8 Indians Tell Us What It’s Like Growing Up With A Parent In The Military

8 Indians Tell Us What It’s Like Growing Up With A Parent In The Military
Gazal Bawa

[On the morning of February 27, 2019, Pakistani jets violated the Line of Control, which happened a day after the Indian Air Force launched a pre-emptive airstrike in Pakistan. The airstrike by the Indian Air Force was carried out by 12 Mirage 2000s and hit terrorist camps inside Pakistan, subsequently violating the Line of Control. The airstrike claimed the lives of approximately 300 terrorists and is believed to be a response to the February 14 suicide bombing in Pulwama, which claimed the lives of 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) officers. Terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed has claimed responsibility for the attack. Click here for live updates of the situation.

In trying times like these, it is the Indian Armed Forces who work tirelessly to ensure the safety of the country’s citizens. We commend their bravery and our heart goes out to these brave individuals and their families, who put the country and it’s safety before their personal needs. ]

For most, the life of a BRAT (Born Raised and Transferred) AKA the unassuming Army/Navy/Air Force kid in your class, led to more than just a few curiosities about their way of life. Was there any room for pleasure amidst all that rigid structure? Perhaps they were real brats, enjoying all those perks an army ranking afforded them? Did their parent(s) sleep with guns under their pillows? As we tend to with any community that seems to live behind closed doors, existing within realms and structures that appear so different from our own, it was these kinds of prevalent misconceptions about the BRAT life that prompted our inquiry into the real experiences of this community. In an era where the defence community is often a media target (many times, the scapegoat for political agendas and the object of contempt; on rarer occasions, abusers of their own power) it’s easy to forget the individuals that make up the whole. Men and women who must stay away from their own children for months on end, in an effort to protect the country.

While we compiled this article through the lens of army kids’ observations, things became a lot clearer. The defence environment really does tend to be independent of our own in many ways, yet the nomadic nature of the fauji life gives BRATs a profound social understanding of people and cultures as opposed to regular civilian perspectives. Underneath the pleasure of army privileges is often a constant battle with the fear of not being able to see their loved one who is out sacrificing their safety for the nation, not to mention the challenge of being separated from their army parents for months at a time. The BRAT community is more diverse than most, but their hearts are in sync with their commonly-shared experiences of love and loss in the cantonments – their minds distinctly resilient, having been raised in an environment of selfless duty.

We interviewed eight army kids about their growing pains, loves, and dreams – here’s an unfiltered look into the community via their eyes.

I. Apoorva Bakshi

“It’s the strongest sense of community. Our neighbours would fill in for my dad - taking us to school, or my mom to the hospital.”

Apoorva’s father served in the infantry division of the army – one that requires the most amount of moves. The sisters grew used to the constant travelling, new places and schools every year. “We learnt how to adjust quickly. We realised that there was a specific amount of time at each place and if we wanted to make the most of it, we had to make friends fast,” she says. Over time, Apoorva and her sister became more empathetic, grew accustomed to the cultural diversity, and learnt to be more articulate due to the abundance of languages and accents they were exposed to.

On Pros & Cons Of The Lifestyle

“Considering my dad was constantly posted in field areas (borders), my mother brought us up like a single mom would. As an artist, she heavily influenced our engagement across range of activities along with our father — from sharp-shooting to classical dancing! While amenities and the constant travels were great, I was exposed to an incident that changed the way I think and made me grow up literally overnight. I was 13 and a close friend of mine lost his father in Kargil. As I watched the devastation unfold, I realised that one day, the same could happen to me. I’d wake up every morning, accepting that today could be the day I heard that my father was no more and I would have to take care of my Mom and my sister. That I should be prepared for the worst. It really changed the way I used to think. It made me grateful, made me fearless and ready to brace the worst in any situation. ”

Inherent Personality Traits The Lifestyle Brought With It

“Our adaptability. Right from KG, we’ve been travelling, so we got used to it. We have a way with people, and no real inhibitions.”

Life Outside The Cantonment

“It wasn’t that different as our parents ensured we were always enrolled in public schools growing up. Yes! We never attended an army school. So even after college, when we had to do our internships, our parents encouraged us to head out. I have to say, they ensured our transition went smoothly.”

