I got baptized into the army 14 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, in nervous anticipation of the dinner parties, the ball room dances and other exciting stuff that made for the lives of army officers and their better halves (*remember 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 it’s pleasures as well as pains.
Before marriage, I had a carefree existence. I did my University in a different city far away from home. I secured UGC-JRF while working in a research facility. After my 9 to 5 job, I came back to my dormitory and prepared for the Civil Services. I had different career options to choose from. I roamed around in t-shirts, kurta and jeans worn-out by overuse and didn’t give two hoots about whether I was wearing the right footwear or bathroom chappals. It was a phase of life in which my lofty ideals didn’t spare any room for clothing etiquettes in my mind. My world consisted of books, research, scientific thinking and pursuit of knowledge. I loved to be reclusive. Oh wait! That was until I finally decided to get married to my long-distance boyfriend who happened to be a soldier.
Now, here I was, in the Indian Army, among the best-dressed and finest ladies one can find in the whole country. No wonder, so many film actresses, models and beauty queens are from army background. These girls saw their mothers dressing up for the different theme parties, ladies’ meets and other social events. Their fashion sense and social skills honed to perfection by years of sheer observation of their mothers. There is a definite connect between the ‘fauji’ and the ‘filmi.’
At first I felt like a fish out of water.
My first major obstacle was hindi. Like any quintessential “madrasi” my hindi vocabulary was very limited. I could never force myself to watch the typical hindi potboiler movie or serial, even if I got offered a million bucks in return. Blame my malayaliness for that.
I did a lot of things awkward, partly because of my language problem or wholly because of my “unlady-like” ladyness! For one, 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 couldn’t stop myself from calling my immediate senior lady “didi” instead of Mrs. So and so. Much to my husband’s chagrin, I once addressed a Subedar Major (older than my father) as “bhaiyya.”
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!
But my greatest foot in the mouth moment was the following. Once, a function was about to start in the officers mess late in the evening and I happened to be the first person to reach the spot. I felt awkward to wait alone inside the mess. It was dark outside. Since there was no one else in sight, I let my guard down and began prancing around in the garden. What I didn’t know was that there was another poor soul, the mess havaldar, also waiting tensed, in the darkness like me. Suddenly, we both were utterly caught unawares, and came face to face. The mess havaldar, the alert soldier that he was, gathered himself up quickly and gave me a salutatory “namaste memsaab,” to which, I promptly responded back with the same phrase. Frankly, I don’t remember what happened next. But this utterly mortifying incident has become an oft-remembered story of self-deprecation for me. Many a time, when I am caught in the throes of boredom or stress, I remember this incident and the pale white, mortified face of the poor mess havaldar who got saluted by an absent-minded lady with a “namaste memsaab” makes me laugh my butt off!
Cooking was my second obstacle. When I got married, the only two things that I could make, were Maggie noodles and tea. So when I cooked chicken for the first time, it tasted 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 trial and error. With the passing of time, I bettered my culinary efforts. Initially, I was very reluctant to host dinner parties at our place. But with each party I have thrown, I have gained more confidence.
Once or twice, I have had the unnerving experience of the whole unit (consisting of almost 25 to 26 people) ‘bouncing in’ unannounced late in the night into our “quarter.” The house was unkempt and I was very “unlady- like (*read, as usual I was in my worn-out pyjamas and my husband’s old shabby t-shirts).
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”. Every other day there would be an official social gathering or an unofficial party at someone’s house. This was besides the frequent ladies meets at the brigade or corps level and the usual meets of the Army Wives Welfare Association. All the official ones needed weeks or 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 it’s set of rules and regulations, and the officers’ wives have their own. They have a hierarchy of their own, starting from 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 the average Indian married woman has only three in-laws to please namely, mother-in-law, father-in-law and sister-in-law, an officer’s wife has four in-laws to please; fourth one being the CO’s wife. 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.
