THEY ARE A FORCE TO RECKON WITH

Ambika Shaligram & Anamika Nandedkar
Thursday, 7 March 2019

The Indian armed forces have been in the news since the last few days. We catch up with the wives of some of the men serving in the defence, to learn about the challenges that come their way and what sets them apart in a crowd

Behind every successful man, there is a woman. One can say the same for our defence professionals who put themselves in the service of the nation, because they know that their home and hearth is well taken care of. The fauji wives are the backbone of the defence services, carrying out their duties without any visible recognition coming their way.

On this International Women’s Day, we speak with the wives of the men in the tri-services. These women are not only raising families, but also excelling in their chosen career paths.

Up for a challenge
I remember the first time I got paid. I shaped a woman’s eyebrows and she paid me Rs 5. I was so happy. I cannot tell you that feeling,” Monika Devgan breaks down while telling the story of how she started her own beauty business. She gave that money to her husband, a jawan in the Indian Army, and promised him that this is just the beginning. More than a decade later, she has reached a stage in her self-made career that allows her to take care of her family’s expenses — not out of compulsion, but out of choice.
 
Being married to an Army personnel is tough and Devgan learnt it the hard way. She is one of the very few spouses of jawans (Other Ranks, as they are called in Army), who is financially independent and aspires to grow her business. Frequent postings, children’s education and managing the household alone when the husband is away on deputation — the roller-coaster life that comes their way dissuades many women from shaping their careers. Not Devgan though. 

She runs a beauty parlour and has conducted classes to teach the trade to other women. The nature of her work allows her to pack up whenever she is required to shift to another city or town. She has a ready customer base in whichever cantonment she has moved to. There’s no dearth of women who need their eyebrows shaped and hands waxed. 

The 35-year-old from Shehrata (Amritsar) tasted struggle when she married her Army man, who is now a Havaldar. She obtained a certificate from the Punjab government, giving her the licence to train other women in the parlour job. This helped her in setting up a steady stream of income when her husband was posted in Pune.

Talking about the time when she lived in Pune with her husband, she said, “Officers’ wives came to know about my work and became my regular customers. But I had to walk almost two km to their residence within the cantonment.” That’s when she took the plunge. “I bought a Scooty with my hard-earned money,” she beams, her enthusiasm matching that of Jab We Met’s Geet.

“The defence force has given me so much confidence that I feel I can take on any challenge. Living in cantonments and following a certain way of life reflects in our body language. It has taught us professionalism, which has helped me deal with clients. Life in army has made us women folk strong as well,” she mulls for a while and says. 

The mother of two dreams of opening her own parlour one day, but that is possible only when her husband retires from active army duty. “I will do good, I am confident about that,” Devgan concludes. 

Spurring along the professional path
An ambitious and career-minded woman Sneha Nandedkar had to take a 10-year break from her professional duties after her marriage to a naval officer. “Before marriage, I was working as a training and marketing officer in a training institute. I was quite career-minded. But then the fascination for ‘men in uniform’ took precedence over my professional ambition. After marriage, I quit my job and raised a family. After my second child turned two, I decided to resume working,” says Sneha Nandedkar, who is currently working as a special educator and behaviour counsellor in a school.

The 10 year break was not the only challenge that life threw her way. “I stayed away from my husband for almost eight years. My children were appearing for their X and XIIth board exams, so their classes, schooling became a priority for us. Also, my husband was then posted in Port Blair and Puducherry. In those days, it was difficult to stay in touch and we could not visit him frequently because of the distances either,” she adds.
 
Living on her own, pursuing a career brought a lesson or two in self-reliance. “I had to take charge, I had to shoulder the responsibilities of my kids. I guess this is what gives us, the fauji wives, an edge over other working women or homemakers. Our circumstances, and the challenges that hop along, are different from what the civilians go through,” says Nandedkar, adding, “We shine, wherever we go. We exude magnetism, exert different kind of pull that clearly indicates we are different from the rest of the crowd.”

The Navy wife also has a lot to thank for Navy Wives Welfare Association (NWWA). “The NWWA is very supportive and takes care of the ladies, who have stayed back when their husbands are posted to a non-family station,” says Nandedkar, who will be completing 30 years of married life this year. 

Looking back, she is happy with the life that she has had. “I can vouch that every moment in the last three decades was challenging, pleasurable and satisfying. I am also happy that I could work with kids putting to use my qualification in social work. I have worked in NGOs and also in a school set-up. This job has given me tremendous amount of satisfaction because I am helping someone who needs help, to help themselves,” says Nandedkar on a concluding note.  

In a cocoon
As a civilian married to an Indian Air Force officer, Amrutha Poduval found herself learning the ropes of how to conduct herself in defence circles and also working hard at her job as a business analyst in an IT company. “I started my career with IBM in 2010. I started as a fresher and worked in Chennai, Bengaluru offices before I got married. After marriage, I made up my mind to quit my job because my husband was posted in a place, where I didn’t have the option of going to the office. But my managers were kind enough to give me a work-from-home option and I worked like that for five and half years,” says Poduval.
 