On What ‘Home’ Means

“I’d have to say I’m the most at home when I’m on the road. My work entails travel across continents every three weeks. I love it when I am up in the air. ”

Your Hero Growing Up

“My Mom and Dad. I didn’t realise until I was 20, when I started reaping the benefits of their effort through the years.”

Your Take On The Government’s Contribution Towards The Forces

“Monetarily, I feel the pay scales don’t add up in comparison to the private sector. Your living conditions are taken care of but the same can be made better, specially for the soldiers/jawaans. Welfare associations need to work on that. After the community retires, it has a low support system, which is very disheartening. A veteran rehabilitation program needs to be a reality! They have exceptional skills that could be put to use, if only they knew how to apply it.”

Major General AK Bakshi with wife Sharddha Bakshi and his daughters in Sikkim, 1994

II. Dhruv Pande

“It’s like my favourite line from ‘Finding Forrester’ — family is not those who are of your blood, it is those who can be of your blood.”

Growing up as an Air Force kid was absolutely carefree and full of independence according to Dhruv. “We moved every year or so, to places untouched by civilisation, yet I was aware of cable TV two years before it came to India,” he says. “I spent 11 years of my life growing up in Bhuj, Srinagar, Hindan, Wellington, Allahabad, Tezpur and Delhi. I’ve changed schools eight times, even before I was in Class 7!”

“Life was pretty much lived within the camps, save for the occasional trip to ‘Town’. Kids of all age groups hung out together, whether it was cycling, skating, or playing on a haystack together. Sundays were spent in the local club where Top Gun was watched religiously without fail! Christmas was a huge affair too, with Santa Claus coming either on a fire-truck or a helicopter pelting us with toffee (which stung more than bullets from a machine gun)! Everyone was family, no one locked their doors. You’d even get a glass of nimbu paani while you sat in someone else’s house. Your parents would even be informed on the intercom of your whereabouts.”

On Pros & Cons Of The Lifestyle

“Discipline over a period of time was something you enjoyed. Making your own bed, clearing the table and having a tidy room over a period of time really helps make one a better person. Also, being respectful to everyone, younger or older. If you weren’t chivalrous, you’d get your ass kicked! We also had access to places not open to civilians. Whether it was watching night-flying while sitting on the edge of the runway, or going for a Sunday picnic to a prohibited area. Discipline was a double-edged sword though. It meant no counter arguing with your parents, specific bedtimes with absolutely no leeway, having to sit down quietly for two hours when people came over, and refusing second helpings even if you’re starving.”

On Instant Community

“I think another thing that stuck with me was how quickly multiple families would come together under one roof every time there was a crash and we lost a pilot. Women would take control and there would be copious amounts of food being cooked to take care of the bereaved family. That really stays with you — you realise the importance of friends. Today, as a pilot in civil aviation, if I meet another pilot who also happens to be a defence kid, there’s just this immediate connection – no words spoken.”

Life Outside The Cantonment

“It was pretty damn scary! Every day was a struggle – suddenly you were being judged for everything, right from your clothes, shoes and family car to your pincode. Since there’s no money in the defence services, you’re automatically at the bottom when you enter civilian life. Everyone is isolated initially, it’s a lot like Tarzan coming into society.”

On What ‘Home’ Means

“It’s not a place, it’s a feeling or frame of mind for me. Home is where your family is – any village, any city, any country, any continent, any planet. The woman I’m in a relationship with is now home to me too.”

Your Hero Growing Up

“My father. Come on, the man is flying machines, defying the laws of gravity and breaking the sound barrier! And for him, that’s just another day of work.”

Flying Officer Lakshmi Nandan Pande with wife Soma Krishna Pande at Bakshi Ka Talab; Lucknow, 1975.

III. Arshia Ahuja

“While you do learn how to be independent, the army life also shelters you.”

“Changing eight schools as you constantly move from place to place is only the tip of the iceberg,” Arshia admits, not wasting minute. “As you move, you’ve got to live in the mess or in temporary housing while you wait for permanent accommodation.”

