Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 04/1/10 7:34 AM

Feature: There Are Army Wives and Then There Are Army Wives

Throwing a bad fit
There is an awkward silence.
The small group of women gathered for a coffee morning is staring at one woman. It is her turn and she is refusing to play the game.
The game involves peering hard at a set of white powders (from heaps of powdered sugar, cornflour and maida to talcum powder and limestone) on a table and guessing what they are. The one who manages to get the most number of correct answers, of course, wins.
And now there is this one woman who is smiling genially, affably, but refusing flat out to participate. The rest of the army wives are quite nonplussed.
I was that woman
Okay, I confess I was the woman who refused to play the game. I am the woman who usually refuses to play such games. There was and is no point in stating that I don’t play such puerile games. You wonder, dear reader, just why I had to play spoilsport. But you see, it’s all about a bad fit.
There are some of us, a minority group in the Indian Army – wives who just don’t blend seamlessly into the age-old matrix. However, for what seems like years and years, we learn to disguise the bad fit, learn to do it all – play a zillion such party games, crochet tray cloths and embroider hand towels, attend the now-controversial Army Wives’ Welfare Association (AWWA) meets, host many a joyless Husbands’ Nite, show up at Ladies’ Club meets, give demos on dhoklas, and drink tea till the stuff fairly bubbles out of our ears.
We do this diligently, mindlessly, endlessly. And then, abruptly, we stop. I guess my stop button had been pushed when faced with that array of white powders.
The stop button
At this point, I need to make clear that people like us who don’t fit in, do not for a moment think we are too good for some honest-to-goodness crocheting, cake-baking or antakshari. Most of the time, it can be heaps of fun.
However, the moment you realise that these ‘duties’ make up the format of being an army wife, the first time you are treated as someone’s junior only because her husband happens to be a rank or two senior to yours, when the future holds the distinct possibility of endless humiliations from stupid people, that’s when your future pans out and becomes crystal clear.
Dismally so, for the bad fits.
Today, we are hearing of a rebellion by the bad fits, a series of incidents where army wives are filing cases of harassment against Commanding Officers (COs) and commanding officers’ wives; the charges are that their husbands are getting penalised for the women`s unwillingness or inability to jump through the hoops as ordered to.
‘Senior’ ladies (usually the wives of the CO upwards) invariably hand a checklist for the younger wives to adhere to. It includes attending AWWA meets, teaching the wives of the jawans (sometimes to make costume jewellery and stuffed toys, would you believe it), hosting an evening of entertainment for visiting top brass, baking goodies for the next Ladies’ Club meet and sundry such activities, all deemed by heaven-knows-who to be fit activities for young army wives.
Earlier, the bad fits would fall silently into line, conscious of being a marginal footnote to the Establishment. Now, apparently, they are baulking. What’s more, the venerable AWWA is coming under the scanner, too, with demands that its status and funding be made public.
A tough life
Army wives put up with a lot, deprivations our sisters on Civvy Street couldn’t imagine. We have to deal with postings in one-horse towns, long periods of separation from our husbands, substandard accommodation, long periods of shelving careers, juggling demands from the battalion or brigade as well as domestic demands, simultaneously. All those balls kept up in the air and what’s more, mostly managed with careless ease, smiles on lipsticked mouths, chiffon saris and manicures well in place.
Then again, some amount of kow-towing must and does indeed, take place in most workplaces and should be accepted with sanguinity. However, the army has always been overtly hierarchical and like most lumbering monoliths, reluctant to effect changes. Thus, the vicious cycle.
It’s the bad fits that are the problem, but of course. For that minority segment, it is all about endless dumbing down. You will have been following the latest fumblings in the endless debate on global warming but at the party that evening, you had better stick to the local weather, the recalcitrance of maids and the less than- satisfactory state of teaching in the local schools. That’s amongst the women; with the officers you can switch to the weather, the ongoing tennis or golf or squash tournament and the most general broadsides about General Musharraf’s latest gaffe.
Women who stray off the well-trodden path and work in fields other than education or medicine make the good men and women of the Indian Army uncomfortable. In all my years as a journalist, I have yet to find an appropriate reply to the standard question, “Still writing all the time?”
A sterling organisation
The issue of power-hefting apart, there is much in the army that is robust, clean and laudable, not the least of it being the sterling officers who make up the service.
It is a telling point that this sure-footed service does an exemplary job when it comes to the remote wildernesses and borders, in conventional warfare or counter-insurgency operations, but stumbles in what is termed ‘peace time,’ a time when they are surrounded by their families, a time they can relax.
For the most part, army wives follow the ‘lost-on-the-carousel-gained-on-the-roundabout’ theory. They tamp down their individuality once they realise the army has neither the time nor the inclination to pander to individualists. They do what they have to do, secure in the knowledge that, sooner or later, it will be their turn to wear their husbands’ rank none-too-lightly on their slender shoulders, to hand over that list to the ‘junior wives.’
Conform or be sidelined, they are told by the men they marry,  and they usually fall into line. Actually, anyone who does not conform to the clearly laid-out rules that govern the smooth life of those connected to the olive green colour, generates discomfort all around.
Senior officers loathe encountering women with a tendency to voice their grievances big and small. The army is all about following rules implicitly, sans question, and obviously these feminine voices of dissent are not conducive to the smooth running of the system.
Control and command
And so the hapless husbands are summoned. They are warned to rein in their ‘lady wives’ or else. The ‘what else’ can range from petty harassment (withholding the official vehicle to take a sick child to the Military Hospital, anyone?), humiliations and insults (actually bartering ‘good behaviour ’ for a husband to be permitted to come down from the snowbound passes, anyone else?) to ostracisation (boycotting of parties you host, folks?).

At the top of this dung heap is, of course, a less-than-good Annual Confidential Report, that vital record of an officer’s career gradient. All because a man’s wife is not subservient enough? Yes, I know it sounds ridiculous in the real world but there you go. This is the army, you see.

Coming back to the recent rumblings from the suppressed segment. Apparently, the bad fits are striking back. Some army wives have even moved court. Blogs have sprung up on the Internet, telling all in salacious detail. These are young women who seem determined to rock this particular craft.
Well, I’m cheering this feisty lot from the sidelines but I’m not holding my breath. It’s one mammoth Establishment the British have handed over, batons, berets and all, to us.
Change, if it has to work, has to come from within. And I don’t think the army is too inclined to effect such changes just now. As for me, all I can do is simply and sweetly decline to play the white powders game.

The case of Savneet Paul is well-known. A major’s wife, last year she threatened legal action against the Indian Army as CO Colonel D.S. Loomba had made negative remarks in her husband’s annual report because Savneet had refused to participate in the activities of the Army Wives Welfare Association.

This ran in MARIE CLAIRE magazine of  April 2010.
Related Links:
army wivesbad fitsconformingdissenting wivesestablishmenthierarchyMarie Claire magazinepetty behaviour

Sheila Kumar • April 1, 2010

Previous Post

Next Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published / Required fields are marked *