Friday, August 31, 2018

The Girl and the Living Walls

I am 407/4 Pratap Lines, Jaipur Cantt

Earlier this week I was applied double coats of distemper, few furniture were replaced, couple of damp spots in my wall repaired. I can’t tell you how happy I was. I always felt cold with those damp spots in me and it also made me look dreadful and ancient.

I knew I will have a new family soon. I stopped speculating about the kind of people I would have as all these years I had seen a myriad of them. There were people who considered me as a temporary shelter and there were others who called me home. There were people who passionately decorated me, and some who just crazily hammered nails everywhere which made me look puckered than I was. For some, with heavily framed Egyptian paintings and volumes of crystal items I looked gorgeous and for others with family photographs and in an elegantly woven Persian carpet I turned out to be graceful.

But then I could hardly contain the excitement as I heard the footsteps coming towards me. Here I see them. A young officer with his new bride! The Capt wrapped his wife in his arms and walked in. Her fingers intertwined with hers, swinging back and forth. She moved around me with such childish ecstasy; I would be their first nest after marriage. Next few days saw a flurry of activities. My windows and doors were draped in new curtains, (there were huge arguments over the colour of the curtains - well well, there used to be differences in everything- from placement of the utensil rack, shape of cushions, bathroom fittings, placing the furniture, size of glasses, pattern of bed sheets and which dog breed to get!). He wanted the dominant theme of the house to be white. White bedsheets, white dining table cover, white curtains, white buckets, white tea set and even he searched for white gas burner. When she opposed vehemently he just deviated to off white and beige.

Their disagreements unlike their love, was ephemeral. In the morning when the husband left for office, she was there for a loving send off.

She endeavored her best to cut equal sizes of all vegetables in salad and even halved the grapes with such affection. With my experience I could tell that she was a novice in the kitchen. Once she placed a brinjal in the microwave oven. Later, with teary eyes she plucked out each seed from the oven as it had burst into innumerable pieces. The young man on the other hand was an expert cook. He would cook everything with dollops of cheese and butter and loved his wife more than anything in the world.

She was new to dressing up like a lady in the evening for Mess Functions or Call Ons. She had a hard time to clean up the batter from her face, her baking lessons failed , the maiden cake turned out to be hard as a cricket ball and on top of that she had invited guests at home!

Pall of gloom descended and she thought it to be the end of the world.

But again like phoenix she rose, with lot of assurance from her companion and the day ended well with laughter and banter. The guests described their own hilarious incidents about baking and cooking. The young girl felt better. Her husband wittily glanced at her.

The young officer would attaimes narrate the ways of the Army to her. Sometimes she accepted the sermons, but mostly she questioned and revolted. Why would the mandir parade be on Sundays? What is the necessity for strict Mess etiquettes and why should Tuesdays be chhole bhature days and Sundays biriyani days? She questioned about having so many unnecessary uniforms and shoes, and she for the first time came to know colour of petrol to be blue and white. To her utter disgust white, beige and green colours (even clothes other than uniform) dictated his cupboard. She frowned at the saree fetish ladies. She named Sunday as Sulkingday because her man went to office in civil dress and her worst enemy was the fauji phone. It belched out in high decibel whenever possible. And yes, she failed to understand why the call made on ‘Reporting Time’, should be holier-than-thou and that even a mellowed down sneeze (from anyone in the house) would be a criminal offence. She even scowled at the thought and questioned the valid reason behind naming nature’s call as Jungle parade. But she tied the knot not only with the man but also with his profession and she already had the Married to Olive Green book, the Bible, for civilians married into the army. Just one step left - to flip open and read.

For the past few days, I found her quite withdrawn. Attimes she would recluse in a corner, buried her head in her palms and sobbed quietly. I wanted to help but I was helpless. One evening, after being cajoled by her husband she spurted out that she was exhausted and wanted to wriggle out of ‘lady like syndrome act’, she missed being herself. She felt caged in the Cantonment and wanted a way out. She was an aspiring journalist and her aspirations were snuffed out early. Without a job she felt less empowered. She was way too vexed with the people advising her to do B.Ed and teach, or do gardening or cook new dishes and share the recipes or learn stitching. I was concerned about her and with ages behind me I wanted to tell her that with time every crease will be ironed out. It was love at first sight which brought them together and then the love seemed out of sight. The young man, seemed to be powerless against such blitzkrieg. He was visibly distressed. The only happy soul was the four month old mischievous, curious and playful Doberman pup named Ditto. He was found to be everywhere that he shouldn’t have been. From toilet paper to shoes to plants, he spared nothing. But these days even Ditto’s antics failed to lift the girl’s mood. I keep on referring her as ‘girl’ as addressing her ‘lady’ would entail undue pressure on her and expectations would surmount. Even for me. Then, why? Let time take the course. What is the hurry to make a ‘lady’?

After many such gloomy evenings one day she looked content. The man and his wife whooshed out of the door for dinner, they whispered to each other – and I was keen to know the turn of events. With series of congratulatory phone calls that followed the next day I could make out that soon there would be an addition in the family.

Still, when there was no one in the house but myself and Ditto, she would attimes embrace my brick walls and ask - Will I be a good mother? Am I being a good wife? Am I being a good army wife? I am unable to make great desserts and just clueless about rearing a baby. (Her voice would mellow down and anguish resonated – I would have to give up my career. I cannot hop to countless and remote locations and hope to make my byline on the front page of newspaper…) She became thoughtful.  

