As I sit in my drawing-room and watch the rants on television, I think about the girl who never knew the name of a single politician except Rajiv Gandhi. I am still not very politically aware but I have picked up bits and pieces along the way. This is an attempt to organize my thoughts and put them up for further perusal in a few years time. Also, I realize that most of my views are colored by my gender.
So beginning in chronological order of appearance…
# 1 – The Indian Army
My father was an Army Officer and I grew up in Army camps all over the country. It was the sweetest possible childhood that a kid from a simple, middle-middle class family could have imagined. If we had been a civilian family I would never have known how to swim because there are hardly any swimming pools in cities/ towns for the general public and when they are present they are filled with boys/men which is sufficient deterrent for parents to avoid sending their daughters to such places. (And of course I doubt there are any swimming pools in Himachal at all, we are a ‘cold’ state and who ever heard of ‘heated pools’; even in the Army the pools shut down in the winter). I would never have played badminton or tennis or table tennis just for fun because again such facilities are completely non-existent in towns and cities across India, especially to girls.
Quite apart from the whole sports thing, I would never have been able to be as independent a woman as I grew up to be. The freedom that the army gives the girl child in India is impossible to find anywhere else. The freedom to go out and play with the boys beyond the age of 10, the freedom to wear the most atrocious of dresses, the freedom to dance with a young man at a party in front of your parents, the freedom to cycle around the cantonment all day on summer holidays, the freedom to learn horse riding, the freedom to read all and any books that you can lay your hands on in the library and last but not the least, the freedom to choose the direction you want your life to take. Girls were pampered and treated like queens by everyone, not just by your Dad. I never heard any parent or acquaintance in the Army tease me about the “day I get married”. (My civilian friends heard those lines thrown at them since they were about 5 years old).
Also, if you believe all the US movies/serials, all army kids are emotionally unstable due to the frequent change of stations. I just fail to understand that. We army kids loved to go to new places. Of course we cried when we said our goodbye’s but then the excitement of making new friends took over. We made friends from all over the country and they are people we keep in touch with to this day. Also, it gave us the ability to move fast to make friends since time was usually of the essence.
The one difference that the Army couldn’t shade from our eyes were the differences in the culture of all the people who came from the myriad states of our country. Everybody knew that the Bengali’s had the best skin, the blackest hair and the sharpest brains because they ate all that fish, that the Tamilian’s would stand first in class, that the Punjabi’s will make the best and loyal friends, that the Marwari’s will be excellent mathematicians, that the Maharashtrian’s loved their ‘puran-poli’, that the Himachali’s would be simple mountain folk (in most cases), that the Gurkha’s were the cutest guys and so on and so forth. It was an education like no other. Everybody says you mustn’t stereotype people but unfortunately they are stereotypes always come into being for a reason. People do tend to be a certain way due to the area that they are born in and the kind of culture that they grow up in. Exceptions are of course present everywhere, and a stereotype does not mean people are carbon copies of each other but they will have certain traits that are definitely exclusive to the community/ region they belong to. And we learnt that lesson very well in the Army.
The thing that matters in the Army above the discrimination of religion, caste and gender is your country. As Army kids, we have seen father’s and brother’s killed in the line of duty, we have wept every year on the Republic Day Parade celebrations when the gallantry awards are distributed, we have waited for father’s deployed in field areas coming home once a year, and we have moved around with a lump in out throats during the days the Kargil War was fought. It is almost impossible to meet an un-patriotic Army brat. The love and loyalty for our country is sewn into the fabric of our beings and even though it doesn’t make us blind to our shortcomings it instills a strong sense of protectiveness and sensitivity when others point fingers at us.
The Army molded us into these children with idealistic tendencies and not a single discriminatory bone in our bodies. There is no greater secular place in India than the Army. We never asked our friends what their religion was or their caste, in fact people from other religion’s were considered almost exotic. We went to temples and churches and Gurudwara’s with our friends. And we celebrated all the numerous festivals that came through the year. I never came across a Muslim family in the Army but we were firm believers in national integration and equality for all human beings.
The biggest drawback to being an Army brat is that it doesn’t equip you to live life on the civilian front. When you move into civilian life from the protection of the Army it is like learning to walk again, without holding on to your mother’s finger; if not simply a slap on the face/ douse of cold water in January. Also, the completely apolitical turn of individuals in the Army. All Army people loathe politicians and there is a definite ‘we are better human beings than them’ kind of attitude there. It works very well inside the confines of the Army life but we forget that outside, it is the politicians who control our fate from the most basic things like water, electricity and gas and it would be wise to know as much as possible about someone who holds such power over you.
The ‘Mandal commission’ protests in 1989 were something that we heard about but were too young to understand and nobody took the trouble to explain it to us. We were more aware of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 and immediately following the reports of the media took extreme positions against L.K.Advani, as only teenagers could do. We felt for the Muslims and were horrified that they had been treated as such. We never knew about the long battle that had been going on about the site or the support the movement had from the Hindu’s all over the country. In our snug little worlds we assumed that Mr. Advani one day woke up and decided to commit this atrocity. And that incident founded the basis of the choice of political party we leaned towards in the years to come. It followed a time when being a devout Hindu became a joke. Being ‘secular’ and ‘broad minded’ was the fashion of the decade and to say you supported the Muslim – bashing BJP was a sacrilege. Tolerance was a mantra that we all chanted without ever have witnessed an injustice in our cocooned lives. We were children and we hardly watched the news on Doordarshan and we were not very partial to newspapers either. Our views were usually colored by the ‘moral-science’ classes of the convent schools we attended and the dictum that there is only one God just different names. We believed it too, and thought we could preach it to the entire world and live our lives with high ideals; until of course, the day the Army closed its gates on us and forced us to our small home towns and villages where high ideals took a back seat to practicality and everyday living.
