As I ramble through old photos, I make my 2nd phone call in 10 minutes to my now annoyed achacha asking about his life a few decades ago. My ever so curious amma tries wriggling in and slyly asks for the details.
It’s for an essay, amma. I have to write about our family’s tryst with nation-building and (with a dramatic pause)… destiny.
Displeased with my theatrics, she says that if I was in the Navy I would finish my work and then show off to the ‘superiors’ and not the other way around.
Will they appreciate my work at least then Amma?
Amma: (Laughs) Oh no, of course not. It’s the Government, they only listen and see but we shall still respect them.
There’s chances of Achacha filing a formal complaint to Acha for disturbing his afternoon siesta and my behaviour would be up for review anytime. Turns out, some things can never be retired. Acha decided to take a voluntary retirement from the Indian Navy after 15 years of service when his son was eligible enough to join LKG. He didn’t want to keep shifting schools periodically. The only reminder now our family has of acha’s naval life is the benefits we use once in a while. Subsidised items in the army-run canteen and concessions in air tickets and of course, the discipline inculcated.
Now, Acha is Head of Sales for a start-up company which deals with Blockchain technology, Artificial Intelligence and Warehouse management. If I had gone back in time to when he was a teenager (cycling lanes and pranking his neighbours) and told him that he would be working a desk job, the firebrand youth would have pinned me down with his kabaddi skills and call his buddies to probably beat me up or intimidate me to never set foot in his area.
The prospect of pursuing mathematics and his failure in previous attempts made him take up the humanities course. The only person who found the merit in him loitering the ground was his scouts master who asked him to consider joining the air force. However, the push to apply for positions in defence wings happened because of the demand of job security from his father.
The constant conflicts
between the neighbouring countries and the news bulletins from All India Radio
had convinced achama that Navy is relatively safer and has the same benefits. After
getting in all the three wings, his happy mother pestered him to join the Navy and
not consider any other options. Thus, Acha joined the establishment with a
monthly salary of Rs 300 along with few benefits.
The idea of nation-building and being patriotic was ingrained in my paternal family, perhaps three generations ago. Coming from one of the villages in Palakkad District in Kerala my great-grandfather enlisted himself in the army and got injured in the line of duty. The story of his bravery is one that always comes up in a discussion on any random topic. This would most likely be brought up by a relative who is tipsy and doesn’t have much to say about himself/herself. The only thing the valour led to was an allocation of land in an empty neighbourhood which was then assumed to be the boundaries of the city of Bangalore.
Swimming literally and figuratively through adulthood, Acha believes he had the time of his life in his initial years of being in the Navy, this despite the hardship and harsh treatment meted out by his seniors. Achama might have been wrong with the safety aspect as after two years of service he was sent to Sri Lanka as part of the Indian Peace Keeping Force. Fortunately, the government soon pulled the troops off and he was part of the team surveying and studying the Indian Ocean and posted in different naval bases across the country. One of the benefits on moving around according to Acha was him learning Telugu which he feels he is much more proficient than Malayalam. One of the best-kept secrets between us is the fact that he prefers Andhra meals over Sadya.
Achama had to prove that she is was an Indian mother, that she couldn’t stand her child enjoying bachelorhood. Hence an awkward photo of my father was circulated to Malayali families who were looking for eligible grooms. It ended up reaching the doors of Amma’s house. A home science student who was the fifth of six children; the families were impressed with each other. Most importantly, the stars favoured their union. They were married in the month of January in 1995, Amma was 20 and Acha was 27.
Living under a mother who never allowed much social interactions, the period after her marriage gave some freedom to amma. They had moved to Kochi in 1996 and two decisions were made then. That they will have as much as fun as they can and start a family only when both feel the time is right and money is saved.
stories that were said, it’s an understatement to say that they painted the
town red. Both went for late-night movie shows, had thattukada food at 1 in the
night and strolled Kochi or otherwise drove around on their Lambretta scooter. Each
weekend was received with an outing to the cinemas and experimenting with new
fast food outlets opening then. I think this is why amma doesn’t frown when I
rarely have fast food outside, maybe her conscience is not allowing or she is
scared that I will call her hypocrisy out.
