|Illustration by Fahad Naveed
Many years ago, I was at a military function where I heard an army wife, and the wife of a senior officer at that, say to some less fortunate wives, “When we were commanding the Gujranwala Corps…”
That was when I lost her, being too open-mouthed (unable to hear anything when my mouth gapes) and trying to hide my stare, her words were simply lost in space.
Obviously, she was referring to herself and her husband as the joint commanders of the unfortunate corps. This was a true, one hundred per cent, marriage where the spouses had accomplished what the Bollywood number says: tum mujh mein sama jao, mein tum mein sama jaoon. I wondered what would have happened in the event of actual war.
Would Begum Corps Commander Lieutenant General Tutpoonjiya Chaudri – as these ladies are referred to in the press – have moved with her husband to the forward defended localities? And would she have taken over command of the cleaning and cooking staff of the corps headquarters? I have no answer to that but I suspect I know why we’ve not been winning any wars!
Shortly after this, I read in the papers a notice of transition that went, “Begum Abdul Tafanguddin Khadpainch Khan, widow of late General Abdul Tafanguddin Khadpainch Khan, ex-ambassador to Tombuctu and Flambooistan, ex-Chairman Public Disservice Commission, ex-Chairman WTF, passed away after a prolonged illness.” Now, before you run off with obscene ideas, the now defunct WTF is only Water and Transportation Facility, an organisation meant to provide salary to retired generals who had lived way past all the damage done by Messers Alzheimer and Parkinson.
Well, it took me several minutes to work out who had passed away. If it were a man or woman was not immediately comprehensible. Equally unknowable was what this passer-away did in his/her life. Were all the fancy ex-appointments held by the passer-away to make a hash of them or was it her late husband? It took two readings to finally establish that the widow of a dead man (we know of several widows of living men, too) who had actually been a simple housewife all her life had died. She had lived anonymously and died without anyone, even her own children, knowing her name.
Confession: I spent seven years in uniform and I was the classic rotter who would have been drummed out if I hadn’t had the good sense of leaving just as the drummers were being prepared. So, my course-mates being the gentlemen that they are, always invite me to the annual reunion. In the beginning, my wife, Begum Captain Rotter, also accompanied me. But not anymore. And here’s why.
Army functions are not mixed. Lady wives (yes, they have lady wives in the army) on one side and husbands at a safe distance on the far side of the lawns. Things being the way they are, it seems there are no gentlemen husbands even though the army insists on referring to officers as gentlemen. I say this because, for one thing, we don’t call them gentlemen husbands and, for another, we site them at a safe distance from lady wives.
At the function, there were few women, sorry, ladies, who knew my wife. Naturally, others wanted to know her and asked who she was. She gave them her first name. The women, oops, ladies, were aghast! Just a single first name? Very pointedly, my wife was asked
‘Mrs Who?’ The pecking order had to be established before banter began. She being what she is, Frau said, “Bugger my husband! What do you have to do with him?” Eventually, the wife of a friend who knew both of us came to Frau’s rescue and made matters worse by explaining who and what the two of us were. Why, this plebeian did not even have a rank to go with her husband’s name. They looked at my wife as if she had the biblical disease of poor old Job.
From Frau, I learned that even though some army wives were mutually quite friendly, they referred to each other as ‘Bhabhi Khalid’ or ‘Bhabhi Rafiq’ after the husbands’ names, sometimes even using Mrs. No one called the other by her first name for fear the other would turn into a pillar of salt.
But now, sadly my lady wife does not accompany me to these functions and I no longer get to hear funny things from the other side of the lawn.