A Soldier’s Daughter

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By Mrs Aarti Pathak.

My earliest childhood memories are of travelling on the pillion seat of a scooter, safely ensconced in my mother’s arms. I still remember the whiff of Mom’s perfume and the soothing comfort of snuggling in the soft contours of her arms. Dad got married when he was a young Captain, doing an instructional tenure in Mhow. I was born two years later, just before he rejoined his unit in a field area in the Kashmir Valley.

Luckily for all of us, families were permitted there and a small one-room shack became home to us till we moved on posting just before my third birthday. I did not know it then, but those were the most stable years for us as a family. My recollections of the next five years are replete with constant movement, changing houses and schools every year with monotonous regularity.

When Dad got posted to the Northeast, Mom had had enough. She moved to Delhi and we put up in hired accommodation. I joined the Army Public School in class three, that being the sixth school that I was attending. Growing up as the daughter of an Infantry officer was not easy. But in a sense, the challenges had only just begun, for Dad was destined to spend most of his service life away from us in some operational area or the other. For him, it was a continuous saga of missed birthdays, PTA meetings, annual functions and Sports days at school.

We missed growing up with Dad. He too must have missed seeing his children grow during their most formative years.

During the winter of 1987, Dad’s unit moved from the Northeast to Sri Lanka as part of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). My sister was four and I was eight years old. For the next two years, Dad fought a long and harsh war in a faraway land; we kids never realised how each day of that bitterly fought war was fraught with risk to life and limb.

Mom always carried a cheerful facade and never gave us a whiff of how worried she was. She not only bore the stress of her own separation but also by her vivacity and cheerfulness, insulted me and my sister from what could have been a very traumatic experience.

Yes, we missed Dad, but we never felt broken up by his absence.

Mom made sure of that by implying Dad’s presence in the house either while conversing with us or through regular letter writing. Every week we would write long descriptive letters to Dad; Our successes and foibles in school, our friends, our toys and the myriad other things which form part of a young girl’s life and which mean a great deal to a child. Dad’s letters were always awaited with a keen sense of anticipation, the postman’s footsteps sending us into fits of excitement.

We’d take the letter in our hand and run all over the house and scream “Papa’s letter is here!” and Mom would smile.

Dad’s letters never mentioned the war. In the world he created for us there were no landmines, no bullets whizzing at you from dark jungle hides, no horrors of death and maiming, or any talk of fatigue and hunger after marching days on end, searching for an elusive enemy.

What he did create was a world of immense beauty, of shimmering clear blue oceans and golden coastlines dotted with a million palm trees and beautiful shells that washed up at your feet. A world of majestic jungles where they would often come in touch with herds of wild elephants, flocks of spotted deer and the occasional leopard. He wrote with a great deal of compassion about the wonderful Tamil people in his part of the Island and with each letter he made the beautiful Island Nation come alive.

That collection of letters from Dad we stored safely right next to our Enid Blytons.

We never got to see what Dad wrote to Mom. She would regularly listen to the news on Doordarshan, out of concern for what was happening in Sri Lanka and dreaded the arrival of a telegram or a phone call at an odd hour. A friend had told her that bad news was generally conveyed through such media.

The news carried by DD or by the daily papers sometimes gave details of casualties suffered by our soldiers in the ongoing war. When news trickled in of a loved one lost by someone known to us, the war would become more personal for Mom, but she continued to face the situation stoically and carried on as if everything was normal. It was not easy growing up as the daughter of an Army officer in the combat zone. It must have been harder facing up to the rigours of being his wife.

One day Mom came to us excitedly and said that it was now possible to speak to Dad on phone. This was our wildest dream come true! We got down to dialling the number of the connecting army exchange. After being routed through four more exchanges, the telephone in Dad’s room rang. We held our breaths. Would he be there or would he be out on an operation! Our hearts skipped manya beat, but then dad picked up the phone. “Papa!” we screamed in unison. That day was easily one of the most exciting days of our life. The call dropped after some time, but Dad was never too far away after that. He was just a phone call away.

Dad’s arrival on leave used to be preceded by fervent excitement. The three of us would tick off days in eager anticipation. Mom would plan various menus featuring his favourite dishes. My sister and I would purchase big chart papers and make colourful “Welcome Home Papa” posters which we pasted all over the house. On arrival, Dad would appreciate and compliment us on each of them. We’d be delighted.

Once Dad was home, life took on a different hue altogether. We were a family again, all together, albeit for a short time, and learned to value what was really important in life. There was a sense of satisfaction in doing the small things, the meals taken together, watching television, doing homework where Dad would help out in our studies, especially maths. And the simple joy of going to bed at night knowing Dad was home. Sometimes we would go out to see the various attractions offered by the city, Appu Ghar being the favourite or we’d simply just visit friends and family. It was fun all the way till it was time for Dad to leave again.

“Brave girls don’t cry” Mom would tell us. So we would hold back our tears and smilingly bid Dad adieu. From our first floor window, we would lean out and watch him leave. There would be a flurry of arm waving as we would scream “Papa see you very soon”, but our hearts were being ripped by the pain of yet another separation. Each time he left, a small part of our childhood was lost forever. We learnt to mask our aching hearts with a smile on our face, as we knew that crying would not make Dad stay back but only aggravate his pain. So we held back our tears. That was part of growing up too.

Fortunately, Dad came back safe from Sri Lanka; there were many whose fathers didn’t. However, the saga of separation would continue with Dad going back to operational areas after short respites in peace postings. But as we were growing up we learned to accept the rough with the smooth. Today, many years down the line, I am married to an executive with a hectic lifestyle and long work hours, stretching at times from fourteen to sixteen hours per day.

I realize that like my father who fought his nation’s wars my husband is a soldier too, fighting for his nation’s cause, though the context is different. In a sense, aren’t we all soldiers too when we do our duty, whether as homemakers, teachers, executives or as part of our security forces?

Life might not have been easy for this daughter of an Army officer. But I am now conscious that life is not a journey. The journey is life.

This article is written by Mrs Aarti Pathak, daughter of Maj Gen Dhruv Katoch. This article has been posted with the author’s permission. Views expressed are personal.

The article was first published by Indian Defence Review.