By Nusrat Osama
They’re changing guards at Buckingham Palace
One, two, three, four…
Christopher Robin went down with Alice
One, two, three, four…
Alice is marrying one of the guards
Soldiers’ life is terribly hard – Says Alice…
Not heeding what Alice said in this poem, I prided myself when I uttered the wows to end my maiden life. Those were the good old days when all the girls ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ upon seeing an army officer, and getting married to one was a dream come true.
The Queen of Melody sang beautiful songs in praise of the Dhol Sipahiya, great poets like Aleejee wrote beautiful lyrics to highlight their bravery. The handsome young Captain of the Armed Forces became a point of envy of all my friends and classmates. Even his name was envied – often linked with the great Muslim General of the early Islamic era, before the notoriety of OBL surfaced. “Fit for an army officer,” as a 3-star general had once remarked.
Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream,
Merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream!
The dream to live with an army officer proved to be a holy war in itself. And for twenty eight years, I soldiered this war bravely. Reeling back those twenty eight years, I now realize how scant the housing conditions of the officers were – their names never leaving the waiting list until the announcement of the next posting. The list would be reviewed at the next station till by some good luck they had a vacant house on the pool – a rarity. Going through this arduous journey of living a homeless life the handsome officer started to look ugly to me and the preconceived charms of a life in cantonment all but vanished.
The first official house that we had was at Risalpur; by then I was a mother of three boisterous school-going boys. In those days, very few officers owned cars, some had motorbikes and majority had bicycles, including my husband. Yet the orderly (or batman as he is called in the Army) would polish even the bicycles till they were immaculately clean. My husband’s departure (atop his shining bicycle) to his workplace to me, would be like watching a mini change-of-guard ceremony at the Wagah Border.
While he took his breakfast, the batman stood at ‘shun’ (attention) position a little away from the door, holding the sacred possession. Then as my dashing husband moved towards the door, the batman moved and positioned himself in front of it, gazing ahead, holding the bicycle as if it were the door of his staff car. Mounting the bike, holding the handle with one hand and stylishly placing the other behind his back, my husband would kick the paddles to mobility and ride off. The batman would then fall into ‘stand-at-ease’ position and carry my husband’s satchel, following him on foot. After depositing the satchel at his office he would bring back the bicycle home to run errands and take the children to school. This exercise continued till the time Almighty blessed us with a motorbike.
Moving around on powered wheels increased the desire to go places manifold. One fine morning I heard the announcement: “We are going to Swat! Move!” The recipients of this command were not his company, but a bunch of boys, one of whom was a toddler.
“That’s ridiculous!” I protested, but to no avail. Defeated, I packed a small bag with just the bare necessities and after putting the youngest in the care of my sister, we set off for Swat.
For some distance everything seemed to go smoothly. The children were chirpy, husband was smiling and I was enjoying. However as the day progressed, the children became fidgety, compelling us to make the rest of the journey by bus while my husband followed on his motorbike. And soon this turned into play time for the children.
As the bike went out of sight due to turn in the winding road, their father would also go out of sight and when the road became straight he could be seen. The children would clap with jubilation upon seeing their father, and before long, the other passengers too began enjoying the spectacle. A young child sitting on the seat behind us also called out when my husband appeared on the motorbike, only to be punched by my younger one as he possessively exclaimed, ‘He is my dad not yours!’
My husband had an annoying habit of locating friends anywhere in the world. So when the bus stopped and we decided to have tea at the station, the discovery of an acquaintance was inevitable. The tea took some time and when we returned, we realized the bus had departed without us.
“How dare the driver leave you behind?!” my husband fumed. “Come on, we’ll catch him!” He kicked his motorbike and with a jerk we were racing after the bus. With every twist and turn my children would say “Abbu! Woh rahi bus!” The daring Abbu would then increase the pressure on the accelerator. Finally when the bus stopped at a shoulder, we entered as the passengers applauded – victorious. My beaming ‘Dhol Sipahiya’ looked taller and broader as he swelled with triumph.
Today, as I reminisce about my husband, I cannot help the tears that fall from my eyes. Those twenty-eight years of my life were a gift of the Almighty – something that I would cherish all my remaining, widowed life. Rest in peace, my brave knight in shining armour – for you were dearer to The Creator than me.
[The writer is a pioneer of two schools and a girl’s college, she has recently retired as principal of a prestigious school in Karachi and is contemplating writing down her memoirs]