The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, November 24, 2002

Army life through rose-tinted glasses
Aradhika Sekhon

Arms and the Woman
by Deepti Menon Rupa & Co. Pages 275. Rs. 195.

Arms and the WomanTHE book should have been called ‘The Many Reasons To Marry An Army Officer’ or ‘The Clichés Of Army Life’. Everything that an Army officer or his wife have ever said or done — all the jokes, all the-tough-times-taken-with-a-smile, the one-liners, the fun and nostalgic times — forms the subject matter of Arms and the Woman.

The fatal flaw in the book, pointed out by Lt. Gen. Satish Nambiar in the foreword itself, is that it focuses only on the happy times, "the brotherhood and camaraderie that sustains the soldier and his family". He continues, "In enjoying what Deepti has given us in her narration, (it is essential) that we do not lose sight of another perspective of life in the Army. That of sorrows and the miseries of those brave women and children who suffer the loss of their loved ones due to war or accident. Nor does the book cover the experiences of the rank and file of the Indian Army"

A certain smugness in the tone of the book seems to say to the non-Army janta, "O ye lesser mortals, envy us, for though we may not abound in worldly goods, we have no dearth of that desirable commodity, happiness." There is an attempt to glamorise the Army life. The author does this not by ignoring the frustrations and irritations of day-to-day life but by exploring them in detail and trying to lend to them a cheerful, good-humored acceptance, that in fact, is not easy to come across, at least not when one has to deal with these hassles (no maids, no water, no accessible markets) on a daily basis. In retrospect, perhaps, they become hued with the rose-tinted glasses through which Menon views them.


That the author is fully conversant with life in the Army and its traditions cannot be disputed. Indeed, this is what she tries to explain to the reader, going into such painstaking detail that it begins to grate a bit. Nothing, but nothing is left to the imagination. There is no profundity that is not explained with examples, no experience that speaks for itself without the author’s endeavor to simplify it for the reader. For example, if she speaks of her experience with the maids she has come across, she talks of each and every maid that her family has ever employed (including the one employed by her mother) — her foibles, her follies, her qualities, good and bad. She chuckles as she conducts the reader through the antics of the dogs they had and the pets other people of her acquaintance kept, where they came from, what became of them and what they probably felt. An extract from the passage describing Bozo the dog: "Loyalty ran in his veins. I remember the time that a couple was using our house when we were out on a course. The lady was not obviously fond of pets and she ordered that he be kept outside, which Bozo was not in favor of. After all this is my house, his growls indicated. Anyway, he soon found himself sleeping outside, and he showed his resentment by creeping in when the guests were not around, and chewing up the lady’s sandals (what was amazing was that he left mine alone) and a tiger skin rug that they had spread on the floor, just to prove that he was his master’s dog and that he would take no nonsense from anyone." There is a lot more on Bozo.

The book is a purely subjective one. Deepti Menon writes of her own experiences in the Army and tries to universalise their relevance. She talks of Army Messes, welfare meets, ladies clubs, postings, promotions, senior officers and their wives, fauji courses (especially the ones run by The School of Artillery), tambola evenings, fauji cooks, P.T in the mornings, MES houses and furniture, fauji kids, non-family stations etc. The cover of the book comes as somewhat of a surprise. It shows officers and ladies, probably at a Mess party, with officers wearing peaked caps. When did that start happening?

But undoubtedly, Menon has reported the fauji life faithfully. Her observations are astute and reporting, acute. Right from the description of the senior lady circulating at a party and being gracious to junior ladies to descriptions of welfare activities for the jawans’ wives, there is veracity in her writing. Her opinions on most issues, from parenting to dowry, are sensible and sound. "If the young men of today would also put their collective foot down and speak up against dowry, our country would be a better place". However, she seems to be remarkably naïve about certain realities. "It is very common to hear ladies of the Army discussing evils like dowry, wife beating, alcoholism and dictatorial husbands avidly, but finally they end all their arguments with, ‘But thank God, army husbands are not like that!’ And that is a fact."

Menon has attempted to depict the life of the Army officer’s wife in its totality. One recognises her love for fauji life. But there is a lack of passion and range of emotion that doesn’t allow the book to rise above a pleasant read. Also, a little more spit and polish would be in order.