Sometimes, they were given a single officer’s quarter’s which meant the family had to adjust to only two rooms, for a few months. However, she continues to say that although change was tough, she made a lot of friends — but consecutively lost touch with many, a common consequence of moving constantly. “There were plenty of perks though! I’m sure the cost of my braces were much lower than the standard price, we had free horse-riding lessons, olympic-sized pools, and of course, access to the army clubs every day for dance nights, movie nights, etc.”

On Pros & Cons Of The Lifestyle

“As I mentioned, the army club. When I was younger though, I hated leaving a place because I’d lose my friends. I hated the fact that all my friends lived in the civil areas since my parents always sent me to convents. I had to travel a lot to get to school which meant I could never hang out with my friends after school or go play with them in the evening. Birthdays were probably my only excuse, so I had two sets of friends — one in school and one in the cantonment.”

Inherent Personality Traits The Lifestyle Brought With It

“Punctuality – that’s something you really do get from the army. I also do all my housework on my own as we always did everything as kids, like polishing shoes, washing our own dishes, etc. I feel like army kids are just a little bit more independent in that sense.”

Life Outside The Cantonment

“While you do learn how to be independent, the army life also shelters you. I was really naive and innocent when I started working, the world’s fast pace actually shocked me. Then again, adaptability is yet another trait we possess so it didn’t take me too long to adjust.”

On What ‘Home’ Means

“Right now, it is where my parents stay in Pune, with my keyboard and old pictures.”

Common Misconceptions

“Our fathers don’t keep guns at home!”

Colonel AK Ahuja with wife Anu Ahuja and family, Pune, 2005

IV. Gazal Bawa

“The entire colony was like one big joint family. Going back home just meant you were eating a quick lunch or taking a nap break.”

Born in Bagdogra, West Bengal, Gazal moved from Durgapur, Panagarh, Suratgarh, Jodhpur, Jalandhar, Noida, Pathankot, back to Noida, Calcutta and back to Noida again. Her elder brother changed 13 schools in 11 years! “Your neighbours, fellow regiment officers and their families soon become your families. We would all come back from school, play around the bus stop for an hour before getting home. We’d meet again in the evenings to play basketball, football in the mucky mud, climb trees, go swimming, cycle down to the library, etc. We were all so diverse and different, yet connected by that one bond of being an army kid,” comments Gazal.

On Pros & Cons Of The Lifestyle

“The army teaches you that everyone is first and foremost, an Indian. Religion comes in later, or not at all. Discipline was instilled in us when we were young, something that I’m very proud of. Access to swimming pools, libraries and other sports facilities without applying for membership was another perk that came with the whole package! The only thing I disliked was because of your constant shifts, you were forced to take up Sanskrit as the other subject in school — no other language! I hated Sanskrit.”

Inherent Personality Traits The Lifestyle Brought With It

“Definitely my patience, compassion and ability to make friends very, very easily. We’ve always been taught to not judge people and embrace them the way they are. Also, we adapt very easily, so you learn to take on challenges head on and work around it and make the best of your situation.”

Life Outside The Cantonment

“Since my father took a premature retirement, it was a bit of a struggle getting used to not living in a cocoon where you had friends next door and a swimming pool nearby. Safe to say, I hated it. There was a huge difference in the behaviour and thinking process that confused me too. Eventually, it got better with time.”

A Childhood Memory You Cherish

“My best friend in Calcutta and I were really close. After I left, we’d write letters to each other regularly and keep in touch. But I think the craziest was one time when she was passing through Delhi during her summer vacations and her train was stopping at the station for a little while. I dragged my parents all the way to the railway station from Noida to meet her for those 10 minutes. It felt good!”

Your Take On Media Outbursts

“The opinions are always based on only one side of the story which is unfair. However, this also does not mean that they are never at fault. Just that it’s very easy for the media and subsequently, the masses, to play the blame-game which leads to tarnishing the image of one the most hardworking, sacred professions in the country. Naturally, I get defensive. It’s not all black and white.”

Colonel Navdeep Singh Bawa (Retd.) with daughter Gazal Bawa, Delhi.

V. Meghna Kallat

“Our childhoods are for the most of us - beautiful and bittersweet.”

The excitement of moving to new places, the nostalgia attached to the places left behind and the friends forgotten, the weekly wait for club nights and movie nights, the evenings of cycling up and down aimlessly till the sun set, the treks and picnics, the summer camps — Meghna till date agrees with what her father said, “If I could, I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.”

