The Gypsy Trail: The Travails of an Army Wife

Here’s Lily’s humorous take on the life of an army wife. Witty and full of repartee, she talks of the many joys and pains of Cantonment life. Married to an army officer, she knows where the shoe bites. A Different Truths exclusive.

As soon as the train screams into the station, starts another oft repeated ordeal for the effervescent and unperturbed army wife.

Keats’ famous lines rush through her muddled mind, “Much have I travelled in the realms of gold. And much goodly states and kingdoms seen.”

This lady is definitely off beat, for she resurrects from her own ashes, like the proverbial Phoenix.

Each new posting is like a rebirth, exactly like her wardrobe! It’s shiny new in every new town she lands in! Well! Almost! For not a soul has seen her saris before!

She has just gone through an identical situation perhaps only two years ago and is again ready for the Unknown, after being ceremoniously uprooted.

The famous essayist Bacon seemed to have known the breed of army folks rather well, when he wrote, “Travel in the younger sort is a part of education, in the elder a part of experience.”

This lady left the previous station with a few sniffles and tears, having packed a truckload of assorted household commodities ranging from wicker baskets picked up from a wayside stall in the eastern most tip of India, to huge hunks of artistic driftwood gleefully hauled out of icy rivers in the Himalayas.

Potted plants are more precious to any army wife than all her other worldly possessions because they are her soul mates in lonely cantonments in remote corners of the country, when the husband is away.

She alights from the train, amidst a wild profusion of many black painted wooden boxes, two VIP suitcases, some priceless ferns and palms, carefully wrapped in polythene and lovingly watered throughout the journey. One or two of her well-groomed dogs are accompanying her; canines of suspiciously doubtful and mixed parentage sniffing around inquisitively (while a truckload of goods has already preceded her, waiting to be unpacked).

My lady’s only immediate worry is whether she is looking her best or not, for we in the army are not supposed to look shabby or shoddy even if we are about to collapse with exhaustion.

The turnout must be smart if not chic and one should sport a slightly affected Memsahib like twang while shouting orders in the vernacular. Besides, last year’s fashions have to be somehow recycled to appear the latest!

At times one is posted to such remote cantonments that there is no communication whatsoever with the rest of the world for days on end due to heavy downpours and squalls.

Very often going home on annual leave is an excruciatingly embarrassing situation as one is horribly outdated, whether in the usage of slang or in the cut of one’s trousers.

Therefore, the lady preens in front of her pocket mirror, retouches her lipstick and literally puts her best foot forward for whosoever has come to receive her at the station.

It’s usually a young officer accompanied by a junior commissioned officer and a handful of soldiers. Hot tea and refreshments are offered at the railway station. Next begins the marathon task of meeting a whole regiment of new names and faces, all to be befriended, for the unit is like an extended family where we all share our guffaws and sobs.

A list is promptly handed over on arrival informing the lady as to who would be hosting her for meals on which date! The ecstasies and the agonies vie for attention.

Once the tiresome wait for a suitable MES accommodation is over, begins the grand dad of all pains, that of scouting around for a suitable maid. Each Cantonment has its own unique ‘ayah’ culture! There are a few who are hand me downs from the British Raj and are as fastidious as their erstwhile memsahibs! They will check if you possess the latest blenders, juicers, mixers, grinders. Most are proficient in Indian, Continental and Chinese cuisines and often display a kind of inverted snobbery!

So after the lady is safely ensconced in her earthly abode and has found suitable staff, follows the horrifying drill of visiting each school in the vicinity to find the one, which is suitable for the baba loge and the baby loge (the little royalty)! It is not an exaggeration when I tell you that my daughter had changed 18 schools by the time she was sixteen!

Frequent postings and transfers have a traumatic effect on children as they are subjected to tremendous psychological pressure at being constantly thrust into new environments.

Perhaps R L Stevenson had hit the nail in the head when he wrote, “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive!”

An army wife is often portrayed as a sophisticated fashionista, wasting her days in bridge and mah-jong parties over delicate muffins and thin cucumber sandwiches in Dresden china!

Her evenings are spent in feline languor, sipping a Virgin Mojito, with a live band in attendance!

It is rather an accurate picture if you add the welfare meet she attended for the soldiers’ wives in the mid-morning and the Husbands Day rehearsal she laboured through to welcome the menfolk back from arduous war games in the desert!

She is multifarious! Oh yes! Whipping up a gourmet meal from free rations in a mosquito infested jungle in the remote east or throwing lavish theme-parties in the middle of nowhere!


All this while juggling the kids’ homework and rushing off to ladies meets!

You have to meet one to truly know how special she is!

The Army Wife! She waits stoically, worries with a smile and weeps? Oh never!

©Lily Swarn

Pix from Net.


Lily Swarn

Lily Swarn

Lily has published English poems in three anthologies. She was awarded Reuel international prize for poetry 2016. A postgraduate in English from Punjab University, she was awarded a gold medal for best all-round student and academics. She edited her college magazine and wrote middles for newspapers. Poetry blossomed after her young son's sudden demise. She writes in Hindi and English. Hailing from a defence family, she is settled in Chandigarh.
Lily Swarn