Life in the army is mostly an enigma for people who are not from that background. Their impression of the army is mostly based on what they see movies, some of them accurate and most of them are inaccurate.
Being an army kid, I would like to give you an idea of what Army life is like. First, let me start with explaining that you can never truly fathom why army kids remain nostalgic about Army life even years later unless you have lived that life. What is army life like? It is difficult, strenuous, painful. Yet, nothing can be a more rewarding and a beautiful experience.
There are four main corps in the Army – Signals, Infantry, Engineering and Artillery – divided on the basis of their functions. An army officer is always assigned to a regiment within his corps.
The army life has a strict code of conduct and protocol – very difficult to live by. Thankfully, they only affect the officer and his wife. The kids are rarely affected by it and are not bound by any of the protocols.
There are some things that we take for granted as a part of the Army family – the big houses, the helper bhaiya who will do all your work. When you are at a senior post and are lucky enough to be posted to a hill station, you could live in a huge bungalow. There will be a retinue of servants – a cook, a gardener, a helper, a driver. My dad became a Colonel in the army when I was fourteen. We had a flat with two bedrooms, living room, dining room, a verandah and a garden(made lovely by my mom’s green fingers). A normal flat, right? Wrong! Two of Mumbai’s two bedroom apartments would have fit into that flat, not to forget the huge flower garden in front and vegetable garden at the back.
But are these the things that make us love army life and want to live it again and again? No, not really. What makes army life the most beautiful life ever is the feeling of solidarity and love amongst the people, the terrific social life which makes even a place like Mumbai seem dull to me most of the times. We had Sunday afternoon get-togethers where the entire Army family used to turn up. This was especially in small places. In fact, the smaller the place, the better the social life in the Army.
When I was fourteen and my dad a Colonel, we were staying in Nagrota, a place 12 kms from Jammu. We used to go to school in Jammu in the Army truck. Was it difficult? Maybe, it was. But, all I remember are the wonderful experiences we had. The road from Nagrota to Jammu was a hilly road. Many times, there were landslides and the road used to close down completely. But, did we go back home? No way. We would stop for Gol Gappa(Pani Puri) outside Hari Singh palace – Rs. 1 for 4 pieces. There was a Pir Baba ka Dargah at a walking distance from our school. We would go there every Friday and pay our respects and then attack the delicious Prasad that we got there (the main motivation for us kids). But, these experiences taught me about respecting all religions. In fact, while I was in the army life, I never thought of myself as a Maharashtrian(I still don’t). I used to think of myself only as an Indian. I went to Church, Dargah, Gurudwara, Temple with equal devotion. We celebrated all festivals with equal enthusiasm. So, it was a cultural shock for me when I came to Bombay and people laid so much emphasis on my being a Maharashtrian. I simply, replied back that I am an Indian(I still do).
People who think that big cities like Mumbai have a rocking social life need to experience Army life just for a few months. We used to have cultural evenings which had kids showcasing all the different kind of talents they had. The rehearsals would begin at least one and a half months in advance. We would practice hard and then the rest of the evening would become a big get together again with the adults joining in. We would sing songs, dance through the night and just celebrate life. I have made friends in the army and forged bonds which will last a lifetime. We loved and accepted each other the way we were without any prejudices and pre-conceived notions. We appreciated the differences and embraced our friends the way they were. Now, I see people so busy judging everyone they meet that they don’t have time to make friends with them.
Have things changed in the army? Not at all, as I recently experienced when I went to meet my childhood friends in Dehradun. Two of them are in the Army and one is married to an Air Force officer. There are still no pre-conceived notions, no biases, no judging people – just accepting everyone with warmth and affection.