On Pros & Cons Of The Lifestyle

“The interpersonal etiquette we learnt as children. I don’t think our household had an ‘army lifestyle’ upbringing. My earliest memory is waking up to my parents waltzing, to Abba and The Bee Gees while handing me a glass of Bournvita. We did wake up at 6 AM but that was to do things we were passionate about like horse-riding, swimming, obstacle courses, etc. We had the good fortune of having all these facilities within a kilometre-radius of where we lived. Additionally, my dad would push us to try out adventure sports that he would do, like rafting, paragliding, parasailing, rock climbing and more.”

Inherent Personality Traits The Lifestyle Brought With It

“Like any army kid would say, adaptability. It still does help a lot considering the lifestyles we lead and in networking. Also, while a lot of people depend on their friends to get them through tough times, since we moved around a lot that’s something I lost out on. In such situations, I learnt the art of daydreaming and zoning out. It isn’t the best of qualities to have but it did get me through.”

Life Outside The Cantonment

“As luck would have it, my father never got posted to metropolitan cities. So when I moved to Delhi for my undergrad, it was quite the cultural change for me. I remember the first day of college was an eye-opener, of sorts, especially since it was Lady Shri Ram. I had never been surrounded by so many women in my life and also these women were strong, extremely independent and opinionated. The Delhi lifestyle of affluence and ‘keeping up with the appearances’ bit really amazed me because all these things weren’t priorities in the life I had led till then. Thankfully for me, I found really humble and amazing people in my class. Also in my first year, I was staying in the army hostel so I had familiar faces around, people whom I had known off and on through my childhood. All in all, the transition was not bad at all and I got to experience things in a very new environment, but with a safety net.”

On What ‘Home’ Means

“I’ve had multiple homes over the years, each close to my heart and each equally irreplaceable; each that saw me through many ups and down, each with that one safe corner that was my go-to place in time of need. One home is where I learnt to ride a bicycle, another is where I learnt to garden, and yet another is where I had my first room, all for myself. Each of these homes carry with them memories and milestones that are a part of who I am today. For me, home is not some abstract notion. It’s a well-defined, tangible space that we have painstakingly created, nurtured and come back to, each of the homes that I’ve lived in since I was born. As of now, I have two such homes, one in Kolkata where my parents live and one in Mumbai where my sister and I live.”

Your Hero Growing Up

“My maternal grandfather, Dadu and paternal grandmother, Achamma have always been my heroes. Dadu was an army man himself. He will always be the one man in my life who makes my chest swell with pride. He was the team doctor of the first successful Indian expedition to the Everest. Imagine growing up knowing that your grandfather scaled the highest mountain in the world. That’s pretty legendary. Achamma, for her heart of gold. The warmth with which she dealt with people is something I aspire towards. In my opinion, you could be the smartest or richest person in the room, but if you aren’t kind to one another, it’s pretty much a lost battle. My Achamma was the epitome of that belief.”

Common Misconceptions

“First, the whole strict demeanour that people perceive army parents to have is kind of outdated now. Back in the day probably my mother led a strict army life under her parents but that isn’t the case with our generation. The second, whether my parents still have access to the canteen, army institutes, messes and other facilities, after retirement? Personally, I think that’s a fair trade off if my dad spent the better part of his life posted off to some godforsaken place fighting off insurgents while my mother fended for two younglings all by herself. The third and final thing being the ‘sahayak’ system. The sahayak system is meant to be a support system, especially when officers are living away from home. The bhaiyas who have been with us are like family to us. That’s why it’s not only my parents who get calls every now and then, but my sister and I do too. I know for a fact that whenever I do get married, our bhaiyas will be present there cheering me on. ”

Colonel Shankar Kallat with wife Anindya Shankar and family, Kolkata, 2016

VI. Monal Thaakar

“I cannot thank the forces enough for teaching me the art of humbleness, adaptability, and treating everyone with equality.”

