wasn’t dressed properly. It taught me a lesson not to dress shabbily even at home and not to keep home untidy.
Before joining the aviation, my husband was in the artillery. Ask any gunner what life in the arty is and he would tell you that “arty is for party”. It meant that every other day there would be some social gathering or party at the unit level. This was besides the frequent Ladies Meets at the brigade or corps level and the usual meets of the Army Wives Welfare Association. All these parties and social gatherings needed weeks and sometimes, even months of planning, preparation and delegation of duties under the leadership of the first lady (the CO’s wife) of the unit. Well, the army has its own set of rules and regulations, and the officers’ wives have their own. They have a hierarchy of their own, starting from the first lady, the CO’s wife, and ending with the junior most lady, who is at the bottom rung of the chain of command, in the unit. Ask any army wife and she would tell you that while a usual married lady has only two in-laws to please (mother-in-law and father-in-law respectively), a lady married to an army officer, has to please three in-laws, the third being the CO’s wife (pun intended). And being the junior most meant working the most. And you don’t get paid to do that. It has to come from you voluntarily. I had left my job to be with my husband. For me working meant getting paid, but here you work, but only your husband gets paid right?) This scenario was new to me and the initial period of getting adjusted with the army way of life was a little tough for me, to be frank. But I learned quickly, by following my husband’s instructions as well as by observing the senior ladies of our unit.
My first major obstacle was cooking. When I got married, the only two things that I could make, were Maggie noodles and tea. I didn’t know anything else, because at home, I only washed utensils and my mother never initiated me into cooking. Besides that, I had spent most of my college life in hostels. So when I cooked chicken for the first time in my life, it tasted like French, since it was bland, with no masala or spices, and my husband almost threw up after having the first bite. I learned the nitty-gritty of cooking by following the recipes in Tarla Dalal’s cook book. With the passing of time, my husband began appreciating my culinary efforts more and more. Initially, I was very reluctant to host dinner parties at our place. But with each party I have thrown, I have gained more confidence.
My second obstacle was hindi. Since we didn’t speak hindi at our native place, I had only a fleeting knowledge of hindi, by way of watching movies and serials in the language. But slowly and steadily, I picked up the language by communicating more and more in it, even though initially, people used to laugh at my silly mistakes. Before long, I was writing lectures in hindi, on various topics, to be read out at our monthly welfare programmes. I have realized that the monthly welfare programmes and the ladies’ meets, work as venues for learning new skills,concepts and ideas, for the ladies.
The most important lesson that I learnt from the army is ‘Humility.’ At a social gathering, you are supposed to wish one and all, upon entry and exit. You stand up when the senior lady gets up, as a show of respect. Some days may be good, some days may be bad. On a bad day, if there is a social event, you may have to attend by compulsion (to avoid getting hauled up, later). And your humility is put to test, when you put up a cheerful face throughout the party, even if you are frowning and cribbing inside. It is definitely possible sometimes to feel lonely in the midst of all the people and all the conversations. Yet you smile on and go along. There is no room for impatience or arrogance in the army.
Packing and unpacking of your household stuff during posting in and posting out, can be really frustrating, since we ‘live out of the box’ every two years. And when your husband is attending a course, it becomes all the more hectic, with frequent movements from one place to another. I have lived in three make-shift arrangements plus a modified field area (nearby a forest), the same year my daughter was born, since my husband was undergoing training at that time. All that travelling without getting rest postpartum delivery, cleaning up the ‘quarter’ which was teaming with insects and other creepy-crawlies, with a baby in my hand, with no help from my busy husband, and with no helper or servant around, has been quite a nerve-racking experience, which tested both my physical and mental strength. But over the years, I have learned to cope with it all.
There is such a time in every army wife’s life, when her husband is in field tenure, foreign posting or on exercise. You double up as both father and mother to your children. You have to manage everything on your own. Even if you want to crib eloquently about your problems to your far away husband through phone, you may not do it, because, you feel that he shouldn’t be bogged down by your worries, since he needs peace of mind to do his duties well, amid difficulties and danger. You know that he is a soldier first, and a husband, only next.
For an aviator’s wife, there is always the fear looming large in the back of your mind regarding your husband’s safety, and the inevitable long wait for his safe return, which is a true test of patience. And when it comes to taking care of young children, some lucky ones may have the support of their parents or in-laws. Some others may not have. And for those who don’t have external source of support, there is no room for vulnerabilities and weaknesses. For the sake of your husband and children, you have to put up a brave front, smile on and march on.
There are so many of us ladies who have bypassed excellent career opportunities for the sake of being with our husbands. Many of us are content teaching in schools nearby. The more enterprising ones, amongst us, might have found a 9 to 5 job in the local private sector, like a managerial position in some mall, newspaper agency, diagnostic centre or a bakery or food chain. It may be less than satisfactory, and sometimes, may not fetch enough money for even the monthly expeditions to the beauty parlour for a nice hair straightening or colouring. You still may have to depend on your husband for your pocket money, but at least you get to remain engaged for the day. And those ladies, who don’t want to leave their jobs, prefer not to stay with their husbands. I have met many highly qualified ladies – doctors, bank officers, women with doctorates in their respective fields of study, MBAs, women army officers, and even an IPS officer, who have all left their high profile jobs for the sake of being there for their husbands and children, to provide them with a dutiful wife and a loving and caring mother, who is there for them always. (I won’t use the word ‘sacrifice’, since it is so overrated. I would rather say it’s their personal choice.) And this is, in addition to performing the essential duties of being a part of welfare programmes and ladies’ meets.
There is such a time in every Army wife’s life when her husband is in field tenure, foreign posting or on exercise. You double up as both father and mother to your children. You have to manage everything on your own. Even if you want to crib eloquently about your problems to your faraway husband on the phone, you may not do it because you feel he shouldn’t be bogged down by your worries. He needs peace of mind to do his duties well, amid difficulties and danger. You know he is a soldier first and a husband only next. Then there is always the fear looming at the back of your mind over your husband’s safety. There is the inevitable long wait for his safe return, which is a test of patience.
My friends and family members said that I didn’t weigh my options when I decided to leave my job to be with my husband. I may not get the best job opportunities I deserve, and even if I decide to go to work, while staying with him, there may be frequent disruption in my career, since we have to move locations every two years. But I know one thing. Had I not stayed with my ‘fauji’ husband, I wouldn’t have got the richness of all the collective experiences that I have got, travelling the length and breadth of the country, the places that I have seen, the different people I have met and been with, the toughness that I have developed by going through frequent separation from my beloved husband, living in secluded places and taking care of my child with no outside help. People say that we army wives have an enviable lifestyle that only our civilian counterparts can dream. But they may not be aware of the adversities we face and the sacrifices we make, while learning to live in any kind of situation that life in the army, throws at us. I am no exception. There are so many others like me. For us, home is where the army sends us. And behind every strong soldier, there is an even stronger brave heart, who is, the army wife.
An abridged version of this article that I had written was published in The Hindu, Open Page, dated May 25, 2014. http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/what-it-takes-to-be-an-army-wife/article6044729.ece