On this Independence Day, four wives talk about what it really means to be married to men in India’s Defence Forces
“A few seconds separate life from death” — Avantika Agarwal
The date was February 19, 2013. It was a chilly winter evening when the mobile beeped and I received a text message. “I was 5 months pregnant when I got that text message from my husband at 7:30 PM. 3 words—Ejected. I’m fine.” says 31-year-old Avantika Agarwal, wife of fighter pilot, Wing Commander Gaurav Bikram Singh Chauhan VM and mother to a 14-month-old baby boy. “This was followed immediately with a phone call, which lasted less than a minute—not enough time to get answers to the hundreds of questions in my head, but enough to know that he was fine.”
When the rescue chopper finally landed, Avantika was there, waiting on the tarmac with about 40 officers. “The two pilots were transferred to waiting ambulances and finally I was allowed to meet him. Lying on the stretcher, with his neck in a brace, the right side of his face bloody, his right hand heavily bandaged and several stitches next to his left eye, he was still, somehow, smiling. Probably all the painkillers they’d pumped into him. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but smile back,” she says.
She says that today, those scars are almost gone—but, the family has been through hell and back. “It took 10 months and 2 rounds of intensive medical tests and checks for him to be given clearance to fly again, post ejection. The uncertainty of it all, the possibility of him never flying again, not knowing where life was headed, was sometimes more stressful than the days immediately after the accident,” says Avantika. In August 2013, Wing Commander GBS Chauhan VM was conferred with a presidential award, the Vayu Sena Medal (Gallantry) for his actions on that ill-fated day in February 2013. It must be extremely difficult for the entire family? Says Avantika, “It is tough on his parents. I know firsthand how shook up they were after his accident, knowing what a close call it was. Sending your child to the armed forces cannot be an easy thing to do. I commend parents who do so.”
So, how does it even feel to know that your husband is involved in such a dangerous profession? “I try not to think about it, to be very honest. I had been mostly successful till my husband had that accident in 2013. But a conscious effort has to be made to not be panicky all the time, and just trust his training and have a lot of faith in luck and the universe. Because honestly, it’s only a few seconds that separate life from death,” she says slowly.
And knowing that for him, nation comes before everything else? “Honestly, that feeling hasn’t sunk in yet. It does sometimes come to me when I think about India going to war. I know then that he will be on the line of action and that’s his job. His duty. Nothing I say or do can alter that reality. And so I beg the universe to give politicians everywhere the good sense to realise that war isn’t the answer. It never is. All it does is destroys families forever.”
Talking about their life right now Avantika says, “Air Force is a whole different lifestyle from the Indian Army and the Indian Navy. We don’t have to stay away from our husbands since there is no concept of field postings and non-field postings—all postings are with family. But yes, extremely long and demanding working hours in the day and night ensures that my husband ends up seeing our baby only while sleeping. We don’t really need to go to very far-flung places—and are currently posted in Chabua, Assam, which is the farthest they could have sent us, really.”
Ask her about the nomad lifestyle, and pat comes the reply. “Yes, it is difficult moving to a new home every few years. Packing up, lock, stock and barrel and moving across the country isn’t easy. I’ve been married for less than 6 years and this is already my fourth home. You have to get used to containing your entire house and everything you own in boxes. And then, setting up house from scratch is a chore but it has to be done. You have to learn your way around a whole new place. Yes, Air Force stations everywhere will have some uniformity but you still have to get to know the place, the people.”
She says that she has learnt to make do with the available resources. “Where I am right now, you don’t get fresh button mushrooms, something you’d take for granted in Bombay. I couldn’t find packaged Amul dahi here or in the neighbouring towns. Or, even garbage bags! So, you learn to be resourceful, learn to stock up on basics. In a place like Assam which is a sensitive area due to the insurgency problem, you learn how to be organised and think ahead. You never know when they’ll announce a curfew and you’ll be unable to go to the nearest town for groceries. On a lighter note, finding a parlour/person to do your eyebrows the way you like them can be quite difficult every time you have to move!” she says.