Seeing my dad dressed in his full army attire with the stars depicting his rank made me proud like nothing else. When people praised my dad’s honesty and put it up as an example, it made all the difficult financial times seem like nothing. Army officers were not really paid all that well at that time, though this has changed now. But, I learnt to value honesty, self respect and integrity(an example and a gift from my father). While my dad was in the army, he was a very strict taskmaster who made sure the people reporting to him were disciplined. But, should there be a jawan who needed help of any kind, my dad would turn the world upside down to help in every way he could.
I travelled to most of India, thanks to army life. I stayed mostly in North India, though. Travelling to and seeing the India-Pakistan border is an experience you can never forget. I have seen the border from many different places. Every place that we travelled to in the army felt like home. The five star hotels today can’t compare to the comfort and home like feel of an army officer’s mess. Whenever we would be posted to a new city or town, we would have to wait till we got a permanent accommodation. Where did we stay – the officer’s mess. It was even better than home. We would have other families staying with us there, so the question of being lonely never did arise. We would have the YOs(Young officers) who were basically fresh NDA passouts, away from family and home and still children at heart. We would joke with them, develop bonds with them, let them not miss home too keenly and as we grew older, flirt with them and enjoy the attention given by them.
The army life gives you the most awesome childhood ever experienced. It is the richest and the most enriching experience that every child should and deserves to grow up with.
Does army life have any drawbacks? Yes, a few of them. Many places that we lived in were places we lived in constant fear and danger, like Jammu with its frequent bomb blasts and terrorist attacks. Mostly, the religious places were targeted. Thankfully, we lived in Nagrota, though we travelled to school to Jammu. The day my mom heard of such a thing happening and we were at school, I know for sure that she would be at the door all day. But when we came home safe and sound, did she show us her fears? No, she just treated it like any other normal day. I learnt bravery from her.
The turning point for me happened in Shillong. Shillong has been one of the most beautiful experiences for me. My dad was at a pretty senior position then. We had a huge bungalow with three acres of land around it with all kinds of flowers, fruits and vegetables growing. I had the best circle of friends and we were truly like sisters and had the best times of our lives. In winters, it is pitch dark at 3:30 p.m, the way it would be here at 9 p.m. probably. The sun rises at 4:30 a.m. A more beautiful, serene world and a place so close to heaven you will never see. My experience of army life has been the most beautiful in Shillong, yet it turned out to be the scariest.
Meghalaya and Assam are hugely controlled by the ULFA. The locals are scared of them and the ULFA is completely anti-Army. There is a very old violent history behind it. Now, army officers were usually under threat from the ULFA(they never harmed women and children). So, we had an army officer who was just about to retire and went on a trip with his daughter, a civilian officer and his daughter. They travelled to quite a lot of places in the North East. They were in Guwahati which is 4 hours away from Shillong. While they were on the way to Shillong, these two guys on a motorcycle were following them. The officer was in an army vehicle with a flag(for senior officers). So, on the way, his daughter developed a toothache and they stopped at a dentist. When they came out, the two guys on the bike shot them down and fled. No one caught them. This happened in front of the two daughters’ eyes. No one came forward to help them. The girls somehow put their fathers in the car and rushed to the nearest hospital. But they were already dead when they reached. The officer had been a very close friend of my dad. They shared the same date of birth too. My dad was devastated and so were we. It was like the entire cantonment was shrouded in depression and sadness and my dad took voluntary retirement from the army(though there were reasons too). So, ended the beautiful life we had known.
But the army experience has taught us to be resilient and survive in any condition. If there was any other life that I would be asked to choose, I would still choose a life in the army.
This is for all those who see only the wonderful lifestyle and the big houses and the servants in the army, they are only seeing half of the story. Our life is still fraught with dangers, difficult living conditions, many times inedible rations and we live through it all with a smile on our face and courage in our heart. I will always respect the army officers who serve the country selflessly, But I deeply respect the family of that officer even more who stands by him like a pillar of strength even in the most difficult situations and show no fear or doubt on their face. They give him the courage to serve the country selflessly.
“To end it, we may never form roots in any one place. But we leave a part of us in every place that we stay in.”