When our train reached Jammu, my husband remarked that there might not be anyone to receive us at the station. I smiled wryly. Who did he expect? With the smile of a self-conscious, newly married husband, he scurried out. I scanned the platform to breathe in the place where I was to start married life. My gaze was riveted by the sight of a group of OG uniformed jawans all lined up. A bewildered anticipation welled up in me. My husband re-entered the coach. He had changed from a self-conscious newly married husband into OC, workshop. “These jawans are from my workshop. My CO has sent them and his Jonga to receive us. You must return their greetings appropriately,” he informed and instructed me. My baptisement into army life was beginning.
As the Jonga came to a halt outside the officer’s mess, the whole unit was waiting for us; from where the ragging started. An officer posing as a jawan tried to act fresh with me. But, of course my husband’s concern for the officer gave the game away. Then I was welcomed as a new bride by ceremonies of different states by the ladies. After this there was a small game where, blindfolded, I had to identify my husband’s palm by touch. Providence was on my side that day of my initiation into army life and has been ever since.
Of course, there were the initial teething problems. But on the whole I count myself lucky for having been exposed to this kind of life. At first, I used to feel like a bird that has come in from the wild and been imprisoned. There were so many rules and regulations. All that hierarchy from a second Lt to a Gen-one had to be, oh so careful. But slowly and gradually I learnt to transform my frivolous, college girl attitude into that of an army officer’s wife. This I achieved by my husband’s acute disapproval of anything unbecoming of a lady and by sheer observation of other ladies. I learnt to mix with different kinds of people coming from different social backgrounds from different parts of India.
My major obstacle was my fleeting acquaintance of the language in the fauj-hindi. Hindi spoken in the army has it’s own personality. It carries reminiscences of the British. Besides, it has imbibed the colours and whims of the various states of India. It is a true case of fusion and is rich research material for the linguists. Here my servants came to my help as I spent a substantial part of the day with them (much more than with my family.
Using this language, I learnt to mix with people: some of who were familiar and mostly unfamiliar but friendly. In a gathering, I learnt to acknowledge the presence of everybody on entering and leaving. It may seem ridiculous to mention it, but it is ridiculously conspicuous by its absence in gatherings where people confine themselves to groups. The army is one establishment where one’s social etiquette is honed to perfection. At the base of it all is the cardinal attribute of humility, which one learns due to the system of hierarchy.
Besides humility and good manners, hospitality towards guests (a dying art where T.V serials gain priority over socializing) is very much interwoven in army life. One is bound to bump into an acquaintance due to different postings and because the armed fraternity is after all, a small one. What at first seemed nerve racking and impossible is now a pleasure- entertaining unexpected guests. When a new neighbour arrives and is busy unpacking or an old neighbour has sent off their luggage on being posted out, it is but good sense to ensure they get help and a meal or two. For, after all, all of us face the same situations. And thereby the chain of good samaritanism cannot but grow.
Had I not married into the armed forces, so many creative arts would have bypassed me. At every posting I love the challenge of dressing up a new quarter to suit our personalities. I have dabbled in the arts of gardening, flower arrangement, singing, choreography and public speaking. I believe every woman has an artistic niche in her personality. But how many have the fortune or opportunity to explore it, I wonder.
But most of all, what makes army life a charmed one is the abundance of good humour and good cheer (and here I mean the “spiritless” one.) Here nobody is too old to let down his/her hair if the Queen of Sheba so demands in a Mess party. It does the heart a lot of good to see CO’s and 2IC’s scrambling in the mad rush all around. Midnight raids of newly married couples are a must. And we were delighted not to be spared. Midnight picnics, a sudden outing to see a movie, shopping expeditions in groups, rain dances, beach parties, barbeque parties, dandia discos, Halloween nights, husbands’ nights are all arranged in a jiffy to take off the intense pressures of living in a secluded world.
But life can be very difficult and lonely though; like getting posted to outlandish where you have to live in “bashas”(a makeshift arrangement) with only two three families close by. The whole day is an endless wait: waiting for your husband to return, waiting for your children to return and waiting for your servant to come. There are times when you are settling in a new place and you have no servant; which means one has to double up as the “bai”, chef, gardener, et al. Then when social outings become a compulsion, you have to wear a smile to match the outfit and brave it all as others do. A teaching job with suitable hours is all right. But no woman can seriously think of a 9 to 5 career. The social commitments as an army wife are all encompassing but can be profoundly satisfying depending on which way you look at it. Then there are times when the loneliness stretches over when your husband is away on temporary duty or exercise. But then, of course all the ladies rally around each other as family. The biggest disadvantage of this kind of life is the disruption in the children’s education.
But again one has learnt to cope with it all; because the smallest and most important unit in society :- the family - gets to spend more qualitative time together. We get to see facets in our near ones, which we never would have known existed. We ourselves become enrichened personalities by learning to live in all kinds of situations: in the bush or by a warm hearth. Life is truly a ‘bed in the bush with stars to see………..
This is the life for a (wo)man like me
This is the life forever.’
For me, the pride that I feel as an army officer’s wife is worth all the sacrifices I have had to make. It is a badge of honour I shamelessly flaunt.
Published in Femina (Oct 2000)