Prologue: 17 years back when I shyly tossed a marigold garland around this young dashing Army officer’s neck I didn’t know what was in store for me. Crazy coursemates, mad sahayaks, cranky “senior” ladies and natty generals; I’ve seen at least one of each. Here’s a sneak peek into life as an Army wife.
December 1995, 1300 hours, Somewhere in the Western Sector-
It’s embarrassing as hell. Captain Manoj Rawat (my newly married husband) and I (his newly wedded wife) are standing (actually, wobbling) on a moving camel cart with big yellow marigold garlands dangling around our necks. The regiment adjutant – a short, slim man – and some more officers are dancing on the road alongside to the grinning regiment band playing songs from Dilwale Dulhaniya le Jayenge. Civilians on the roadside (all the way from the railway station) have made the most of this free entertainment. Their cheeky clapping and laughter is ringing in my ears, making them turn a deep shade of red. A precocious kid startles me by suddenly wailing: “I don’t like her. Why isn’t she wearing bangles and mangalsutra and a red sari. It’s cheating. Mummy, I want to see a bride.” “Beta, aunty (Aunty! Me? *heart break*) will dress up like that in the next party,” her plump Mummy consoles her. “Oh no! She won’t,” I mutter under my breath, restraining the urge to knock wailing kid on the head, and try to smile instead. Just then the camel lets out what sounds suspiciously like a fart and looking back slyly, parts its fat drooping lips in a Prem Chopra kind of leer.
Well, that’s my introduction to Army life as a wife, and quite frankly, I hate it. It’s quite another story that few years down the line I shall actively start participating in such baraats and even help script and set up mischievous stories of jilted girlfriends coming forth to sob on the newly wedded officer’s shoulder: “You cheat, you married someone else! Ab mera kya hoga.” A ruse that worked almost everytime we used it and led to the couple’s memorable first fight.
… and 17 years later:
From the way he is Sir-ring repeatedly into the cell, it doesn’t need Sherlock Holmes to guess that Lt Col Rawat is talking to a senior officer. Being around him for 17 years, I can even guess who he is talking to or when he has been playing squash when he’s lying through his teeth and claiming he was out inspecting the construction site. When he hands the cell to me with, “She’s right here Sir; and wants to talk to you Sir,” I’m pretty sure the Sir I’m supposedly so keen to converse with (though not true at all since I’d rather read my book where the tattooed heroine is about to get murdered) is his former regiment 2IC (second In command) Colonel Terry. Yes, the same slim adjutant from 17 years back who danced alongside our camel cart to “Tujhe dekha toh yeh jaana sanam”. “Good morning Colonel Terry,” I sing into the phone.
Another li’l aside on the Army; since we’re a legacy of the British, we sound a bit English but you shouldn’t let that fool you. Yeh dil hai Hindustani. Tejinder is Terry, Shailendra is Sherry, Chakravarty is Chuck, Garewal is, well, Garry but all of them know all the Hindi expletives there are and nearly all can be found downing a Patiala peg in the Mess bar sun down. Two Garrys in the unit are lovingly called Senior and Junior, and visitors are often surprised when Junior is summoned and in walks a fearsome looking, hairy, six footer sardar with a booming voice. Those whose names can’t be anglicized make do with initials. So we have a Col JB, a Maj SB and even a Brig NS who, quite understandably, prefers to be called by his first name.
Coming back to my phone conversation, there’s a deep voice at the other end saying: No, no! This is Brigadier….” The rest is drowned in blips and beeps. “Oh! You’ve picked your next rank. Congratulations Brigadier Terry,” I whimper apologetically, glaring at the man who is disappearing into the bathroom with a wicked grin. It’s an unforgiveable faux pas. “Rachna, you can call me Captain if you want to, but you’ll still have to call me Ajith,” says an amused voice. On the line is not Col Terry but Brig Ajith, my husband’s former Assam Rifles Commanding Officer, who should have given him a big zero in his ACR for his wife’s absentmindedness.
