On the 80th anniversary of the IAF Pankaja Srinivasan recalls what it is like to be the wife of an Air Warrior

Air Force wives are digging out saris from their boxes even as you read this. They are readying themselves for the Air Force Day party on October 8. As I look back on all the parties I have attended in the last 25 years as a wife of an Air Force pilot, I can’t help but smile.

Initially, I struggled to keep up with the ranks and names of my husband‘s colleagues. Pilot officer, flying officer, flight lieutenant... It was all right for them, they only had to remember me as “Ma’am”. My husband almost called off our wedding because I wrote letters to him addressed as ‘Lieutenant’ instead of ‘Flight Lieutenant’.

Even now, after all these years, he is not amused. But I got the hang of it eventually. I learnt to pack my entire household into 20 boxes and move at short notice. I moved into towns I did not even know existed. But I also learnt that in the Air Force we knew how to have fun whether we were living in Ladakh, Rajasthan or Assam. We lived out of one box or two, in messes, in impossibly small rooms, sometimes sharing space with snakes and scorpions, and sometimes the bathrooms with total strangers, while the rest of our luggage was parked in a friend’s garage or in an aeroplane hangar.

Sometimes, of course, we got lucky. “Madam, you live in such a big bungalow. I am sure you can afford the fee I am asking.”

This was the tabla master as we discussed lessons for my son. He was right about the big house. It had a huge courtyard and gardens in both front and rear. But I wish he had seen the previous places I called home. I have lived in accommodation with walls made of mud or bamboos, and so small that if I fell off the bed I would land in my neighbours’ yard. If size was a criterion, he would have taught my son for free!

In the days before running water and mobile phones (Leh in the 1990s), we created our own entertainment. When newly-wed Ritu got off the aircraft at Leh to join her husband, she was told her husband was on duty so one of his colleagues had come to pick her up.

She got into the vehicle and to her horror found herself surrounded by masked men who relieved her of her mangalsutra and handbag, and then let her go. She was inconsolable. She wanted to take the first flight out of Leh and return to her father’s. That evening, at a party, she tearfully unpacked her welcome gift and was astounded to find her handbag and her jewellery. Ritu’s abductors were her husband’s colleagues and this was their way of welcoming her into the fold.

Lessons in life

Incidents such as these keep us going through the postings, packings and unpackings, and the cold, heat and dust. “I have moved thrice this year and my kid has changed three schools,” is a common refrain. But the upside is, this lifestyle is a huge learning curve for the kids. And for us. We became good hostesses, event managers, crisis managers, public speakers, counsellors...all rolled into one. Some of us became innovative cooks. Many of us learnt to make gulab jamuns from scratch only because we got all that milk powder in the rations.

Most importantly we learnt to take life in our stride.

The first Air Force officer I met after my husband was Sameer. He came to our wedding. Four days later he died in a crash at Bidar. We learnt to accept that part of the Air Force too.

And so it goes. Happy landings to the Air Warriors on the 80th Anniversary of the IAF, and to their wives too.