Daughter of Meenakshi and Ramesh Balan;
Meera is a structural conservationist by profession and is currently pursuing doctoral studies in mortar-masonry interaction. She shares a deep bond with the Indian Army due to three generations of association, that her family shares with this institution.”
I am the daughter of an Army Officer. I was born privileged, and I am aware of it. Yes, I grew up in safe cantonments, amidst greenery and civility. As a child, I had access to beautiful swimming pools and large lawns. I had access to tennis courts and skating rings. I could go to libraries and attend wonderful socials. In short, I had a childhood that people only dream of. Every two or three years, we would move to a new city, and I made new friends. I was encouraged to take part in sports and extra-curricular activities. I was always surrounded by children of my age, and most neighbours had very amicable pets. As a family, we had access to ‘canteens’ and military hospitals. For vacations, we would go trekking to remote corners of the country because of the privilege my father’s profession offered us. When children of my age were playing hide and seek, my sister and I were exploring activities like tank riding and rifle shooting, paragliding and horse riding. While they watched series on TV, we would be out on the ground watching the Army Day parade.
Most kids, whose parents have served in the Indian army, will paint you this beautiful picture. And it is as true, as it is incomplete.
Growing-up, life was also about wondering why my father couldn’t take time off from work to attend my annual day. I never understood why only my mother would attend my PTA meetings in school. I knew my father was fantastic at tennis, but I could never understand why he couldn’t spend more than one evening a month, to teach me how to be that good. I never understood why annual trips in June, to my grandparents’ hometown, would never involve my father for more than a week,
why did he have to return abruptly on ‘call of duty’? Why did he coach me for all my debates over the telephone? Why was he not there for so many of my birthday celebrations? Why was I not allowed to put on his uniform for fun? When I was in grade two, for weeks, we had drills in the middle of the night, in preparation to evade bombs attacks.
Why was only my mother present then, to hug me and say “It’s okay, we are going to be fine”? Where was my father when I was growing up? Why did he leave for work before I left for school and return after I went to bed? Why did he wake up every single day; snow or hail to go for his morning run? Why did some of my father’s friends have bullet injuries? When I was a kid, it took my mother five minutes, to distract me from those questions. But today, I know better. I have my answers.
then, to hug me and say “It’s okay, we are going to be fine”? Where was my father when I was growing up? Why did he leave for work before I left for school and return after I went to bed? Why did he wake up every single day; snow or hail to go for his morning run? Why did some of my father’s friends have bullet injuries? When I was a kid, it took my mother five minutes, to distract me from those questions. But today, I know better. I have my answers.
My father is an Army Officer. A passionate and intelligent man who has dedicated every day of the past 25 years of his life, to this nation. He has worked on holidays and through the nights. He has served with pride and conviction; two emotions I never fully comprehended till last year. Because last year, I had the opportunity to visit Ladakh. All those dormant tales of men with courage and zest suddenly came to life. As I am writing this narrative, far away from that paradise; there are men sitting with rifles at altitudes of more than 15000 feet, at temperatures of -35-degree Celsius, vigilantly monitoring the Indian borders. If there’s a lapse in their attention for even a second, they might lose their lives. Is that what motivates them to get frostbites, to celebrate Diwali and their children’s birthdays in an isolated, deserted mountain far away from civilisation? Or is it the discount in prices of canteen items? Oh no, it must be the ‘discounted’ medical facilities they would have access to if the enemy shot at them. I am so sorry; it must be glorious salaries. But hold on, the money does not seem to be too much. So why would any man with a sound mind, sacrifice everything; his family and comfort of living, and risk his life for an ungrateful nation which sits back and talks only of the “privileges” he gets? I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.
I don’t know-how in every war that independent India has fought; our men have effortlessly scaled up altitudes of 20,000 feet overnight, without a day of medical acclimatisation. I don’t know why they didn’t think twice about the families that they left behind. The father who’s growing old and can’t walk anymore, the daughter who needs to be educated, the infant who doesn’t even recognise him yet, the wife who might get widowed at 21.
What gave them the courage to spend days in trenches without food or water, ensuring that a fellow soldier doesn’t have to spill a drop of blood as long as he is breathing? How did they breathe at all for that long? At that altitude? And for those who didn’t, what fire must have burned in them, to die fighting a war, for a nation that didn’t give tuppence for what happened to them.
How is it that these men didn’t once think about the religion or caste of their brothers fighting with them in that trench, for a nation, that burns buses and loots shops in the name of caste reservation? How is it that a Hindu was willing to give up his life for a fellow Muslim so long as the ‘Tiranga’ was afloat on the highest peak of Kargil? Why did Christians fight on behalf of the Sikh LI regiment and Sikhs on behalf of the Gorkha regiment? Why did an officer take a bullet for his soldiers and die with a smile on his face? Why do we not even know the names of these martyrs whose last words were “Jai Hind”? What could possibly motivate any man to live a life of anonymity and sacrifice everything for the glory of a nation that fails to recognise his contribution? I don’t know.
All I know is that I am an immensely proud daughter. A proud daughter of a man who has given his everything, for a cause he’s believed in. The proud daughter of an exceptionally talented woman who sacrificed her career to raise a family almost single-handedly; and taught it to respect her husband’s contribution to the nation. I am proud of all those times when my mother had to fill in for my father because he was on duty. I am proud, because all those times, my parents were looking at the bigger picture and serving a larger family, expecting absolutely nothing in return.
I was not born privileged because of all those perks I had as a child. I was born privileged because I had parents who taught me that living only for yourself is a life not worth living. I am privileged because I learnt through their actions and the lives they have led. They taught me that as long as you live in accordance with your ideals and beliefs, a life of passion and courage, you can hold your head high. They taught me that you don’t serve, expecting returns. You serve because it’s your duty to give back to society, to think beyond yourself. And they did just that.
Yes, growing up as the daughter of an Army Officer was a privilege, and I’ve always valued it. But it was only last year that it hit me, that all the chivalry and courage I had seen in the people around me, the ridiculous amount of patriotism they had; the spirit of expectation-less commitment, the pride they took in adorning their uniforms and the fervour with which they saluted the ‘Tiranga’ shouting Jai Hind, was unique.
Does it infuriate me when people don’t value it? Yes. Do I expect them to understand the lives the soldiers and their families lead in return for a salary they could have got anywhere else; but choose to remain in the army, serve and sacrifice because of the pride they have for their nation? Yes. But if they fail to comprehend this, will these exemplary men and women stop serving us? No. They signed up for a lifetime of commitment to “Service Before Self”. It has taken me long enough, but I now understand that serving in the Indian army is not just a career; it’s a way of life.