Tuesday, December 31, 2013

THE TIME OF MY LIFE XIV...Health care and other perks in the Navy

Though I spoke about the Naval hospital in the context of my father-in-law’s treatment, I must devote some more footage to it. Anil our second son, was born in ASVINI in Mumbai. It is a fabulous hospital with rooms overlooking the sea. I was the only one in the maternity ward and the day I was to be discharged, the matron requested me to stay on till the Admiral’s inspection so he could get my views about the food and nursing care! During the 71 Indo-Pak war, there were many wounded officers and men hospitalized. Some of us from NOWA, would go and help them write letters to their families, read out books or simply chat with them. One evening, Lata Mangeshkar came to the hospital to sing for them. As volunteers, we were also invited. What an experience that was, sitting under the starlit night, listening to, India’s nightingale, regaling her unique audience with songs of their choice. Earlier, she had given an exclusive performance in the ward to a soldier who could not be moved from the bed.

I was once admitted to ASWINI for observation. Srivatsa and I were coming back on the scooter, from an evening college where we were doing a course in marketing management. As election duty jeep hit us and raced away even as we were thrown off. Another car passing by, stopped and took us to the hospital where doctor found I had a hairline fracture in the skull. I got the best attention and so did
Anil when he got his tonsils and appendix out.

When we were in Vishakapatnam (Vizag) in the East Coast, I was on the NOWA committee. It was headed by Sarala Kuldarni, wife of the commander-in-chief and Phyllis Pereria, wife of the admiral who was to be the Chief of Naval Staff a decade later. That is when I learnt the nuts and bolts of running a welfare organization for women. We hosted the first Husband Nite and selected a Navy King. We made the contesting officer’s do a catwalk, and crowned the winner after which the Admiral’s wife was teased into giving him a peck on the cheek as the Admiral does when the Navy Queen is crowned!!my close friends were Ranjana Auditto and Usha Sukul. Together, we organized a sports week for all the kids in Naval Park. We bought over 200 prizes and wrapped them! We got together all the children and directed plays, choreographed dances and held various competitions for them. One of the kids who participated in the group dance, went to become a famous actress, Amla. I directed the Play Bishop’s Candlesticks in which Rajeev Menon was the convict.

 Today, he directs feature films. He made waves as cinematographer of the film MUMBAI.  We launched a Naval Theatre Group and put up a full length comedy. See how they run. It was a ticketed performance which drew full houses. The admiral sent each of us, a very flattering note.
Usha often hosted musical soirees at her place after dinner. One of the popular singers here would be Kalyani Menon, mother of Rajiv Menon.  Kalyani and I spent a lot of time together. We played rummy for money! We were so crazy as to play a twosome. Her husband KK as we called him, had a droll sense of humour which both Srivatsa and I found very entertaining. Arjun, Anil and Rajeev and his brother Karun were great friends. They went to the central school together. When our husbands were out sailing, Kalyani and I would go to all the saree sales with no  money to buy. Gradually, we lost interest in cards and began our music sessions. She would sing my favourite songs and I would correct her pronunciation. A couple of years later, when KK died of cardiac arrest, it was a great shock to all his friends. For days, I used to sit alone in the room, brooding over Kalyani’s loss, feeling the pain. KK was a great fan of Kalyani’s music and had asked for a posting to Chennai so she could get into playback singing. It is a pity he did not live to see her and his sons’ success.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

THE TIME OF MY LIFE XIII...More about life in the Navy

The pay may not be the best in the Navy, but the lifestyle makes up for it. The townships are clean and environment friendly. They are self contained with all the required services like schools, hospitals, shopping arcades, place of worship, health clubs and sports stadia, Computer, tailoring and other skill-oriented classes, movie house and cafeterias. Houses are furnished and the canteen stores have all household items at affordable prices. It is a perfect setting for children to grow up in and I attribute my sons’ life perspectives to this exposure. I am glad I married a naval officer!

