Women at work

These fauji wives are building careers despite the uncertainties of their lives

Constant transfers, long periods of living alone, managing social events – these women are turning lemons into lemonade.

Imagine moving from one part of the country to another, every other year. Turning abandoned barracks, cramped Mess rooms and 50-year-old crumbling bungalows, into homes for your children and usually-absent spouse. Playing dutiful wife, single mother (when the husbands are deployed on duty), volunteer, party organiser (who else runs the welfare meetings and weekend get-togethers?). Imagine all of this, and trying to have a career at the same time.

It’s no surprise that several military spouses find themselves floundering when it comes to choosing a job for themselves, because they are playing manager most of their lives. Posted in small towns and villages, far from the promise of corporate India, most fauji wives are forced to take a break from work once they marry. Some opt for teaching schools, if they have an affinity for that.

But even amidst the constant postings and transfers, the uncertainties and demanding social routines of the defence services, there’s a brigade of wives who manage to tap into their entrepreneurial skills, creating businesses that they can pack and take along on every posting.

The ladies who launch

Prachi S Vaish, a clinical psychologist, decided to build a business from scratch once she married a helicopter pilot and was constantly posted to remote areas. Vaish realised that given her re-locations, setting up an in-person counselling clinic was impossible. So she started an online psychological service, a relatively new concept in India, 2009.

“I launched HopeNetwork.in to give out free advice to people seeking help,” she said, but the tremendous response she received encouraged Vaish to rebuild her business as a high quality paid service, which she now runs with a team of psychologists.

Technology has also been a boon for Payal Talwar and Priyanka Kumar, army wives and leaders of the corporate training group WINGS, or Women In Need for Grander Success. Talwar and Kumar started the outfit five years ago to help talented women living in remote areas find work. “We have regular Skype/con call meetings,” they said, “when we can’t meet our clients.”

So far, WINGS has helped train the staff of companies like Jindal Steel, Punj Lloyd, HCL, TATA and Matrix, among others, as well as teachers of schools like the Army School, HD Goenka, Ryan International and Aster Public School.

“All our content work is done by fauji wives posted across the country, and some even train teachers and students,” said Talwar. Yet another team of fauji wives handles the social media for WINGS.

“We try to involve ladies from the forces because of their inherent discipline and dedication,” she added.

While the ability to work from across the country is a major requirement for any fauji wife, this is only made possible through ingenuity.

Giving back to the fauj

Bandita Bose, a craft entrepreneur married to a fighter pilot, creates bespoke decoupage décor items that she sells through her Facebook page. Bose already had a telecommuting career as a work-from-home marketing expert, but the itch to work with her hands, and be her own boss led her to set up her personal brand – Unchainedreamz.

Now, Bose creates an assortment of products from jewellery and tissue boxes, to trays and name plates that cost anywhere from Rs 250 to 1,600. Usually, it takes her a few days to make a product, and she starts working on a project only once she receives an order.

“I usually make 13-15 pieces a month,” she said. Bose pays a customary 10% of the product cost to the Air Force Wives Welfare organisation, if the customer happens to be stationed in the same base.

For Monishikha RoyChowdhury, an Air Force wife and artist, turning her hobby into a profession was more organic.

“I posted pictures of what I painted on my blog, which led to sales,” explained this former engineer who now teaches art to children and is working on upcoming exhibitions in Mumbai and Delhi.

Maria Duckworth, a senior service officer’s wife, found that the defence services offered a platform to turn her passion into a profession. A self-taught choreographer, who had organised several dance productions across service bases since she became a fauji wife in 1994, she teaches salsa, jive dancing, hip-hop and Bollywood to service officers and their wives at the various defence institutes across the country.

“Paying 10% of my earnings to a welfare organisation means I get an air-conditioned room to teach in for free,” Duckworth said. “Where else could one think of such a set-up.”

For her, teaching salsa to Army officers, their wives and children is not about the money, as much as it is about the joy of dancing, and giving. Duckworth charges a nominal amount for solid hours of teaching through the week, then donates all her earnings to charitable organisations.

“Recently, I purchased footballs from my salsa class fees and gave them to the boys at the Don Bosco orphanage in Lucknow,” she said.

Notching up the challenge

While start-ups are all the rage, entrepreneurship does not come easy. Prerna Singh, owner of a niche jewellery brand called Just Prerna, faced many difficulties trying to work out of far-flung places, from the inability to create a team to help her run her brand, to a lack of office spaces and exhibition venues.

Singh also feels that adversities can shape one’s work and foster strong bonds between people.

“Despite the hardships and challenges, I’d never trade my life as a fauji wife for anything,” she said.

Finding an appropriate work space is often the biggest challenge, but also with the most fun solutions. Talwar and Kumar recall converting the front seats of their cars into offices, when they started working in Wellington, Tamil Nadu.

“We would park at a scenic place, get our laptops and coffee, and start working,” Kumar said. The duo remembers turning just about every space available into an office, “we’ve worked in the ladies’ room of the Mess, and even in the garden while hosting a party”.

Vaish has worked for months from one-room accommodations at Temporary Married Quarters.

“Now I keep a few books and office paraphernalia handy, so I can turn any space into an office for my video calls with clients,” she said.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.