By the year 1998, my parents moved to the accommodations at Navy Nagar, Colaba, Mumbai. They had to share their house with an Odia family as there was no space available to allocate individual homes. Considering the presence of multiple cultures and interaction with people of different states. It was amma who benefited the most as in the span of living there for five years, she learned three new languages and an arsenal of food recipes. I have heard tales on how she conveniently shifts to shouting at my father in few selected Marathi words while smiling at his face. My attempts at confirming this has only been met with stares or some mumbling, in Marathi most likely.
With increasing discontent and a stagnant career, my father took voluntary retirement. Few job interviews later, he became a Manager for a garment company and we moved to Chennai, his earlier job again was the clincher.
Acha and Amma saw a period of growth. A new 2 BHK to call their own, water supply 24*7, privacy, a Hero Honda bike, a WagonR car and all my parents did after that was not being happy but rather curse the uncertainty.
Only a few of my father’s colleagues went on to get promoted after some years while others quit to work in the private sector. Every few years, I have to go and renew my dependent card, a document issued by the Ministry of Defence that ensures I get some of Acha’s benefits. The last time I had to do it, one of the personnel working in the Administration department asked how’s life outside. In a stern voice, Acha asked him to continue and only leave if there’s a solid backup present. Both of them were disappointed with the reply.
Only once my father made a remark on how he was doing the same job of cleaning the floor of the ship on his first day and even on the day of his retirement. “A lot could have been done, but some become lazy, others ensure they survive. Only few would want changes but they would either kick themselves out or get kicked out”.
Over the recent times, the idea of being patriotic and nationalistic seemed to have had a merger in their definitions. Something me and Acha have differed but have not spared each other … yet. It’s awkward every time we go for a movie, as I resist the unwritten rule to stand up. He stands for the national anthem for the respect and sings with full devotion while I stand so that my father would also not be called an Anti-National and beaten up. Fear ultimately trumped love and respect.
On the contrary, he is also the one asking me to move out of the country in hushed tones before the ability to do that is taken away. He hopes I will do what he couldn’t. And there’s amma who hopes that I will join the civil services. Acha I think, occasionally hopes for this in secret, too. But is scared that he is allowing the thought to seep in. Perhaps, the conflict between being patriotic and being realistic has seeped in the thinking of my father who, for the longest time, put country before family. He knew that the country would take care of them. He is not sure will they now.
While political parties have used the armed forces to be a crown jewel, no measures has been done to improve their standard of living. Achacha has stopped hoping, the 80 year old man who was the quintessential government servant now has ditched his safari suit for a lungi and a loose t-shirt. Relying only on newspapers now, he tries hard to voice out his opinions among his two sons. With his frail voice and short sentences he expresses as diplomatic as possible on how the country is going to the drains. He feels that this government is getting a lot of attention and it would only work when it is devoid of it.
Unhappy with the constant appropriation of the armed forces by the political establishment of the country, he dismisses any and every opinion expressed by the prominent leaders with an emotionless delivery of the word, lie. He believes that the respect for a member of the armed forces or an ex-serviceman is only possible today if they are dead.
The growth and nation-building process of the country is synonymous to the growth in the well-being of my family. As we moved from a protectionist socialist economy to a capitalistic society, my family adapted to it after much struggle and disillusionment. I have always wondered about the security the defence sector offered to my family. Are we actually patriotic or we just did it for the sheer need to survive? I think both, at some point — being committed to the nation became synonymous to survive, to assert an identity.
I have heard how much pride the family has in working for the country. However, none of my family members, on closer talks, were as satisfied with their work — the pension is never sufficient and lots of welfare measures are never actually fulfilled. The work conditions were dismal for most of them and the salary is never enough for the world we live in today.
There will be a day when the greater common good isn’t going to matter. Until then, the algebra of nationalism and being a patriot will play over. Who will help in the services for the countless ex-servicemen and women is a question that I have come across, while the answers seem to be the elusive acche din. In one of the tipsy conversations between my relatives, which I had the privilege to eavesdrop, one said that our family could be from Kancheepuram and identified ourselves as Mudaliars, a military class then. I hope to ascertain someday whether is this a finding from a genealogy study or Johnny Walker talking.
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