As A Strict Naval Officer, Our Father Was Quite Difficult For Us To Live With!

Life with someone in the defence personnel is like a timetable. Things have to be done in a certain way, and they have to be done in their allotted time frames.

The sound of the National Anthem echoed loudly through our two-bedroom apartment as the five of us stood at attention, our hearts expanding in time with the music. We basked for a moment in a feeling that swept through millions of others, as our eyes beheld the tricolour fluttering in the sky through the tiny TV set in our home.

Republic Day in a military household

Republic Day has always held a special significance for our family. My father was a defence personnel, working as a sailor in the mighty fleet of the Indian Navy. After giving in 37 years of his life to our country, he retired in 2019 with all honours.

I do not know to this day what civilians or, more appropriately, non-defence families do on Republic Day or Independence Day? I remember my siblings and I used to get up early, dress up in all white school uniforms and rush to our school to take part in the flag hoisting ceremony.

Our father, likewise, used to dress up in his all-white Indian Navy uniform, decked up in all the different medals and commendations gleaming on his chest, rushing to report on duty at base command.

Maa, like many other defence housewives, would dress up in traditional saree and decorate our home with little tricolour flags of her own. As soon as the school ceremonies finished, we rushed home, clutching packets of Parle-G biscuits and other sweet treats provided by the school committee. Our father returned from the base, Maa presented us with tasty home cooked treats; and all of us clustered around our TV set, us children sitting on the floor, mom and dad sitting back on the couch; and watched the Republic Day Parade.

The parade was an astounding melee of colours, people, and festivities for us. We cheered for the soldiers marching in unison to the marching band and did our own trot around our parents—Left Right Left! Left Right Left!—until we fell into each other, giggling and screaming. We gazed in amazement at the multicultural, multi colourful jhankis (tableaux) pass by, representing the salient features of particular states or union territories.

This magnificent parade was our first experience of the diversity of India’s vibrant culture and her rich heritage. We would try to guess the names of the states by looking for specific features on the individual processions—that’s Punjab! No! Haryana! That one is definitely Maharashtra!

We used to squabble amongst ourselves and with our father when he tried to correct us. He’d point to an impeccably dressed regiment and say, “Hey, look! That’s the Navy, where I work.” Or, “these are Army personnel, they fight on land.”

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And Air Force! We would shout together, because there were so many aeroplanes (or military jets as we learned later), flying up high in the sky.

“If Army personnel fight on the border, whom do you fight, Papa?” We’d ask him.

“Oh, enemies can attack our country by sea as well. That’s what we do.

“But why do you fight?”

“There are people out there in the ocean who want to come and steal our treasure away,” he used to tell us.

“Like Pirates!”

“Yes, like Pirates, only not good ones. The navy patrols the oceans and fights the enemies that come by sea. It is a mighty important job,” he would say fiercely. “We protect our waters and protect our country!”

Our father was rarely home as just a father

I do not have many memories of my childhood with our father. The ones I have are of Maa with infrequent appearances of our father. There were months, sometimes years, that went by without him. Sometimes he would return after an extremely long sailing or ship commission tour, and would ask us how old we were, in which class we were. For most of our childhood, our father was like a distant relative to us—someone we met once or twice in a year—and then he vanished from our lives, except for the occasional phone call.

It must have been difficult for Maa—juggling three children, our studies, house chores, taking care of other administrative aspects of being an apparently single mother raising three children. I didn’t know; I was too young at the time to realise that just as I missed my father, she too must have missed her husband. Someone who could share her burden. At least I had her to talk to, and cry to. She had nobody.

Whenever our father got time off work, or was posted on base for a short time, we would bask in the glory of being disciplined by a male parent for a change. I have blurred recollections of how my brothers felt about his brief visits, but I remember feeling distinctly overjoyed at the prospect of having a dad again.

I used to sit in his lap and recount every single detail of every single day that I could fit into my tiny little head. I used to play, eat and sleep with him. I remember doing my homework with him, all my books spread out around us; with me, glancing up at him again and again, ensuring that he would not disappear again.

Not an easy man to live with for Maa or for us

Our father was not an easy man to live with. At times, he was downright unpleasant. If you have people in the defence services, you might already know—life with a defence personnel is like a timetable. Things have to be done in a certain way, and they have to be done in their allotted time frames.

It is but natural that the rigorous schedule of their work has a deep impact on their personal lives as well. When you spend a better part of your life like that, you cannot help but be affected by it. So, we had time tables—for daily routine, for studies, for everyday meals, for exercise, for playtime, tv time—literally for everything. Even though I cannot say what my siblings felt towards him at that age, I can say for a fact, that he was for all of us, a commander on duty, much more than he was our father, or even a husband to our mother. She has always called him ‘Sir!’.

It is hilarious, and at the same time it is not.

I don’t know what ‘Patriotism’ means to other people. I don’t know what values and achievements other people celebrate on Republic Day or Independence Day.

For me, for my family, Patriotism is a timetable. An impeccable representation of the time we lost as a family—the time lost between a wife and her husband, the time lost between children and their father—the vast chasms of disconnection amongst us, decorated only briefly with the colour of our father’s visits.

We grew up with Patriotism

Patriotism is 37 years of our father’s life, when his only family was his duty.

Patriotism is the note of immense pride I hear in his voice when he talks about his life in the Indian Navy.

Patriotism is a family of four, gathered around the TV set on Republic Day and Independence Day, watching the parade, and wondering where the fifth member is and whether all of it is worth it?

Why am I telling this story?

Well, because I believe survivors ought to tell the stories. This is the only way of reconciling our pasts with our present and moving forward as a whole person—this is the only way of being.

Another reason is that I want to request everyone out there who believes wearing white, pinning a flag, or putting up a DP on social media is patriotism, while not having a drop of nationalism within their hearts, to wake up.

We have lost millions of lives in India’s struggle for Independence; thousands of lives are still being lost every day, to enable us to be here today, in the safety of our family, and our friends, our homes.

Please stop denigrating ‘Nationalism’ as ‘Fascism’. Majority of the Indian population is nationalistic, and there is nothing wrong with that. There is nothing wrong with having a sense of pride for our country and our culture.

Yes, there are problems, huge gaping holes where there is an urgent need for development and reforms. Yes, we need to herald an era of change, and we must be the bearers of the revolution—but isn’t it possible to do that and retain all the good that there is? Remember that the modern way of thinking and cultural pride are not mutually exclusive—they go hand in hand.

Let us seek freedom from our own minds and prejudices before we ask others to conform to our definitions of what is right and what is wrong. This Republic Day, let us pledge to focus on individual growth, and strive to BE the changes we want to see in the world.

Jai Hind!

Published here first.

Image source: YouTube/ Republic Day parade 2023 

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About the Author

Monica Singh

Scientist and Storyteller. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool bibliophile. My love of reading has led to my passion for writing. I write so others can find comfort and acceptance in my words, just read more...

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