This set up came to Poduval’s rescue when she was the “youngest lady in the squadron.”

“The Commanding Officer’s wife was very encouraging to those who wanted to continue working. My husband’s professional duties and the social commitments, the formal parties that we have to attend, do not interfere with my work. Also, I attend Air Force Wives Welfare Association (AFWWA) meetings, which are bi-monthly. Whenever I have to attend meetings or help with the activities during the day, I compensate for the break by stretching my work hours to the evening,” she adds.  

Comparing her lives as civilian in the past and as a defence spouse now, Poduval explains, “My husband also comes from a civilian background. So in the initial days, both of us tried to explore and understand the Air Force traditions. I have come to understand and appreciate the protocol and the stress on public and professional conduct that the defence forces believe in. We have far more social commitments than we would have in civil life. AFWWA also does a lot of work, helping the Other Rank staff’s wives to set up their home business and so on. We are all a big family and have close bonds with each other. The IAF has allowed both my husband and I to flourish in our careers.”  

Gathering experiences
Thanks to the Army, her CV does not have a single entry in which her work experience is more than 1.5 years. But Dr Rashmi Shekhar doesn’t feel this is a handicap, instead it’s a life lesson very few get to experience. “I have worked in hospitals in Wellington (in Tamil Nadu), Delhi, Alwar and now Pune because these were the places where my husband was posted,” says Dr Rashmi, wife of a Lieutenant Colonel in the Indian Army.
 
She admits that her career graph would have been different had she not married an Army man, but chooses to focus on the positives of the nomadic life. She came in contact with different cultures of the States in which she set up house every two years and she attributes her medical experience to this exposure. “For instance in Rajasthan, I learnt that asking patients to include egg in their diet is a complete no-no since they are all predominantly vegetarian,” she explains. In Pune, the sheer number of Swine Flu patients baffled her. 

After the birth of her daughter, Rashmi took a break. Army wives’ duties while living in a cantonment kept her busy, but the support of other military spouses helped her in continuing with the job. It is common practice for army wives to get a B.Ed degree so that working as a teacher keeps them financially independent.
 
“I feel bad for women who, for whatever reason, had to take up teaching when they couldn’t find jobs in their sector. Thankfully, my profession is such that I was able to continue without any problem,” says the Medical Officer from Dehradun. She has now taken a three month sabbatical to join her husband for a brief period in a remote village, but is looking forward to her second innings in Pune. 

A Navy kid and now a Navy wife
Being a Navy kid is different from being a Navy wife,” says Priyamvada Singh. Singh who got married two years ago, has seen her mother’s life closely and how she worked with Navy Wives Welfare Association (NWWA). But, so far, she hasn’t been able to associate fully with the institution.

“At the time of my marriage, I was working abroad. I continued working there for a year or so, before landing a job profile that matched with my abilities in India. I am well aware of what life is like in a naval base, having seen my parents actively contributing in different roles,” says Singh, who works as a technology consultant. 

As a Navy kid, she remembers her life was normal, like any other school kid — go to school, study, complete homework, write exams. “We never felt the heat and tension then. Our parents ensured that. But, now as a wife, things are different. And, I hope to become a fully participating member of NWWA. All the activities and sessions planned by NWWA are during the working hours. Hopefully, once I settle down, things should be easy,” she adds. 

Bring in the cheer
In her very first year of marriage to an Indian Air Force pilot, Srishti Rijhwani Ghemud, had her baptism by fire. “I am an engineer with Indian Oil Company and my profile is that of managing/supplying fuel to aircraft. My husband and I were posted in the same station. We met, got to know each other and then married. Soon after, he was away for one and half years. That was very tough phase, but I learnt to cope, as all fauji wives do,” says Ghemud.

She sought for a transfer to where her husband was posted, which took some time. “When I relocated, my office was 40 km away from the unit. So I had to commute 80 km daily. Plus, I also work in shifts, the company operates 24 x7. So on a few occasions, my husband and I didn’t meet for several days, living as we were under the same roof,” she adds.
 
Six years of marriage have toughened Ghemud, knowing fully well that for her husband and his peers, ‘Nation comes first’. “I have become self-reliant. I learnt to drive. I have learnt to deal with small and big emergencies with a calm head. It was our daughter’s first birthday, and my husband was on leave. But on that particular day, something cropped up and he had to report to duty. That’s how it has always been. In my chat with the fauji wives, and through AFWWA, I have realised that it is important for the wives to be cheerful. If she feels low — and she does feel low at times — and shows it, then how can her husband stay motivated?,” she puts forth her point. 

While continuing with her job and her work with the AFFWA, Ghemud also earned her MBA degree by doing a long distance programme. “We have to keep our spirits up, create happy memories for the children, when their father is away. The ladies rely on each other and create a nourishing eco-system. Those of us who have a career, have our  hands full. But it’s always better to be engaged, busy and independent,” she insists. 

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