You never know how weird your life has been, until someone else breaks it down for you.
As a child, I never questioned that way I lived. Be it the Army schools, the frequent parties, late night routines, ever changing friends or incomplete crockery sets. If one was asked to move cities, one moved. If one was asked to change schools, one did. The younger me never felt the need to look around and gauge how the rest of the World faired given such changes that could have monumental changes for a child.
Fast forward nine years after I have officially stepped out of my life as a daughter of the Army, I began to ponder over the rather eccentric ways we army kids have lived our lives.
Let me begin by saying that my observations are based on my own ruminations of almost a decade.
The clichés I hear every now and then go something on the lines of, “Oh, you’re an Army kid. No wonder your English is so good.” “You must have travelled so much as a kid, wow, how exciting that must have been.” “No offence but Army kids are snobbish, and what’s this Army BRAT thing?” “Army people are street-smart, isn’t it?” “Oh, you must be so fit!” “You must have friends in every corner in the country, na?”
It’s a good laugh. Sometimes.
There are deeper truths that lay underneath the well-intentioned cajoling of an outsider to the complicated situation in which kids of the forces grow. I attempt to uncover those that I have faced during my childhood.
I realised very young that everyone’s on their own.
We move to a different place every two or three years. At the beginning of each posting, we make friends at the new school and the new Cantonment. We chat and play with these friends for a couple of years, and then we say proper goodbyes to them, and leave for another place where we do the same thing until we move yet again.
The thing is, at fifteen, it gets difficult to remember or keep in touch with the friends you made when you were six. It all happens so fast and enough times for you to understand early on, that you can write all the letters in the World to those you left behind, but it’s just not the same. Then there is also the prickling realization that you have in the first six months of your move – you see your old friends get on with their lives. And once more, you find yourself sitting amongst strangers and works towards new friendships.
Friends and community tend to play a transitory role in your upbringing. By the time you are a teenager, you get quite comfortable sitting at the library or cycling in the neighbourhood by yourself. Sure, you talk to the other kids and eventually you do make friends. But you know now that these relationships are most likely ephemeral. Memories fade, letters rust and you make do with new people as you meet them. You learn to go with the flow.
I never made any real friends during the final years of my schooling. It so happened that I never got along with anyone at school or in my neighbourhood. During those two years, I watched my old friends grow closer, but without me. They remembered me just as I remembered them. Only they had each other and I was by myself. It was a painful experience for a younger me. I understood then that in the larger scheme of things, the only constant friend I would have would be my brother and Ma.
As children, we spent many years without Dad whenever he was posted in forward areas. During the good postings, Dad would still be away for several months at a time on some camp or the other. I try to remember how Ma dealt with my father being away for several months at a time, but how can I? I had no idea how she felt raising two kids on her own in a Separated Families accommodation.
As a 9 year old, I was not perceptive enough to see through her relentless banter and coaxing treats. We spent many birthdays and anniversaries without Dad by our side. Gradually, we stopped feeling about this too.
I also nudge my memories of the years when Dad was away. Intermittent impressions come to mind. The distinct rustle of Percy candies, the yellow-gold sheen of Cadbury’s Crackle, my father’s thick moustache, his olive green camouflage jacket, and the woody notes of Old Spice when I kissed his cheek. This is what the child in me remembers of the years that Dad was away.
I wonder how other kids of the armed forces felt about this constant change of places and faces. Having thought about it, I have a feeling that that many of them did feel uncomfortable in their present circles, or left out when they read emails of their old friends.
Life in the Army makes you unintentionally self-reliant at a young age. You become independent relatively early on in life. You also begin to understand and adapt, if only a little too quickly.
I don’t know if that’s good or bad. But then, if I have learnt one thing growing up as an Army kid, it is to take everything with a pinch of salt.