Social life in the Navy is as busy as you want it to be. There are many who prefer to keep to themselves but we chose to be part of the mainstream. Srivatsa looked super in his party uniform of black trousers, white shirt with epaulets and black cummerbund. Slim and straight, he could carry it off so well. Most of the parties we went to were onboard ships and the bachelors would generally crowd around married ladies, hoping to get a dinner invite. Home food was like manna from heaven for them.They would insist on my having a drink and I would not have anything stronger than water. I had asked Srivatsa how to handle those guys and he had told me no one could make me do what I did not like, not even his senior officers. After a while, word spread about my being a teetotaler and I was allowed to drink water in peace. To date, that is the only drink I have expect for my daily glass of milk!

Our social life was rewarding. You can have it the way you want. There are groups which are into  rummy sessions; some into bar bonhomie, some get together to gripe and crib and some keep to themselves. We attended lecture series by reputed speakers, went to parties thrown by visiting ships, danced at the Navy Ball every year, cheered our sportsmen, participated in functions-it was a full life.

I remember the year Gandhi was released. On 26 Jan, Navy booked the REGAL cinema hall for its personnel and their wives. What a tribute to the Father of the Nation, with officers and sailors in formal uniform and wives in their silks and pearls, giving him a standing ovation. It was awesome!

Srivatsa missed his promotion. It was very demoralizing. We debated about his quitting, as many who miss the boat do. We weighed the pros and cons and he decided to continue in the Navy and worked with the same commitment and sincerity till he superannuated seven years later. There were other compensations, like an extended tenure in Mumbai for six years and an independent assignment at ISRO, Bangalore, prior to retirement. If you are sincere to the system, it makes up in its own way. Everybody cannot make it to the top. What matters is how you do your bit wherever you are. Srivatsa took his professional defeat with great dignity which won him the respect of his colleagues.

Saturday, December 28, 2013


I joined the Navy to see the world. What a world! Of camaraderie, wholesome fun, team work and above all, concern for the other. It was the best training ground in life management. The environment is cosmopolitan and the exposure to cultures is enlightening. You are never alone. There is genuine bonding in the Navy.The only water I had seen in Mysore was the river Cauvery which looks so magnificent when the Krishnarajasagar lake is full. When the gates of the dam are open, it looks like baby Niagara. I love water. That is because I am a Piscean- fish in water sign. As a new bride, when Srivatsa took me to Mumbai, I was thrilled to see the sea. I can sit for hours watching the gentle waves lapping the shores or the turbulent waters hitting the sands. There is beauty in both. What luck I married a man whose work was to ‘ride the waves’.

A few months after we were married, Srivatsa joined Vikrant which had to berth in  Chennai for three months, during monsoon in Mumbai. I went too and stayed with aunt Nagarathna whose husband had retired from the coffee station and had an assignment in Chennai. I was expecting our first baby. As a junior Lt in the electrical engineering department, Srivatsa had to do night duties once in two days and I would bribe his bachelor colleague to do his shift, by promising him a dinner at home. Bachelors helped out their married colleagues who in turn called them over for a ‘bite’.

Sharing is the essence of life in the Navy. Since accommodation is always short of demand, it is common for officers and sailors to have their colleagues sharing their house. This calls for adjustment and tolerance which comes easily to naval personnel as they share cramped living space on board ships. But the wives too have to learn to live in harmony. When Vikrant sailed for three weeks to Middle East, Srivatsa’s colleague did not have a house so his wife stayed with me. We had a lot fun together, learning each other’s cuisine and comparing our respective husband’s quirks! We have also had friends staying in our apartment while we went on leave and some stored their baggage in our study till they moved to their house.