Monal’s favourite part of being an Air Force kid is telling his civilian friends about the places in the country his father has been to, places that one only ever does read about in Geography text books. “Growing up as an Army BRAT is, I believe, an opportunity only a few lucky ones get,” says Monal. “I changed seven schools and eight cities as a Fauji BRAT. During this period I grew up in small and big towns alike, attending convent, government, defence and private schools and forming close friendships with people across economic stratum and religions. This experience has taught me more about this country, its different people and cultures than any form of theoretical learning ever can.”

On Pros & Cons Of The Lifestyle

“A sense of decorum and discipline is instilled in you early. Though fauji parents are not super strict – I still remember having my first beer with my dad and it’s a memory I shall always cherish! Cantonment life, in general, with amenities like football grounds, swimming pools, gyms, the mess bar and that occasional bungalow house are perks I thoroughly enjoyed. Though, what I loved the most were fauji parties - trust me no one knows how to throw a classy yet crazy party like officers and soldiers do! In my personal experience there isn’t anything I have particularly disliked about the fauji lifestyle.”

Inherent Personality Traits The Lifestyle Brought With It

“A sense of equality. It’s a golden rule of the fauj and it’s instilled in my consciousness. I feel the separation of religion from profession in the forces is one of the reasons that could have contributed to my tilt towards atheism. While growing up with many strong women around me, female officers and equally brave wives and widows of officers has made me a feminist.”

Life Outside The Cantonment

“Stepping out of the defence environment was quite strange for me, even though I had had many civilian friends growing up. When I came to Bombay for my undergraduate studies I found the lack of a political opinion, or worse, a highly uninformed opinion about national politics and the armed forces highly disconcerting. People seemed to be more interested in how much of subsidy I could get while buying alcohol from the Defence canteen than what my father actually did as an Air Force officer! Eventually, I made my peace with it. Though the the funniest thing I had to adapt to was being ‘fashionably late’, a norm I don’t quite understand or like to follow. While in the defence environment punctuality was a given, in the civilian world I often find myself alone at parties when I turn up on time, at times even the host is busy taking a nap!”

On What ‘Home’ Means

“Home is the cantonment, the fighter jets flying over our houses and our parents in uniform. Home is the parties and the parades, the salutes and the air shows. Home is where the Air Force sends us, plain and simple. Everything else is just a home away from real home.”

Your Hero Growing Up

“Growing up, my heroes were my parents and the parents of my friends. <en and women who were fighting and dying for the nation, not because they were getting fat salaries or ‘perks’ but because they took pride in their job and thought it was honourable. My heroes are widows and the children who lose their fathers and mothers, or live to see them injured beyond recovery while learning to carry on with their lives. These unsung heroes without hate or jingoism, just doing their duty as professionals are my heroes.”

Common Misconceptions

“There are two great misconceptions about the armed forces. The first that the life of an army BRAT is more about perks and less about living in constant fear for the lives of our parents. Secondly, the armed forces’ relationship with power. While abuses of power do happen, and those found guilty of it should be punished, civilians also need to consider the bigger picture. The majority out of a million that selflessly do their duty and not the few hundreds that abuse their authority. The forces don’t want civilian blood on their hands. It is just a shame that politicians often use the name of the armed forces to forward their propaganda.”

Air Commodore KR Thaakar (centre) at Air Force Officer's Mess, Nal; Bikaner, 1988
Air Commodore KR Thaakar with wife Meena Thaakar and his sons; Air Force Station, Nagpur, 2017

VII. Preeta Bhuyan

“There was always a constant excitement in await of mail from old friends.”

“We lived a traveller’s life, moving from one place to another every two-three years, much like nomads!” says Preeta. Up until her Dad retired from the army she has lived in almost all the states of the country, except the the ones in the south. “Our short holidays were road trips and train journeys to far-flung places in the country and those memories are ingrained in my mind. While our army cantonment was our world and also a bit cushioned, we got a melting pot of cultures irrespective of where we stayed. Incidentally, our exposure was vast in terms of social interactions and our education. Army life was very interesting, to say the least.”

On Pros & Cons Of The Lifestyle

Army Officers and jawans alike were paid a pittance, at least during my childhood days, but the army kids never realised this nor were they told so. Free libraries, game courts of squash, tennis, badminton, free mess services, swimming pools, free travel in army vehicles were all the perks which we grew up with and enjoyed. The one thing I remember detesting was having to leave my friends behind after each posting out. We shed many tears when we were young, but with age we parted with the promise of writing letters to each other, which I have stored till date. There was always a constant excitement in await of mail from old friends.