Of charming generals…
Tales of senior officers are incomplete without mentioning a friend, also an Army wife, who nearly fell from her bike coming back from work one evening in the College of Military Engineering (CME), Pune, many years back when a big dog cut across the road. Enraged, she followed it and reached the Commandant’s house. Not daring to go in to complain she was lurking around outside when the dashing, salt and pepper haired General sauntered in from his evening walk. After formalities were exchanged, he asked her politely what she was doing at the gate. “I could have had a bad accident when your dog ran across the road. Why don’t you keep him on a leash?” she asked indignantly, though worried a bit that she could be responsible for truncating her husband’s career at the rank of Captain. “That’s my way of meeting pretty young ladies like you,” the General remarked with a twinkle in his eye, charming her and the rest of us (who heard the story later) completely.
…and strange sahayaks-
Since no Army household (or blog) is complete without the faithful sahayak; here’s one sahayak story as well. The scary looking sahayak with us presently(who even his company commander wouldn’t want to meet down a dark alley) has this even scarier habit of getting closer and closer as you talk to him, causing much discomfort. To be fair to him, it’s probably the combined effect of the turban and the firing range on his hearing. I usually have my conversations with him sitting at the head of the dining table with an entire table length between us. From that safe distance I give him instructions about the location of the sahab’s new combat dress or DMS boots or even partner him in the crime of stealing a lawn mower from an unwilling neighbour. He exhibits the same Bluetooth like behaviour when placed outside a closed door. Twice I have opened the study door with a flourish at his fervent knocking only to hit him on the head since he is standing there with his ear to the door, no doubt respectfully waiting for orders to come in.
And “senior” ladies-
Besides a partial disability to distinguish between one rank of officer and another, an absolute phobia to participate in any kind of beauty competition, I also let the Army down by exhibiting zero knowledge of plant anatomy. I once spent an entire morning at the Officers Mess being lectured by a “senior” lady that the plant put in the hall was standing there with its face to the wall “the poor, poor dear”. “Plants have faces, darling, and when you people do things like this to them, it just breaks my heart,” she said stalking in, even as I tagged behind completely hypnotized by her large undulating backside. She asked me to immediately have the potted palm face the audience.
Alarmed, I SOSed the Mess Havaldar for help (via some complicated eyebrow wiggles). He gallantly jumped to my rescue and made the Mess waiter turn the plant around. All three of us then held our breaths and looked at Mrs Senior Lady for a reaction. Though she heaved her impressive bosom and murmered: “Thank you very much, that’s better”, I was pretty sure that the pot had been turned 360 degrees and the “poor dear” was still standing with its bum to us. Before she could reconsider though, the Mess Havaldar smartly sent across a tray laden with steaming hot cutlets that succeeded in distracting her completely. Thus proving that that when it comes to exhibiting courage under fire, no one can match an Army man
And then, there was Yen Murthy-
Before I let you go, I have to tell you about my husband’s coursemate Yen Yen Yet-another-Yen Murthy who also went under the pseudonym Chicken Murthy (for his deep love for chicken (mostly cooked in tangy curry) ). Regular readers might recognize him from an earlier blog. Capt Murthy would sometimes be our triple dance partner at the CME ball in our newly married days. Good with some Rajnikant type moves, he would have epileptic fits on the dance floor to the foot tapping remix version of “Living Next door to Alice.” When the entire college screamed out “Who the fuck is Alice”, Murthy would (in his loud baritonous voice) bellow: “Who fuck the Alice?” causing fainter hearted lady wives to collapse in shock. But slowly everyone got used to it and by the end of the three year degree, most of us were adding our enthusiastic voices to Murthy’s version of the remix.
So long then. Next time, please remind me to tell you about the oh-so-propah Colonel and Mrs NP (Nitin Prakash) who would address each other as Col and Mrs NP. “Oh no Col NP you’re bringing dirty shoes into the house yet again.” “I’m sorry Mrs NP, I shall take them off right now”. The formality made us worry about their family life, but since they had a strapping son to show, those were baseless. Time to go now. It’s Jai Hind sa’ab and an Army salute from me till the next blog.
Disclaimer: Much as I crib and complain and make fun of life in Army cantonments, truth is that I love it here and there is no other place in the world where I would rather be.
The author, Rachna Bisht Rawat is a full time mom and part time writer. She is married to an Army officer whose work takes the family to some of the most interesting corners of India. This article has been republished with permission from her blog, Rachnabisht.com.