“Being a nomad is difficult—you can’t really put in roots anywhere because you know you’ll be moving soon enough. You start thinking in terms of suitcases and trunks. And now that I have a baby, I’ll start worrying about schooling and how the constant moving will affect my child’s education,” Avantika adds.
“We lost our baby because we couldn’t get an ultra-sound scan in time” — Rashmi P
“I was born an army daughter and now I am an army wife. I am used to being transferred from one place to another. I find it very positive as I get a chance to visit places that I may not have visited on my own and meet so many people,” says 35-year-old Rashmi P (name changed on request), currently posted in Bangalore with her husband Lieutenant Colonel Ashish P (name changed on request). “I have never complained about being an army wife. Until that fateful day…” her voice cracks a little as she says this.
“It was during one of our postings to a place called Binnaguri that shook me for life. We have a daughter who turns 9 this month. A few years ago, we were blessed with another daughter. Unfortunately, she didn’t survive for long. The medical facilities in the area we were posted were a bare minimum—the nearest city was Siliguri in West Bengal, whose connectivity went bonkers during the monsoon. Still, I did all my checkups travelling on those roads holding my tummy. My husband was away in Bhutan and I had a 5-year-old school going daughter to look after. We tried giving her the best medical care—but unfortunately, she was born with serious congenital problem which could have been avoided while still she was unborn. But the smaller cities did not have any such facility. We got her to Pune via Kolkata via Bagdogra via Binnaguri for check up, but alas, she could not be saved,” says Rashmi.
With another young daughter to look after, Rashmi had no choice but to bury her grief and immerse herself in raising her older one. “There are so many untold stories of couples like us, both officers and soldiers, who are posted in far-flung places, especially in north-east India. As parents, we do the best we can, take lots of blame and often end up living in guilt,” says Rashmi. She strongly expresses her concern for the lack of medical facilities in our country. “Why do we not have world-class hospitals in every corner? My baby could have been saved if only I could have gotten a proper ultra-sound scan. In today’s day and age, how can a mother make her peace with that? My older one still asks me questions I have no answers for. It’s not just my agony, I know many suffer much worse,” she says.
She also recently wrote letters to principals of prestigious schools in Bangalore, regarding how long they make uniformed officers wait in the corridors and then tell them bluntly, that they don’t have vacancy for their children. “Fair enough. But the time of a uniformed man is precious,” stresses Rashmi. After a brief pause, she continues, “You know, for the higher-ups, it’s still fine. It’s way worse for the jawans. The government has made many provisions, but there’s still a huge gap that needs to be bridged, especially in the case of smaller towns.” Having shared so much, Rashmi still smiles and adds, “But I’m still proud to be an army wife.”
“She who waits also serves.” — Aditi Mathur
30-year-old Aditi Mathur Kumar recently wrote the book Soldier & Spice: An Army Wife’s Life about a civilian girl’s first year as an army officer’s wife, where she learns to walk in sarees, to cook the perfect snacks, to never compete with the mess cooks, to make friends despite knowing that there is very little time together at a posting, and most importantly, she learns to be strong. “There’s not much to read about the girl who married an army officer and changes cities and phone numbers every 2 years. So, I was apprehensive. But turns out, people found it fun and interesting! I think that is because the life of an army wife has very different challenges and situations from their civilian counterparts. It is fun, full of responsibilities, tough, classy and many other things,” smiles Aditi.
Mom to 2-year-old, Aditi comes from a non-army background and knew very little about its culture. “In fact, everything I knew before my wedding was thanks to Bollywood movies—Border, LOC Kargiland Lakshya! In the beginning, the army wife life overwhelmed me. I hoped it would get okay as I learn the ways with time. It’s been almost 5 years, and I still feel overwhelmed at times,” she shares.
So how has these 5 years been as the fauji wife? “I have to admit, there are perks—the fancy parties with seven-course delicious dinners, travelling to almost every corner in the country and making friends everywhere. Life is an adventure, no doubt, but the biggest high is being the wife of a man who serves the nation. Nothing can match the pride in being the woman behind the man in olive-green, the silent ranks,” she says with sparkling eyes.