The Naval Officer’s Wives Association (NOWA) is a welfare body and I was an active member. During the 1971 War, the naval ship INS Kukhri, went down and 150 sailors and about twelve (I’m not too sure of the numbers) officers drowned. The President of NOWA, the senior most admiral’s wife, called a meeting and requested for volunteers to ‘adopt’ a sailor’s family each and find out what help they needed. I volunteered and remember how I ended up crying more than the unfortunate widow. We were to give a report about the financial and family condition of the widow. It was my first experience in welfare activities as practiced by an organisation. It was a fantastic gesture to involve the wives and sensitise them to the occupational hazards of their husbands and empower them  to cope with it. The defence Ministry subsequently came up with very innovative welfare measures for the bereaved women. In fact, every year, the Naval headquarters keeps adding to the facilities to its personnel, to make their life better and boost their morale. In the armed forces, it is how you take care of people during peace time that shapes performance during war time. Those who oppose increase in defense budgets do not realize what it takes for a person to gives his life for his country.

Friday, December 27, 2013

THE TIME OF MY LIFE XI...Integrating with in-laws

Integration is the key word in a marriage. In our Indian society a marriage is a fusion of two families, not just two individuals. My mother stressed this again and again and she herself had practiced it. So, becoming a part of Srivatsa’s family was not difficult. His cousins and their spouses are great fun and we all enjoy being together.
My father-in-law (appa) is a remarkable person. He was in a wheel chair for over ten years. An acute diabetic, he was a little careless with his sweet tooth and his legs had to be amputated for gangrene in the Command Hospital. He was slipping into a comatose state when they wheeled him into the OT. The next morning, it fell to our lot to break the news to him. He took it very calmly. Soon, the other leg was to go. He was such an active man and any one with less tenacity, would have not come out with his spirit Intact. With his wounds still raw, we had to take a decision of moving him to the Naval Hospital in Mumbai as both Srivatsa and I had exhausted all our share of leave

The airport was crowded the day I was flying appa to Mumbai. Amitaab
Bachan had arrived and there were teeming crowds. Even appa wanted to see him, lying in the ambulance with the intravenous drips going in! For nearly three months, Appa was in Asvini, the Naval hospital and thanks to the excellent nursing and medical care, he got out of the dangerously ill list and came home.

Appa is very energetic and extremely helpful. His indomitable spirit and positive attitude have kept him going, despite being tied to a wheel chair. Even to this day, he runs the house: wheeling himself around. He knows what is happening where and continues to be the lord of his manor, where we live together. As of now, there are four generations of men in the house. My father-i-law, his son Srivatsa, his son Arjun and his son Karan. We performed Kanakabhishekam of my father-in-law. It is a sacred ritual in which, after Vedic chanting, holy water is sprinkled on the eldest member of the family, through a sieve filled with gold flowers. This is to bless the subsequent generations with health and prosperity. The priest, who performed this, told us that in the fifty odd years of his priesthood, this was the first time he had performed this ritual in a fourth generation household. Normally, only the husband or wife is alive at that stage. Little Karan, my grandson, is lucky to have been carried by his great grand parents from both his grand mom and grandpa line.
(Both my parents-in-law are no more as I post this)

Right from Vasanta’s wedding which took place a year after mine, I have wholeheartedly participated in all family functions. I took my role as the eldest daughter-in-law, seriously and got into the act. I guess this cemented my relationship with Srivatsa. We work as a team. Our role was clearly defined with mutual understanding. I would be the home maker, which included taking care of the entire running of the household and family PR, which is keeping track of various social commitments and organizing gifts and parties. Srivatsa would be the bread winner and chairman of our home organization. While the division of duties was a little imbalanced in that I had the major share, it was a fine arrangement for me. Not a career woman, I would walk in and out of jobs, staying only if the content and environment suited me. Since Srivatsa assumed the role of the provider, I did not have to work but did only what gave me pleasure and satisfaction.