# 2 – The first brush with civil life – Himachal Pradesh
I was 18 years old in 1998, when I left home to go to college in Himachal Pradesh. My first brush with civilian life was when I had to catch the bus to college ( I was living with relatives at that time) every morning. There were buses every 5 minutes but the problem was they were all bursting to the seams with people going to college and to work. As I waited to find an empty bus, I realized that it was time to bid farewell to the child reared up on school buses where one always had a seat. Still, it took me almost 3 months to muster the courage to push my way into the crowds instead of asking everyone politely to move aside, to be aware of men who would pinch your bottom the first chance they got, to offer to share a seat so you were three people squeezed into a seat for two, to offer to take someone’s heavy bag/ child when they are standing and you are sitting, and many such small details of the bus etiquette. New social graces had to be learnt for this simple operation of boarding a bus to and from college.
And then began my first real lessons in life. I was astonished when the subject of caste came up almost on the first day of college. No one had asked me that question before. It was unsettling till I realized I belonged to the highest caste (population-wise) in the state and for some reason felt better. As I got my mind around this fact the next question was, ‘to what district did I belong?’. At that time I wasn’t even sure how many districts were there in Himachal, plus I wasn’t sure which one I would belong to since we had made a house in a different district to the one in which my father was born and raised. It was none of it serious and yet it made me think how it had never mattered to me before. And just like the ‘stereotype’s’ about the states that we had in the Army, there were those about the districts in the state. The most beautiful girls were from Mandi, the politest dialect was in Kangra, the driest people were from Bilaspur (since it doesn’t rain much there ), the rudest and most arrogant boys were from Hamirpur, the dirtiest and most industrial was Una, the ones from Shimla were holier-than-thou, the boys from Lahaul- Spiti had the greatest capacity for alcohol and so on. It was interesting and mostly true.
In the Army I was always considered the most conservative of all my friends and in the civilian world I was suddenly the most scandalous simply because I dressed a certain way and talked to members of the opposite sex. I also learnt that girls were expected to behave like girls i.e. be demure and shy and not very opinionated (non of which unfortunately applied to me). Everyone was quick to remind me that my foibles would never be tolerated at my ‘in-laws’ place; though said in jest it still rankled.
Poverty was another reality that I came face to face in civilian life. Poverty that I saw in Himachal was someone who was able to afford a set of new clothes only once a year, or did not have money for a car/ two-wheeler. People who were demarcated BPL ( below poverty line) in Himachal would all have a bit of land attached to their house, maybe a small cow and a few goats and at least two square meals a day and some or the other odd jobs around the village either as seasonal labour or as domestic help. And everyone goes to school. I am in no way trying to belittle the hardships they face in life but it is simply a comparison of what poverty means in my state and what it is in others that I later saw. I never heard of anyone with a loan from an individual instead of a bank. And most importantly in Himachal the perks that are provided by the government for such people actually reach them; be it free iron tablets for pregnant women or free mineral mixture for the cattle or money for repair of the house. I am sure of this because I worked in a village in a government job and came across these interactions on a daily basis. Which of course leads us to the corruption in government.
Of course the movement into civil life can never be complete without an introduction to corruption that begins at the lowest levels and worms its way all the way to the top. I was prepared for great battles on this front when I moved to civilian life after the high moral standard of the Army but was sadly thwarted in my noble endevours since nobody ever asked me for a bribe. The level of corruption is so low in Himachal, as to be almost non-existent. This is not some misplaced loyalty, but the truth. A crate of apples or a bottle of whiskey will get you the requisite job done and if you are a girl/woman just the ‘tragic/helpless look’ will do the trick because nobody will ever think it possible to ask a woman for a bribe. And still people bicker about it all the time. I did too, before I moved out of my little, happy, green hill state.
People are stingy with their money in the state and it’s not a bad thing. They live simple lives, get up in the morning, do their yoga, go to work/ school, come back, sit and have tea on their porch/ go out to play if you are young, watch some TV, eat their dinner by 8 in the evening and go to sleep by 9! There is a level of contentment here with the most ambitious designs being a job in the government or in the Army. Obviously, the younger generation is moving out but I am sure that 80% would like nothing better than to move back home at some point.
Himachal was a cushion for the fall into reality. But that realization came later on as I realized that the amount of freedom that the women in Himachal had in comparison to the other states was many times higher in everyday matters such as, in choosing their life partner’s, in refusing a marriage if dowry was asked, in being able to walk freely to the market/school alone and without fear, in being allowed to sing and dance at a friend’s wedding without censure. Again small things and yet with a huge impact if taken away. At this point I was already beginning to realize that freedom of expression was comparative.
And so another 10 years passed me by with a little adjustments to my way of looking at the world.