The vocational training and life skills workshops regularly conducted for the families of the men in arms are very purposeful. But for the typical officer’s wife, no matter how much energy and passion she puts into organising and conducting ladies’ meets – writing that perfect emcee, the verses of the skit, that perfect beauty of an invitation card, handmade in the shape of a fan for that Mughal-themed ladies’ evening, her name doesn’t get recorded in the annals of military history. Truth be told, the number of hours spend discussing what welcome drinks, snacks and dessert to serve, what to wear, what games to play, what gifts to give, the projector, the demo, the colour and texture of the curtains, the carpets, lace and net hangings and various other paraphernalia, flower arrangements, lighting, sound, all and sundry – baffles me, the same way now, as it did 14 years back. But as someone said, the show must go on.
The most important lesson that I have 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, 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 on your not so good days, when how are yous’ are asked only as part of exercising formality, and not to ellicit replies like oh, thanks for asking, I am right now suffering a severe bout of depression and i am really not in the mood to sit through four hours of this social get-together! At times you feel like an island in a sea of kanchipuram, kanta, jamdani, muga, georgette, chiffon saree, baking, maid, mom-in-law talks. You stifle that cry, plaster on a smile, and get along. There is no room for impatience 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.
We have lived in King-sized Victorian style guest rooms and villas with helpers at beck and call. We have also lived in make-shift, tin-roof, one-bedroom accommodations near forests, in which the four of us; our two daughters, my husband and I, have fought each other for bed, pillow and private space.
There comes 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. After that long telephonic conversation with your faraway husband in which you cribbed eloquently about your problems, you feel guilty. Because you feel that he shouldn’t be bogged down by your worries. Because 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. Those who don’t have help, there is no room for vulnerabilities and weaknesses. For the sake of your husband and children, you put up a brave front, smile on and march on.
During my husband’s field postings, I have had to live the life of a single mother, albeit the money my husband credited in my account. The kids and I have lived on rent, in sleepy townships with no help around. Getting up early in chilly winter mornings, waking a sleepy child to get ready for school, cooking in the kitchen with a violently crying baby in my hip, driving to and fro my older ones’ school, jumping the car into a drainage while absent-mindedly screaming at my older one for not eating her lunch, flattening a wheel, standing in a deserted road in utter exasperation and begging the car services to hurry up; while my toddler, gleefully picked up and chewed on a random creepy-crawly. And my mind would wander off into the past and come up with stuff like, ‘You stupid girl! You jumped into this rabbit hole!’ All those years of putting up with narcissistic in-laws, apathetic parents, haughty CO wives, and two adorable but pestering kids later, you wrack your brain in utter helplessness, cursing your stars for falling in love and marrying this 6 feet four inches tall, dark and handsome army man, instead of saying ‘yes‘ to ‘that nice catholic boy who attended Sunday School with you, who is now a lecturer in some college somewhere in Kerala.’ (**Point to be noted: Hey, I have nothing against lecturers per se,okay!).
We have travelled all over the country, by way of road and air. My husband has driven our good old i-20 from north to south, east to west and through all major highways. We have tasted a wide range of cuisines and have bought pieces of memorabilia like handicraft, from all over the country.
I have been through some unnerving experiences; experiences that have put, both my physical and mental strength to test. But over the years, I have developed a set of coping skills as well.
There are so many ladies who have bypassed excellent career opportunities for the sake of being with our army men husbands. Many of us are content teaching in schools nearby or working online. The more enterprising ones decide not to stay with their husbands and instead have stable careers.
I have met many qualified ladies – doctors, bank officers, women with doctorates in their respective fields of study, MBAs, women army officers, and even an IPS officer, who all left their high demanding jobs for the sake of being with their fauji husbands and children. (I wouldn’t use the word ‘sacrifice’ here. I would rather say it’s their personal choice). And this is, in addition to performing the social obligations of being a part of welfare programmes and ladies’ meets.
My family blames me for not weighing my options when I decided to leave my job to be with my husband.But try as I might, I wouldn’t have been able to live happy and contented, with that ‘nice catholic, church-going lecturer in Kerala,’ Life has been one hell of an adventure with my armyman husband. If not for him, 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 him, living in secluded places and taking care of my kids on my own. People say that army wives have an enviable lifestyle that only our civilian counterparts can dream of. 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.
A shorter version of this article 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