Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Something about us Army kids

I went to my old house in Babina this weekend. Now Babina is this poky little place near Jhansi, with very little to see, and very little reason for any rational person to visit. I lived there for a year before being packed off to boarding school, and I was excited to go back there, down memory lane etc.

Other reasons for me to visit:

1. My Captain-brother is posted in Jhansi.

2. Holi weekend. I had Monday off.

3. Sentiment. Like I said, I lived there for a year.

My father was posted in Babina in the nineties. As Army talk goes, he was commanding a brigade there. I was 12 years old, and I remember my childhood, Babina years included, with a clarity I feel blest to possess. I wanted to see our old house. Ideally, I would also want to cycle through streets next to the house, like I would with my friends back then at 5 o clock every evening.

Didn't cycle, but we did go back to "the old house". (We is my mother, my father, my brother and I). A bungalow with a kitchen garden that was an acre of farmland, the Babina house was the biggest place we lived in. The resident of the house, a colonel with a side-parting and henna-dyed hair, was kind enough to let us poke our noses in and around and squeal to each other, “Ohh! Remember this!”. The house seemed smaller. The furnishings, of course, were different. The contrast was clear. The memories of a bustling-with-energy house with a vis a vis the completely dead silence of now. Not a good reality.

Maybe this is a feeling only Army kids know (and, well, those others who are constantly uprooted). )We live in so many different houses for one or two or three of our growing up years, that they all hold a little part of our childhood in ways that make them all a little bit like home.

And right now, I was in my old house, once my home. I surveyed the lawn. I remembered a fatter version of me, just back from school, still in uniform with dusty blue school socks, sitting in the lawn after lunch, eating grapes. The lawn was smaller because of the new flower beds. The swing was gone.

I went over to the guest room, my little haven. I didn't have to close my eyes to remember the print and texture of the bed cover. That room was a little bit removed, like a garage, from the main house. I used to spend long silent afternoons reading my Enid Blytons and watching on TV episodes of "Home and Away".

Through the old kitchen, the pantry, the dining room, the drawing room, the parent's room, and after pausing everywhere to take photos that wouldn't make sense to anyone but me, I made my way to the old room my brother and I used to share. Both of us had on a silly grin, remembering, I suspect, similar little things –

Hey, remember this slope? Flooring’s the same… heh… the study table used to be here. This was my cupboard… no fool, this was MY cupboard… Oh, look, they shut the fireplace... Is this window new?

We invoked our two dead German Shepherds, made cracks of how they used to pass out in the veranda, or when it was too hot, sit on the cool floor in our room, fit under our study tables, stick out their foolishly long pink tongues and lick our toes. Remember the pups? They were born right here. I remember their smell. If I closed my eyes, I could cringe and smile simultaneously at a familiar whiff of, lets see: new-born litter, milk, carpet and poop. You get the picture. We stood at the spot in the study where they were born, looked, saw nothing, and moved to the next memory-trigger.

Flashbacks were happening to me at such a rapid speed that every new image had only about eight seconds to hang around my head before bossier thoughts pushed their way in. I remember August 97, the fancy dress party in our lawn. Aditya was a war wounded hero. He came in a white kurta pajama with red ink marks on his white bandage around in his head, with an affected limp, and gave a little speech. Something like how inspite of the physical agony -- limp plus bleeding head -- he had to come for this special birthday of his special friend. Obviously I was floored.

Standing in my room, I remember trying to sleep in that bed, unable to because I was terrified of the shadows that the light of the old Peepel tree outside was casting on my sheets. The light was a makeshift lampshade – a naked bulb under a cane basket. When there was a breeze, and in summer there was always a breeze, those backward-forward rocking shadows would not let me sleep. I would imagine snakes on the bed, crawling up my pajamas, hissing under my pillow – I really was a paranoid child! But Babina had a crazy population of snakes – vipers, bandit crates, the odd cobra, you name it. I remember their names because every other week, one hissler would crawl into one of the drains, or slither up under a study table or hit it’s head, or nose, or whatever against the five-inch-high wooden planks we’d erected at every door. It was always the snakes, not ghosts or anything as.. 'distant'.

I clicked photos of that tree, sort of said hi to it, and couldn't have explained to anyone in the family, had they asked, why I had slowed down or what's with the smirk. My brother was walking too fast ahead. My mother, walking slower, more deliberately, had her own plentiful associations. My father, the retired cavalry-man, was talking to henna-dyed colonel about whatever it is that two men with seemingly nothing in common talk about.

I don't know if we will go back there again. I don't see it happening. What would we come back here and do anyway? Feel bad that we don't live here anymore? Dwell in the past? Reminisce? Regret? No more big lawn, big dogs, big house? Feel the twinge and cry? How would that work? Delhi's not so bad. I love the house here. I loved even the ones we lived in before the Delhi house. Home was everywhere. Changing addresses made us resilient. I think I speak for a fair few Army brats when I say it gave us more -- friends, anecdotes, schools, suitcases, photographs, stories, hardiness. I loved the life I had in that house. I love my city life too. But it's nothing a city could have given me. And without intending to sound jingoistic, I feel the memories I have would have been infinitely paler had my father been anywhere else but in the Army.


grantmebookshelves said...

To somebody like me, who lived in one place (and one house) till I was 23, the Army Brat view is entirely alien--yet you make it so easy to understand. Am going to pass this on to my own favourite Army Brat.

Cordially like your blog, btw--have been subscribed to the feed for a couple of months.

Han said...

Hee hee. By "bandit crate" do you mean "banded krait", or some sort of thieving box?