Inherent Personality Traits The Lifestyle Brought With It

“I think somewhere down the line, we develop a sense of patience and a non-judgemental attitude towards others. I think this is because Army BRATs are more experienced in terms of people skills, having met with so many kinds of people from all over country, and having to survive outside of their homes. Personally, I became quite the extrovert in the defense environment and observing people came naturally to me. I also became a little detached from places.”

Life Outside The Cantonment

“Stepping out of the cantonment was more exciting than scary. To be able to live life on your own terms and not be bogged down by the rules and regulations of your home and parents, more so with an army life! I never felt isolated from my civilian friends, if anything they were in awe of the fact that my dad belonged in the army and somewhere always held a quiet respect for that. Though after a point in my life I was always living far away from where my parents were I didn’t struggle much. Though like most people living away from home I missed the comfort of home-cooked meals and the warmth of my mum when I was sick.”

On What ‘Home’ Means

“For me home is wherever my parents are or have been. Right now, home is Pune, where my Mum and Dad have been for the last 12 years since retirement.”

Your Hero Growing Up

“I have always looked up to my Dad and have an immense respect for the way he lived his life – staying away from his family for months and years on end, and having to see us grow up without being a part of it. That couldn’t have been easy. I realised this more as I grew up, whereas earlier, I used to resent him for being away for so long. Growing up, my Mum became my hero. To have both worked and single-handedly held the fort down at home raising my bratty brother and me could not have been easy. She did this with grace and no external support. We stayed away from Dad in separate family quarters for six years in an inconsequential place like Saugor, Madhya Pradesh, but Mum managed to make even that home.”

Common Misconceptions

“It’s not all hunky dory. We are in a constant state of worry, especially when our Dads go on active field postings. Our Mums live in that state of worry more than us, and they strive hard to hide it from their kids. Also, some parts of India are completely clueless to what services the defense forces render and consequently we are met with untrustworthy eyes.”

Brig. Pradeep Kumar Bhuyan with wife Rita Bhuyan at Lekhapani; Assam, 1983.
Brig. Pradeep Kumar Bhuyan

VIII. Alekh Sanghera

“The entire regiment always lived like a family.”

As an army BRAT, Alekh has lived in more than 20 cities and towns in the last 25 years of his life. These places have extended across the length and breadth of the country, literally from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from Rajasthan to Nagaland. “I don’t have any siblings, but I never felt the need for one,” says Alekh. “The entire regiment always lived like a family with all the children spending a lot of time together. Mothers often had duties to control multiple kids!”

On Pros & Cons Of The Lifestyle

“From a very young age we learnt how to socialise while maintaining a sense of decorum. As for the army lifestyle, there really is no comparison with its quality – clean cantonments, sports facilities, schools, shopping complexes are all luxuries which are a stone’s throw away from our houses. Though what I don’t find quite agreeable with the army life, and is probably one of the reasons why I decided not to pursue, it is that you are always supposed to play by the rules. It is not the kind of organization which fosters innovation.”

Inherent Personality Traits The Lifestyle Brought With It

“Good oral communication skills and how to present yourself socially are traits that develop early in an army kid.”

Life Outside The Cantonment

“The constant moving of residences, experiencing various cultures and interacting with new people makes one very adaptable to change outside the defense environment. Though when I was nine years old, my parents made a conscious decision to send me to a boarding school, the best decision at the time for me.”

On What ‘Home’ Means

“I define home as where my parents are posted. My mothers (army wives) have the magical power of turning every new building or apartment they are given into a beautiful home. The room sizes and shapes might change but everything else remains the same.”

Your Take On The Media’s Outbursts

“I am not naturally defensive with media outbursts, even when it comes to the Kashmir issue. My personal view is that the conflict in Kashmir cannot be resolved with the force of a military. If it hasn’t been able to achieve this feat in the past seven decades, chances for it to happen in the coming decades are slim. Though what I can’t stand is political parties using the military for their own political agendas.”

Alekh Sanghera with his parents

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