Guilt and Emotional Trauma – an Army Wife’s Tale
(As recounted to Maj Gen Mrinal Suman on the eve of Independence Day 2012)
This is a true story. This is my story. This is the story of Indo-Pak War of December 1971.
This is the story of the trauma that families undergo when soldiers go to war. This is a story of complex inter-play of human emotions and sensitivities that defy description.
This is the story of a medium sized town in North India where a career in the armed forces is the first choice of the progeny of most families. Preparation for NDA commences soon after secondary level examination. As a result, every family has more than one member in the services.
My husband, a young Captain, was at the battle front. I was 22 years old and expecting my first child. I had come to stay with my parents. Ours was a joint family. There were three more women – my grandmother, my mother and my aunt.
In addition to my husband, brothers of my father, my mother and my aunt were also taking active part in the war. Understandably, there was palpable anxiety in the atmosphere concerning their wellbeing.
Although my grandmother put up a brave front to provide comfort to others, she spent most of her time praying to all sundry Gods, hoping someone would care to listen to her prayers. In addition to her own son and my husband, she was concerned about the other two members as well.
My mother and aunt went about their routine household chores without any display of the emotional turmoil that they were experiencing. Both were worried about the safety of their brothers. In addition, my mother was deeply concerned about her son-in-law’s wellbeing. I was perhaps too young to grasp the full gravity of the situation.
At times the frightening thought of my husband becoming a war-casualty did cross my mind – ‘will he never see our child’. However, recalling the spirit and confidence with which the troops had departed for the war front, I brushed such thoughts aside. Soldiers’ wives must be equally brave.
During those war-days, a telegram always meant bad news. Arrival of the postman was dreaded by all families whose members were fighting the war. Ringing of the door-bell or even a casual knock on the door made their hearts skip a beat. Nights were full of anxiety as the postman invariably arrived at that time. Every dawn made them heave a sigh of relief. The same was true of our family as well.
It was 8th of December and the war was at its bitterest worst. The night brought the much-dreaded postman to our door with a telegram. All four women huddled with trepidation in a corner of the verandah to await breaking of the most chilling news. It was certain that one of the four men had been killed in action. The suspense about his identity was nerve-wracking.
In times of such extreme distress, we humans are forced to make our priorities clear to God while seeking his protection. Can there be anything more trying and agonising than having to make such a choice? Why should we be asked as to who should live and who is dispensable? We, the women of our unfortunate family were also subjected to the same ordeal.
As is human at such times, all of said our silent prayers – “Please God; I hope it is not him”. For all of us, him meant a different person – not that we were not concerned about other members. It is just that all of us have our own set of quotient of emotional attachments.
The eerie silence was finally broken after what appeared to be an eternity – my aunt’s younger brother had made the supreme sacrifice. While she broke down, the others involuntarily heaved a sigh of relief and said a quiet thank-you to their Gods.
Once relieved of our personal anxiety and agony, we controlled our own emotions of reprieve and started calming the grief-stricken lady. Loss of the young brother had shattered her inconsolably. In hindsight, our sudden makeover from petrified weaklings to compassionate consolers appears somewhat odd – maybe it was spontaneous human response on release from intense emotional trauma.
The news of the ceasefire on 16 December ended our two-week long nightmare. We had been through ‘hell’ was our consensual refrain. Perhaps, our suffering was as severe as the privations faced by our soldiers in war. Whereas soldiers are eulogized for their acts of bravery, their women remain unsung and unrecognised.
To date, I wonder about the preference my grandmother conveyed to her God on that fateful night – her son or grand-daughter’s husband. It would have been far harder for my mother to choose between her brother and son-in-law. Comparatively, I had an easier choice to make. It is another matter that to date I suffer pangs of guilt for having abandoned my uncles in favour of my husband. Was I being selfish? I have not found any answer as yet.