I remember Home and Away!

Going to a school full of Army brats, we always had a view from the outside. You were definitely a breed unto yourselves! :D

Thanatos said...

Excellent! As a fellow army-brat I can relate to nearly everything you say. I haven't visited any of our old homes after dad's transfer, but the memories remain.

Fancy dress parties, where one had to be in character all evening, and yet say "good evening-please-thank you".

For me, it's not about the home(s) as much as it is about the greenery and the isolation. It was our world, it was so... detached. Greenery meant brushes with animals I've never seen again - vipers, scorpions, wolves...

Army life didn't give me too many friends, but did give me the ability to deal with change.

Janaki said...

Fabulous post.. Sometimes I wonder why and how do you settle for the city life? and you know what.. I remember visiting Babina myself! to see an uncle who used to be in army!

The Bald Guy said...


Lucky you.

Nimpipi said...

Grantmebookshelves... I spelt it out because the name is a lovely image! And since your blog is a virtual library, may I please share with you that

a. I understand completely your need for bookshelves. I have one, and it's nice and woody but I want a closed glass cabinet so that my precious book don't get dusty. I think I'm trying to show you an upside to books in a wardrobe. At least they're preserved, and when you open the cupboard, you must get such a lovely whiff of pages properly preserved! sigh..

b. Pamuk is beyond me. I couldn't read The New Life, couldn't get past the first few pages. But yesterday, brave soul me, I selected Other Colours. How bad can non fiction short writing on Life Art, Books and Cities get, I say?

Oh, but for subscribing and your comment: Thank you! How I love it when I get to know of a new person who subscribes! :D

The Army was a cakewalk. You had no choice but to adjust. No matter where, and that was was an expectation and a given.

Han: Good lord, yes, I do mean Bandit 'Krait'. Warped homophones will be the death of me!
(See, but now I won't edit. Let your correction remain valid:D)

Yaaaay! Someone remembers Home and Away! (Hum the tune! Hum the tune! Tra lalaa.. _let me be the one that you turn to.. rely on..._! )
Aussie drama no? There was a scene along with the title track about an orphan boy blowing at his candles with his foster parents clapping.

You definitely had major exposure to the army breed. And none the worse for it, dare I say! :P

Than: Ha ha! Yep, how they made us say good evening-please-thank you to every tom dick and harry! I guess we had to work harder at maintaining a friend circle, what with transfers and new places etc. But I maybe the ability to deal with change is only slightly less than a fair trade off.. know what I mean?

Janaki: You know what, we've had this conversation :). I remember you telling me you visited Babina.. I don't know how I settled for the city life.. was bound to happen I guess. Sooner or later, there is a last posting to a small-station. I'm glad that came while I was still in school, and I had more time to get used to a 'civillian' life. I can't imagine LIVING in a cantt anymore. And nostalgia is fabulous, but I wouldn't want to be in the army or even be an army wife. Nope, too spoiled.

Bald G: Hellooo! He he. I know. Lucky for the memories, but quite content not living that life.

Brown Girls said...

I visited Babina so many times! I had friends from Babina and our parents had all these pot luck parties there, and so many people in my school lived there. Ha, we may have been there at the same time! Weird, this never came up while in college. Actually, not weird :)

Brown Girls said...

OK, I was too excited. Here's some context.

I lived in Jhansi for five years, on and off, with years here and there in Ranikhet and Almora in between. Before I moved to Delhi at 14, Jhansi was always more 'home' than my ancestral UP because my collective five years there were the longest I had ever lived in any place.

Now, I feel a twinge when people count in decades the number of years they've lived in a city, especially Delhi -- always makes me feel left out. But then I agree with you, life would have been so different without the growing up in those humongous houses in the tiny towns. Different perspectives, different choices. Memories, infinitely paler, indeed.

What a post, it made my (highly stressful) day :)

Anil P said...

This is a post that'll tug at those of us who made friends with the possibilities that changes in landscapes promised us with each new transfer.

A change brings permanence to our potential like nothing else can.

The countryside, the characteristics of countrysides, and not just to do with physical space, but human landscapes, are beyond compare, evidenced in your narrative.

The countryside might afford one the company of old trees that one might actually talk to if one made a determined enough effort. The space to imagine, and the space to let imagination take hold of one. All very remarkable, the Banded Krait notwithstanding.

Times past seem ever more elusive with passing time, a poignancy resulting as much from realising the permanence of their passing as from wondering what might otherwise have been!

Wonderful post to say the least.

Nimpipi said...

Brown: Arre, that's an insight! I miss you, ya! :)Why we didn't swap small town stories in college? Hmmph! Like chamar aliens we've now been reduced to interacting on the bloody comment space.

Anil: 'A change brings permanence to our potential like nothing else can.' Thank you. You have complex thoughts, but I'm delighted that you shared them. (As opposed to my articulate boyfriend who said, 'first half of your post -- depressing)

The cheek, I tell you.

Nimpipi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Mystic said...

Hmm.. even I miss my old house! I lived in it right from prep to 12th! I still dream about it! I guess army kids do have it the hardest! Just when you fall in love with the place you pack up and shift! (p.s. m no army kid , but m a marian)

MRC said...

:D New here, came because of the title of your post. Those old houses with the lawns..aah how romantic they seem in memory, but then if you go back as an adult and actually live in them, the leaky false ceilings, the damp fungus covered walls and the sundry fauna living within and without don't seem all that attractive!That said,before I got married , I have been known to go for walks in the cantt out of sheer nostalgia, in a new city that I was living in ...

Serendipity said...


My pa was in the Navy though..