Marriage has also been learning process for me. The first chapters in the book of do’s and don’ts reads (a) No One upmanship. As husband and wife, Srivatsa and I have a common goal…family peace and happiness. There is nothing like one having the upper hand over the other. When this happens, there is conflict of interest and the result is disastrous. Whoever is mentally or physically stronger calls the shots and the other person is unhappy. Over the last thirty years of our married life, we have both given and taken, sometimes- less and sometimes more. But we retain our individuality and continue to do what each believes in as long as it does not contradict the goal.
We tell each other everything. I have seen some of my friends’ husbands who behave different when their wives are not around. Srivatsa openly compliments a lady on her looks or cooking or housekeeping in my presence and I can compliment a man on his looks too. Sometimes, it is so uncanny when we open our mouth at the same time and say the samething! We know exactly what the other is thinking. No guess work there.

As I wind up this chapter, I remember the advice given by my grandmother. She asked me what I cook when Srivatsa is away at sea. I told her I generally lived on bread or fruits. “Don’t do that”, she said, “A woman is the pillar of the house and has to be strong. You take care of yourself first and only then can you take care of the rest. You eat the cream and give the rest, milk. Don’t wait up for your husband or children, to eat, if they are late at work or school. You eat and when they come, serve them. A hungry mother or wife is an angry one. We women have to take care of our mind and body. Then no one can exploit us. Remember, you come first and every one else, next. Only, don’t stop at your self. That is being selfish!” What she said made so much sense that I have practiced it.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

THE TIME OF MY LIFE X...Masti in marriage!!

I felt things would work out if I could infuse a bit of humour into our life. So, I did silly things like leave a poem in his lunch box about his being my “Lord and Master” ,hide behind the kitchen door while he read my note on the dining table saying ‘I’m out’ and pranks like that. Slowly, he thawed. He could not keep a stiff upper lip in the face of such frivolity. I also took the trouble to keep the house clean and tidy and learnt cooking through a correspondence course from my mother-in-law. Since Srivatsa was serving on Vikrant the aircraft carrier, he used to sail often. During that time, I went to tailoring and embroidery classes conducted by a Naval wife. Every time he came back from sailing, our drawing room would have cushion covers and table cloths embroidered by me. I would surprise him with dishes I learnt from my friends. In short, he could never predict my next move! We still had rough patches but they were getting smoother. He, on his part, let down his ‘airs’ and started enjoying the quirks of life.
I was very fond of dancing. Srivatsa was not. Every time we went to a Ball (the Armed Forces loves these) he would be sitting like a wall flower and I would dance with his friends. He had no problems with my dancing with others as long as he did not have to go on the floor. This went on for a couple years. Once, we went as usual, with our circle of friends, to the Navy Ball. Usha Iyer (now Uthup) was singing. Everybody was dancing to her lively numbers and suddenly, Srivatsa dragged me to the floor and started dancing! Thank you Usha. Since then, we are ardent dancers and we would be the first and last on the dance floor!!. To think that was Srivatsa’s way of saying he too could dig his heels in and make his contribution. You have to just switch your attitude!

Srivatsa had his own way of making a point and I was sharp enough to get it. Once, he admired a fellow officer’s wife for being soft spoken. I knew I was loud. In the next party we went to, I sat beside the lady he referred to and observed her. Within a week’s time I, had mastered the art of being soft spoken (I can still be loud!). I was never jealous of any woman he admired. I was curious and took tips. It was a self development exercise which benefited me as a person. I did not do what I did to win his approval. It was more as a challenge to see if I could do what other women could.

Our vibes got better as we understood each other. His parents meant a lot to Srivatsa and I appreciated that. Though we are poles apart in our attitude to life, I was willing to go the extra mile with my mother-in-law. Conditioned by her own environment, she is an introvert and difficult to reach out to. But I did not stop trying! Our relationship has been like a ferries wheel but it moves and that’s all the matters. I don’t believe in alienating my husband from his family. If a man can dump his mother or sisters, he can dump his wife whom he has known for a shorter time!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

