She was staring intently at the television when I walked in. The look on Mummy’s face suggested bewilderment. I could tell she was displeased with something she’d heard.
“What’s grabbed your attention?” I asked, trying to snap her concentration with a little deliberate levity.
“It’s the judges”, she replied gravely. “They seem to think they know how to run the army better than the army chief! They want to force him to take in women officers. On the other hand, he’s reluctant to do so. Surely this is something the man should be allowed to decide for himself?”
Even at 93 the issue had riled Mummy. First as a wife and then as a widow, she’s spent over seven decades connected to the army and firmly believes she understands it better than most. Judges, who have no martial tradition to boast of and little understanding of the services, are unlikely to change her mind. And Mummy can be pretty obstinate.
“Don’t you think women have a right to join the army if they want to?” It wasn’t a serious question so much as an attempt to engage her in conversation. But Mummy saw it as an opportunity to teach me a thing or two.
“Don’t be silly” she shot back. “No one has a right to join the army. It’s not a birthright conferred upon you. Not unless you qualify and you are accepted. In this case, the army is the best judge of what they want and who meets their standards or requirement.”
“Oh, come now, Mummy”, I responded, still trying to be jocular despite her heavily crossed eye-brows and clearly visible irritation. “Don’t you think women in uniform parading down Rajpath would make a fetching sight?”
I think she snorted. At least it sounded like that. At any rate her contempt for my comment was difficult to miss.
“But the judges aren’t only talking of decorative roles. Would you feel safe if the defence of India was left in the care of women indulging in hand-to-hand combat with strapping lads from China and Pakistan?” Mummy waited for the import of her question to sink in. When she thought it had, she delivered her coup de grace. “When you’re faced with the prospect of ending up as chopsuey or burra kebab I think you’ll be very grateful for a tough male soldier ready to sacrifice his life for you!”
The force of that rejoinder took me aback. I had no idea Mummy had such strong and passionate views. But now that I had made this discovery I was keen to find out more.
“But there are non-combat roles women can perform. What’s wrong with that?”
“If only you’d use your head you’d realise non-combat roles are meant for the second rank. Do you want women to be in a position where they are permanently inferior?” This time Mummy positively spat out her words. So I decided to change tack.
“And do you agree with the argument that soldiers don’t like taking orders from women? The army says it goes against their cultural grain.”
“It depends on which women you mean. They may not like being commanded by one but they’ll bloody well do as they’re told when spoken to by a senior officer’s wife!” Clearly that must’ve brought back happy memories because Mummy started smiling.
“Now enough of this nonsense or I’ll think you’re as daft as those silly judges.”
The views expressed by the author are personal