I replied fondly, have faith in yourself and hold on! Did she hear? I think so, because she seemed pacified everytime after she spoke blankly to the walls. I felt part of this family.

Certain things ofcourse enraged me. Top of the list was when Ditto scratched my walls fervidly in order to dig hole. I don’t know why dogs do that! I despised it and I am sure he felt my indignation because next he did was leaving a crescent shaped mark of on my walls. Uff ! how I loathed such damp and pungent smell. More so, I still cannot fathom the correlation between a soldier and his love for dog.

A beautiful February morning was abuzz with people running helter skelter. The young man exulted and announced that he was the proud father of a baby girl. Oh! How desperately I wanted to see her and the new mother. I saw her later that day. She was adorable. She peered through her brand new eyes at what must be such a strange world after life in the womb. As she cuddled in her mother’s arms her curled pink fingers brushed my walls. I felt she thanked me for protecting her.

With untimely cries, diaper changes, doctor’s appointments, and baby’s babble –the house, rather I, felt lively as never before. Attimes I saw the baby’s mother physically exhausted coupled with sleepless nights, self –doubt, worry and new parenthood seemed a challenge. Everyone, relatives and acquaintances, advised her how to be a perfect mother and that she should follow their examples. I hollered to the self-acclaimed perfectionists – with a new baby a new mother is also born. So let them be! The house was always throbbing with people but I found her lonesome. I saw sparkle in her eyes when her neighbor came. A very loving figure in whom this girl took comfort. Perhaps in her she understood the real meaning of being part of the olive green family. You are never alone even when you think you are. Even then she would have queries about the Army life, but then it was only to understand and not revolt.

With a grin I said to myself – Time and Infantry Life are great teachers, healers and guides.

They organized a dinner to celebrate their new born. This time, I saw her preparing the list of the invitees,  fixing the menu (easy yet with a twist) something she can manage, ensured she had enough serving plates and this time the sponge cake came out better than before.  She fumbled less, except that she forgot to ask the guests for a second helping and also it never occurred to her to show the ‘sweetened sauf,’ at the end, but beyond that she was almost a perfect hostess.

As a soldiers life is always half packed in trunk, I knew it was about time they move on to a different place, a new house and a new life. The young officer got posting orders. He was moving to the borders. The destination of her stay for the next couple of years was unclear. They had to give away their dog as uncertainty mounted. It was difficult to take care of a baby and a dog if at all she had to fall back to her hometown. They missed him a lot. Even I felt dejected.

But one thing was clear. For next couple of years they will stay apart. In the remaining days they marveled me more. They thanked their first house and called me a part of their life.

Trunks got a new black coating, hiding the word CAPT. Instead with fresh white paint, the word MAJ showed prominence. She carefully put the belongings in designated numbers given to the trunks and meticulously mentioned every item in a list. (Here, I remembered how on the first day she came, rummaged her suitcase to take out her favorite pair of jeans!)

The truck got loaded -not only with trunks but also with memories. The officer with his wife and daughter for the last time came inside. They went to the rooms, touched me (walls) and bid adieu, with a promise to visit me sometime in future. I wanted to hold on to that moment and never let them go. But I am a fauji house and for me as they say change is the only constant thing!

Many years passed. I had so many families reside in me. But I always wondered about the young officer and his wife. Is she lady like now? How about her sponge cakes? Can she manage her life, postings, separation, home, career-all too well or whines helplessly?

Today I got my answers. It was dusk and a couple walked towards me. I am quite old now, with new construction towering over me, I could hardly see them. But the sound of the steps was familiar. Oh! how happy I was to see them again. The young officer was not so young, with gravitas in his voice he ushered his wife and the little girl to walk fast. They also had a son who clutched his mother’s hand firmly. The new born girl is a teenager now. Of course it is been thirteen long years! Children seemed to know about me, the place and Ditto! Curiosity gleamed in their eyes. They came inside and introduced themselves to the lady who opened the door. They were unexpected but welcomed guests. The mother of two shared about her stay here more than a decade ago. I listened to every word carefully. I was happy to know that she writes, takes care of the home, manages all her commitments, keeps up with erratic postings and even plays the role of both parents when her husband is in field area. I learnt that she took up teaching briefly and found it equally satisfying as journalism.

For an army wife, it dosenot take time see life in a different and new perspective. Just like tallying of the ribbons in their husbands’ crests, they become dynamic, versatile and remain unruffled even when facing formidable situations. Ask me, I know all about them.

The officer and his wife frequently looked at my walls, probably trying to find any memorabilia. She went to the terrace and touched the iron loop which was firmly drilled in the wall. It was where they attimes tied their dog when guests came. The loop was probably the only tangible thing, besides me, left of their time. Politely they took leave. The indomitable spirited girl I knew paced graciously towards the door. The confounded maverick was more resolute now. I admired her but somewhere I had started missing the wide-eyed artless new bride.

 Just then, she touched my walls once more and muffled something. I felt the warmth of her palms and heart. I could not hear what she said. But I knew she whispered that she will always remember me.

I saw a lady being born but the girl is still alive in her.

The Colonel wrapped her in his arms, looked deeply in her eyes and walked away with his family.