THE TIME OF MY LIFE IX...Making my marriage work

We started our married life in Mumbai in my aunt Rama’s house. We had to wait for our turn for a house to be allotted by the Navy. Since aunt Rama was away at Secunderabad for her delivery, she invited us to stay at her place. Uncle Bhoj was in the Western Railways and lived in a large three bedroom apartment in Cuffe parade, overlooking the sea (now a reclaimed area to house the fishermen’s colony). He used to tour often so we had the house pretty much to ourselves. Srivatsa was in the Naval Dockyard and his timings were cool. We could spend a lot of time together, going to movies, visiting his colleagues and attending parties.
One day, when Srivatsa got back from work, I suggested I see a doctor to confirm my hope. Since the Naval hospital had a male gynecologist, I persuaded him to take me to a private clinic. Dr. Mrs Fernandes called my husband in after examining me and in a dead pan voice, told him, “Your wife is pregnant”. And I wanted to do it the filmy style, all coy and cuddly and sucking a tamarind!

This is not a chronological document of events in my life so I am going on a dizzy roller coaster to dwell on those aspects which would be of interest to you as a reader. I would like to share with you some of my experiments with truth about marriage. It is amazing how you have guidelines written down for practically all professions but none for what is the most important Institution that we enter with our own expectations. Conflict follows and unless one or the other gives in, it could spell doom. Very rarely is a marriage successful, with both the husband and wife retaining their identity. I wish all our colleges would introduce a subject on life skills, to educate students on their role in making marriage work on an equal status keel. I’d gladly write out the module for it!

The first few years of married life, like everyone else’s, was a bit bumpy. Srivatsa the fiancĂ© was different from Srivatsa the husband. And I’m sure he found me the same. My family environment was noisy and informal. Even on grandpa’s death anniversary, dad and his brothers would have a beer before lunch and grandmother would be sitting around, talking to them. She had changed a lot over the years though she continued to be intimidating. There would be a lot of tomfoolery and exchange of bawdy jokes. Srivatsa’s family is conservative and quiet. I had no problem going with that. What hassled me was my dear hubby’s obsession with cleanliness! To some extent, he reminded me of the Naval Captain in Sound Of Music! He also had this habit of going into a pregnant silence if he was unhappy about anything I said or did. It would last for days and weeks without my knowing what I had done.

Once, when we went to Bangalore, I told my mother I would like to divorce him. She asked a question very quietly, “where will you go?” That told me I had to make my marriage work for she was not going to support me if it didn’t. I went to grandmother and sought her counsel. She said thatha was a terror when she married him but she took over somewhere along the line. I just had to have patience and be smart, she assured me. It sounded good so I dug in my heels and got into the act.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


 We were married on 16 March 1965. It was just after the Chinese aggression. We used to be glued to the radio, listening to news as uncle Satyan was in the Infantry and in the combat area. Truce was called and uncle was safe. He sent us pictures of him standing beside arms and ammunition confiscated from the enemy camp. We were thrilled he could attend the wedding. He was given a Hero’s welcome when he landed the day before. I was anxious about his opinion of Srivatsa and got a ‘thumbs up’ sign when they met. It was important for me to have my favourite uncle endorse my choice.

There were slight rumbles of discontent in Srivatsa’s family for several reasons. I was not wearing the tradition al diamond ear ring every bride in our community, is supposed to get from her father. Dad had made it clear that he could not afford it and had no intention of tying himself in knots to fulfill some age old custom. On the day preceding the wedding, the invitees were served dinner sans cereals. The Prime Minister, Sri Lal Bahadur Shastri, had requested the citizens of India to abstain from eating cereals on Monday as a way of conserving the country’s food grains, after the war. Though a diminutive man, he commanded great respect and most people responded to his call. Dad was was one of them. I admire dad for his principles. Most fathers give in to demands of the groom’s family and get into a financial mess. Dad stuck to his guns and so it was that all three sisters  were not given diamond ear rings. His terms were ‘as-is-where is-take her or …! Good for him.  Not that my parents-in-law asked for the moon. With their conservative background, it was just that they had some expectations.  On their part, they inundated me with gifts which included jewellery, sarees,, toiletries, handbags, shoes, make-up, et al, beautifully packed by Vasanta and Vaidehi, Srivatsa’s sisters.

