Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 12/15/02 9:15 AM

Feature: When Army Wives Start to Throw their Weight Around

When wives put on the pips

Even as the Armed Forces are in urgent need of restructuring — facing a shortage of good officers, and with a corresponding mountain of grievances piling up — one more arrow in the flank of this great institution is that of ‘senior wives’ throwing their weight about.

To tell the truth, the term ‘senior wife’ is an oxymoron. There is no such animal yet the mythical monster that lurks, outwardly clad in chiffon and pearls, is a deadly one, wreaking havoc in its wake.

Let us look at the larger picture. For all the bad press it receives on and off, the Indian army continues to be a sterling organization, peopled largely by upright individuals who combine the qualities of being officers and gentlemen effortlessly.

By and large, the contingent of army wives, charming, gracious, efficient, do their bit to make the picture a splendid one. It is when some of these wives ‘pull rank’ that the picture is distorted.

Unfair or not, women bosses have traditionally been considered creatures from hell.
However, in today’s work culture, there are ways and means to get around such occupational hazards and if it all gets too much, one can just up and quit.

That is the case on Civilian Street. Within the insular walls of an army settlement, the options are pretty much non-existent. The irony is, we are not talking about women bosses here, we are talking about the wives of male bosses.

Somewhere along the line, the Indian Army seems to have taken the common courtesy and deference owed the wives of the top brass and turned it into a rigid, mandatory norm. Thus, the respect that was hitherto commanded is now demanded imperiously and relinquished sullenly.

Invariable, it is the ‘junior wife’ who is on the receiving end. All too often, when a bride enters the portals of her husband’s unit, once the dining-in parties and general euphoria settles, she is advised by well-wishers on ‘How to Tackle the First Lady’, aka the Commanding Officer’s wife. This basically hinges on one pivot: do as The Lady wants you to do. Or else.

A ‘junior wife’ may clash with the ‘senior lady’ for any of the following reasons: she could be better-looking than the older woman (let’s not ignore the trivial aspects, here!), more talented, a tad deficient when it comes to applying the good old butter, why, she could be more self-confident. Or maybe she laughs a bit too loud, doesn’t kowtow well enough or is a bit too popular.

‘‘So, what’s new,’’ my Civvy Street counterpart may ask. ‘‘We get that kind of aggression and attitude from our female bosses, too.’’ Yes, but the raison d’etre of such behaviour out in the
corporate offices is clear: fear of competition. In the Army, it must be stressed, the Numero Uno ranking of a ‘senior wife’ is secure, simply because she has come by it through her husband’s merit, and she is not vulnerable to being unseated by a younger woman in the same battalion/brigade/division. Upstaged maybe, definitely not unseated.

The crux of the matter is the fear that younger wives who fall in the bad books of senior ladies could cost their husbands dear, vis-à-vis the climb up the promotions ladder. There are cases of officers called to their CO’s office and pulled up, not for errors of official commission or omission but for the behaviour of their wives.

There are cases of official circulars being sent out, ordering all wives to stand up when the Commanding Officer’s wife enters a room. A hundred little humiliations
become par for this particular course.

While one prefers to believe these are but idle threats, the fact that some women can actually make them is galling. As it is, the young army wife has to cope with long periods of separation, with being a long-haul single mother, with juggling a career and responsibilities to the battalion. It does not help when she has to face blatant misuse of power by women who don the epaulettes that rightfully belong to their husbands.

The Indian army prides itself on functioning in the family mode and every family is expected to have its problems. The sooner such problems can be sorted out, the better for the new, improved corps.

This ran in THE SUNDAY EXPRESS of 15 Dec 2002.

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Sheila Kumar • December 15, 2002

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