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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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.