But with this, surely, there are lots of challenges? “Of course! There are things that are really tough to deal with. When you are at a family station, an army wife is expected to follow a code of conduct which is almost foreign to a civilian girl. You are expected to be ladylike, impeccably dressed and always smiling. The Army functions on hierarchy, which means the wives must follow it too—the higher your husband’s rank, the more important you are. It’s a very delicate balance,” she pauses and continues, “Then, there are long separations from the husband, sometimes he is at locations that don’t even have mobile network coverage. And if a place doesn’t have a cell phone signal in 2014, you can imagine what kind of a place that must be. Then, there are postings to the valley and to the troubled parts of north-east where the wife counts not days, but hours. The fear never leaves.”
How do you live with fear, every day? “Yes. ask an army wife whose husband is posted in Kashmir, and she’ll say, you live life queen-size but you also pray every day. That’s how,” she says. Then she adds, “As an army wife, I find it strange when people on Twitter diss the Army as frivolous and overpaid. It is hurtful and I tend to take it personally sometimes. If someone paid me a gazillion dollars to stay in a makeshift room in the snow, with daily terror threats and no guarantees of tomorrow—I’d say a flat no. If I was asked to stay away from my family, I’ll say no. Army is about passion, if it was about money, you’d never see the huge ‘Army Needs Officers’ posters everywhere, and you’d not read articles titled ‘Army Short of 30,000 Officers’. Being in the Army is about love and about a drive, and I believe it filters into us army wives too.”
“How did you learn to be so strong?” I ask in awe. “There is strong, there is army strong and then there is army wife strong! You have to be able to carry on with life, with your home and kids, with work and fun, and with other army commitments—knowing that at the same moment your husband is probably in the same convoy in the valley, that got bombed last week. A few weeks before my wedding, I had read somewhere that she who waits also serves, and now I know that there are no truer words ever spoken! That unmatchable strength, I think, is the essence of an army wife.” she sums up.
“No news is good news.” — Arushi Chaudhary
For 28-year-old Arushi Chaudhary, a freelance journalist, mum of 3-week-old daughter Ariaana, life as a fauji wife till now has been a crazy journey. “Being married to a fauji means being prepared to live in places that a person from the civil streets cannot even dream of. Our previous posting was in a place called Lalgarh Jattan!” laughs Arushi. Having lived in Pune and Chandigarh, it was no mean feat for her to get used to the idea of living in a gated cantonment along a deserted highway. “From plush bungalows to single-room accommodations, metropolitans to places one couldn’t even imagine existed… The army life teaches you to accept and enjoy different facets of life,” she says.
She admits the impending perils of her husband’s job. “They are definitely unnerving. Sometimes you have to go for days at end without any contact from the other side. In such times, you have to keep reminding yourself that ‘no news is good news’, put on a brave face and get on with your days,” she says. After a brief pause, she adds, “I took a long time getting used to the notion that your husband’s profession will always take precedence over your personal life. Birthdays, anniversaries, festivals and special occasions all take a back seat when duty calls, that’s one of the hazards of being wedded to the olive greens.”
Currently, she is staying at her hometown in Himachal Pradesh with their daughter while her husband, a Captain in the Indian Army, is posted in a remote location. It must be tough, being away from him while nursing a newborn? “Yes, as a new mom, I can tell you that being away from your child’s father is a lot harder than being away from your husband. He got a measly 10-day leave for our baby’s birth and it is heartbreaking for both of us to not share the joys and hardships of raising our little one together, But then, having heard so many stories of women who go through the ordeal of childbirth without their husbands by their sides, I find solace in the thought that at least he made it in time to be with me when I needed him most,” says Arushi.
She warns that being an army wife is no piece of cake. “It is tremendously taxing at times, but this life teaches you to appreciate the smaller joys of life. You can never know the anticipation of waiting by the door for your man to return—covered in dust and tanned beyond recognition—from a month-long exercise; or the joy of savouring a mouthful of your favourite cheesecake when you return home on vacation, unless you are married to a fauji!”
Their eyes search in the distance for their husband… Months pass… A teardrop trickles down the cheek… But a smile slowly curls the lip because the heart knows one thing…
He will be back home soon.
(Note: This post of mine was originally published in Yowoto as an Independence Day special feature story on 14th August 2014)