For the Indian Army, travelling for work is not an office trip. It’s more than a meeting to attend, more than a deal to close, more than a conference. It’s about packing up from comb to cupboard and transporting your home after regular intervals for what is known as “postings” in the world of the Olive Greens.
If there is any organisation that sends you off to unseen and at times unheard-of locations every two years (and pays for your transport too) it is the Indian Army. And if you’ve travelled half of India, stuffing your house in approximately 20 trunks and 10-odd cartons, you’re an army wife. There is more to the Indian Army life than the separation and the anxieties. The other side of the coin is full of new places, people, cultures and cuisines.
Pithoragarh, Uttarakhand was the place where I started my married life. “Women work more than men in this state,” my husband Rajeev said obliviously while driving to Munsiyari via Jauljibi. “Yes, and that is the case in almost every state,” I replied with a smirk, photographing a gushing stream running parallel to the road. But this time, we paid less attention to the leg-pulling. Those who have visited Uttarakhand can relate to that delightful aura the place emanates.
Munsiyari is loaded with magnificent natural beauty as the blazing Panchachuli peaks—the mystically gorgeous hilltops of Kamakhya, Chandika, Thal Kedar and Dhaj—stand right before you. Four months I breathed, relished and savoured every single bit of Pithoragarh. And then it was time to get posted out. I started packing for the first time, and was in a complete daze. There is always help for moving trunks and loading trucks, but it’s the army wife who silently prays for the well-being of her Italian crockery and porcelain vases.
We were posted at Wellington, Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu. If you can’t afford a trip to New Zealand, don’t bother. The Nilgiris offers almost everything the foreign land has to offer, with added perks like steaming road-side idlis and endless cups of filter coffee along with tiny tea cafes, fabulous foggy mornings, amiably welcoming locals and truly salubrious weather.
Wellington was full of surprises. My favourite one was “aath ka market”. It is an amusing concept, encouraged by compulsive shopaholics. On the eighth of every month, a town called Aruvankadu holds a grand sale of factory-made clothes at jaw-droppingly low prices. I used to accompany my friend just to see the frenzy and madness among the elated buyers. One of our highlights was accomplishing the challenging Silent Valley trek in Kerala before bidding adieu to the Nilgiris.
At every posting you start anew, right down to finding a salon to get your eyebrows done. A city girl, I could never imagine a town that didn’t know what bhindi (lady’s finger) meant or a grocery shop that didn’t stock wheat flour, but they do exist.
Army cantonments are identical across India, from houses to parks to jogging parks, amphitheatres, pools – and if you are lucky, equitation lines too. Senior Army officers’ wives are a great helping hand and committed gossip partners. Trust me, there is nothing more relaxing than a hot cup of chai in the garden with a steaming piece of gossip to munch on.
Our next posting came after a two-year-long separation, to Yol, Dharamsala. It felt magnetic, being pulled towards the hills time and again. By this time, I had become the connoisseur of lodging in the hills. Snowy winter, mountain sickness, power cuts, I was ready to deal with them all.
Dharamsala is ecstatically blissful to say the least, having the splendid Dhauladhar ranges of the Himalayas. I used to call my friends on Monday mornings and ask them, “Hey what are you doing? I’m having my tea in the balcony overlooking the snowclad peaks!” Cheap thrills, but I didn’t mind the chest thumping.
You can go for a casual drive in Himachal Pradesh and instantly stumble on a beautiful village or breathtaking view. There were a couple of places that left me in complete awe. I particularly remember Prashar Lake, located a little ahead of Mandi. At six in the morning, we were making our way through the dense foggy path, and when the fog settled, there stood a serene lake with a small stone-made temple by its side. It was how I imagined heaven.
Momo lovers, you won’t repent your visit to Dharamsala. Himachali food is simple, made with unique combinations of spices and vegetables. During our homestay in Chamba, the hostess told us that except for salt and turmeric, every single ingredient is homegrown—a fact that made the food taste even better.
Those years in Himachal were truly a life changing experience. My son went to his first school, a tiny red-roofed place overlooking the Dhauladhar range. There were many firsts—my first snowfall, my first oil painting. Yol taught me to be content and calm with whatever life offers you.
I never had any problems adjusting to new places; in fact, I wait to see them and absorb as much as possible from the new community and culture. I would have never known of these delicious secrets had I not been lucky enough to travel this way. I would never have realised how much a place can tell you about how people live—for example, the residents of the Nilgiris follow cleanliness as a way of life.
This way of life can be overwhelming, both in negative and positive ways. Seven years on, I am still learning. What to pack first? What to keep? And to not throw out even the smallest carton as it may come handy while packing again.
At times, I do feel a bit bad that my son does not have a stable life. He may never have a best friend in early childhood, because the best of friendships need time to grow and nurture. But he copes surprisingly well in new terrain. Perhaps the urge to explore new places is genetic.
After another stint of separation, today we are together again on another peace posting (when officers get to stay with their families) in Jamnagar, Gujarat. The mélange of different people I have met inside and outside the army cantonment has been unbelievably entertaining and enriching. Funny, sad, scary, amusing – it has been a great rollercoaster ride so far and I’m in no mood to get off soon.
“Army life gradually grows on you,” somebody told me a long time ago. I can’t agree more.
In a few more months, it will be time to leave and explore another unknown terrain, as enchanting as the lands in Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree. All I have to do is pack those 20 trucks and my Olive Green bag.