Dating someone from the armed forces is in stark contrast to having grown up in the family of one.
I remember the day. I was sitting in the comfort of my house breathing in the relatively clean air of Delhi courtesy the lush green environs of the Army cantonment. I was chatting with my boyfriend, who like my father is an army man, about his life in Men’s Eden. Posted in the most volatile region of the North East, with barely any connectivity to the outside world, I wondered what his life was like.
Soldiers letting their hair down
Camouflaging my concern by indulging in cheap jibes at his uncreative, almost robotic professional life, I asked, “Besides labouring to become another 80s Schwarzenegger-Commando-Clone, what are you up to?" Countering my pugnacious humour he retorted “It’s not what you have but its definitely more profound than what you experience in your society.”
Intense response. Holding onto this rare moment of getting a peep into his heart, I strive to keep the conversation going. To my amazement, talking about men at the frontlines and his life in foxholes and bunkers didn’t seem like a grueling topic for him. It’s not often that my reticent soldier has emotionally stirring conversations with me.
Wielding more than guns
Coming from an Army background, I’ve always been surrounded by men one sees on the ‘Join The Army’ billboards. I remember watching a promotional advertisement video two years ago. Feeling a sense of pride, I hit the share button captioning it ‘for friends and families of the valorous ones’. Surrounded with images of strong men and women in olive greens, it had reinforced my belief that they are devoid of familial feelings. As if they are hardwired to fight for the country and protect the nation, and that same hardness had permeated their hearts. I mean, wasn’t `Call of Duty’ their life? `Service before Self’ their motto?
Father and I with Ruby (warfare dog) in Kashmir (1998)
When I first started dating this well-knit 5 feet 9 inches solider, I expected him to challenge and constantly provoke the 'sherni' in me, as did my dad. Assuming certain traits of a fauji - intellectually and emotionally level headed, I subconsciously presented the 'I can handle this' face to every emotional set-back in our relationship. Whether it was long distance or unavailability. Although there were times when I’d be frustrated with the daily struggles of life and want to vent to my boyfriend, I would consciously tone my angst down. As the saying goes, I try to 'stamp it down and soldier it up', lest I vex him. Because as kids we were taught to hide our minor troubles from father for fear of unnecessarily perturbing him. We were forbidden from whining over the phone. He already had a lot to deal with you see. Despite the fact that father was great at managing our 'crisis’; be it last minute school craft or helping me fix my broken glasses on a school night. Our so-called sorrows were not to reach father's ears when posted in field areas. He was mostly away from home and so I had come to believe he belonged more to the infantry than us. Telephone networks (for most part no connectivity) didn’t help. Mum always got more phone time than us, indicating the severity of the field area. Thus I learnt to tackle my problems with minimum help and grew up to be more and more emotionally unflinching.
Nursing his lonely heart
For instance, I jetted off to Palestine right at the start of our relationship for over a year, to nurture the adventurer in me. This added extra distance to an already long distance relationship. I happily opted to endure the distance without the thought of ‘feasibility’ entering my mind. I was convinced the soldier would do just fine in coping with absence. Given the nature of his profession, away from friends and family for long durations, I assumed it would be a cakewalk. But I was pleasantly surprised to see how disturbed he was about my departure. He booked flight tickets for us for a trip to Zanzibar way in advance (even before I left for Palestine), so that we have something to look forward to during the months of separation. And contrary to my belief, I was not disallowed from throwing a hissy fit over the phone. I knew then that he’d be a great pillar of strength as I hop from one conflict zone to another. Moreover, unlike most civilian boyfriends who would get hysterical over my plans of shooting documentaries in these dangerous areas, he helped me navigate places better through his experience and general know-how of such regions.
After a hard day's work
The synergy between the artist and activist in me works wonderfully with the soldier in him. We love being in the field working with people and for the people, exploring places and cultures outside the norm. Perhaps it is this similarity of ideals and the precarious nature of our work that helps us understand and co-operate better with each other in the relationship.
It was actually during my sojourn in the Middle East that I was introduced to this endearing boy all hushed up in his military uniform. Not expressive with words, he would record me songs on his phone somewhere from the wilderness with critters and chirping of birds in the background, embellishing his melodies and emailing them to me with uber cute notes. Sigh! Who would have expected my 'army boyfriend' to turn into a toe-curling corn-ball?
My army boy and me
On the other hand, being an avid photographer I customarily bombard him with pictures. I even managed to bully him into sending me some of his pictures from his postings. In all honesty, it was mostly an endeavor to be a part of his life. He once sent me a snapshot of him sound asleep on a couch in his combats. Right at that moment I was overcome with debilitating love for the innocent, vulnerable boy in the picture. He was so much more than just a stereotypical grimy masculine thing holding a gun at the front lines. He was just like any other boy I had grown up and bunked classes with in school. The only difference was, instead of ripped jeans and red Converse, he wore a military uniform.
Peace in times of war
The series of other photographs that followed made my life look dull as hell when I am in the city (which is most of the time) and not travelling for shoots. Those surreal mountains covered in the colour of greens I had never seen, his exotic pets mollycoddled by the entire retinue, the kitchen garden in the middle of nowhere and delightful videos of his fishing sprees – every picture reflected an incandescent love for life. These images teleported me to the summer of 1998 in the Kashmir valley. Where my days comprised of petting dogs of warfare, exploring within the safe perimeters of the army camp, spending hours in orchards picking apples with the Jawans, whom we very affectionately called ‘bhaiyas’— our first ever best friends. I was crestfallen as it dawned on me how oblivious and ignorant I had become to the human in the uniform.
Hold them close to your heart, that's how everyone should be loved
Later that day as he took me through the bonds he has formed, I tried to grapple with the connections we – latte sipping, man-bun crowd – will never find in our society. Wars / combat zones become a form of connection for them. Men on hoardings who seem so confident, blatantly endorsed as cyborgs, are human after all. No matter how zealous he is about his profession, there are always some places that will suck the life out of him. He doesn’t get to choose the place and duration of stay like me. It doesn’t matter how easy his workdays are or how many friends they’ve got around them. All I can say is they are also overwhelmed with emotional stress. There are times when he breaks down, has little motivation and has to be reminded of our love.
I have a lot of family and friends in the armed forces, serving our nation; it is their ability to retain their loving and thoughtful 'boy-ness' in war-torn places, in worn-out combats that makes my chest swell with pride. How could I not love a man of war? And how could I resist a man in uniform?
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Pratishtha Chhetri
Photographs by Pratishtha Chhetri