On 17 March, my parents took me Srivatsa’s house and traditionally handed me over to his custody! At that time, they were living in a rented house. I walked into a house full of relatives, some of whom were staying there, having come for the wedding from other cities. There were only two bedrooms, one occupied by my parents-in-law and the other,  a kind of free- for-all. It had an attached bathroom where everybody had their toothpaste and toothbrush. That was to be our bed room! Early morning at five, we had to open the door for all the early birds who wanted to brush their teeth.
Srivatsa and I planned to leave the next day for our honey moon so we did not mind the intrusion. We had our whole life ahead for each other. But my mother-in-law had other plans. She said we could have our honeymoons at home, whatever that meant. So, we stayed. My mother had tutored me about obedience to my in-laws and I discovered that my husband was obedient to his mother. The first most romantic week of our married life was spent in a house with twenty relatives and a room with a public toilet!
It was Srivatsa’s elder sister Vaidehi who took matters under control and despite her mother’s objections, packed us off on our honeymoon to Ooty!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

THE TIME OF MY LIFE XVII..meeting my mate-to-be

Between my teaching and fudging questionnaires, life was hectic. One evening, as I was about to go for a walk with my parents, I got a phone call from Vasanta, the lady who gave me my test at the Bank. She wanted me to come home and meet her brother who was in the Indian Navy and had come on leave. Covering the mouthpiece, I asked by dad what I should tell her. He said we could go over the next day and I relayed this to Vasanta. I must digress a little here about dad. After the coffee planter’s proposal, there were many more, suggested by grandmother or my aunts or my neighbors or whoever. In those days, a girl was eligible for marriage from the day she ‘matured’. I was a very popular candidate. Not to displease his sisters or mother, dad would agree to take me to the boy’s house for an ‘exhibition’. This meant wearing Ma’s saree and jewels and looking like a walking Christmas tree. The ritual was the same. I was decked up and escorted to the ‘kill’. I had to touch the feet of the boy’s mother and she would bless me. She would then ask questions like if I knew how to cook and keep house and I’d lie with a ‘yes’. The boy would come out for a look at the ‘commodity’, meaning me and after some more pleasantries, we’d leave. The mother would say that she’d call after knowing her son’s verdict. In every such ‘show’, dad would exchange glances with me the minute the boy walked in and we knew he was not Mr Right. But we went through the charade only to please grandmother. Ma went along as she had no say in the matter anyway.

                                               The pic that was sent to possible mate-to-be!!
When Vasanta called about her brother, Ma was all excited. She knew the family and remembered having met the brother. Ma knows a lot of people and can reel off every one’s family tree in a second. She kept on praising Vasanta’s parents, especially her father who was a close friend of her father who in turn was a favourite of his sister, who…. By the time we left for Vasanta’s house next day, I had their family history coming out of my ears and nose! Dad agreed to my wearing a simple cotton saree and no jewellery. We were greeted first by Anthem, the Boxer and then by his Master, Mr.Iyengar. Ma and he were happy to meet each other after so many years and started off on a ‘remember’ trip of people and events. Vasanta, who was playing cupid, had some goodies for us to eat and chatted with me while her brother talked to dad and his mother quietly looked on. No one thought of introducing me to the brother. I stole a look at him and well. I liked his voice. It was cultured and soft. He later told me that the first thing he liked about me was my long hair and voice!

We wrote every day after he went back. We still have those letters which we hope to read, sitting by the fireside, in our old stage. We were to be married in March and it was still October. It is amazing how two strangers, who had met only a few weeks ago, could mean so much to each other. Our Western friends cannot figure out this chemistry. They perceive arranged marriages as barbaric. I believe it has a sense of adventure…discovering another human being and relating to that person. Since even so called love marriages go on the rocks, it does not have anything to do with how long you know each other but what you know.