Fauji Brats — leaving footprints on the sands, hills, roads, and non-roads of India.

‘Where are you from?’ It’s the second most overrated question after ‘What’s your name?’ Even Shakespeare agrees.

I’m from nowhere, I’ve said for a thousand years. But no one’s listening.

AGRA, UTTAR PRADESH

It started here. You might know it for The Taj Mahal. I know it for the Military Hospital close to what would be my school many years later. There was no electricity. They had candles, a nurse, and I am most grateful for this fact, a doctor. It was 11:40pm. ‘You almost didn’t show up till the next day’, my mother remembers quite un-fondly. A seasoned procrastinator — I was probably putting it off till the situation outside improved.

…And with a million candles used for ignition, this rocket was finally launched, is not how I want to announce my arrival. It was quite ordinary. They don’t even have my name on the birth certificate. Unnamed. A lot of it is in Hindi and has worn out over the years. It could very well pass off as a restaurant bill. Numbers, smudged black ink, GST.

Life’s first nine months were spent in Agra, growing into a human being who could crawl, walk, and then run. We left and I didn’t know we’d meet again. And then again.

The first time you don’t see the picture of Taj Mahal with a mention of Agra. The good news though, almost everyone in the world knows Agra.

JOHRAT, ASSAM

This was a short stint. Teeth, hair, personality, a sense of independence, all had started to emerge. I spent a lot of time breaking barriers — quite literally. My parents had installed these cardboard walls around the house to baby-proof it and avoid mishaps. Mishaps, there were plenty. I had fun, hanging from balconies, while the rest around me suffered. There’s not much I can say about Johrat, except that years later when I visited Guwahati and Khanapara for table tennis matches, it somehow didn’t seem entirely unfamiliar.

I learnt a lot about Johrat while writing this; it’s quite the cultural hub of Assam and has lots of tea. Much better than a picture of my nearly toothless smile.

WELLINGTON, TAMIL NADU

I have very little memory of this place. In the days I wanted to sound cool (and was learning 5 big English words a week), I’d tell people I’m from Wellington and stop there. Nobody questioned the authenticity of my statement. I probably couldn’t even spell New Zealand. Then I met some genuinely cool people whose fathers were also sent to get trained at Staff College. I heard how charming it is and saw old photographs of pony rides and the lush green Nilgiris.

My baby-self would get to spend a few precious minutes a day with my Dad when he was studying for his exams, and almost all that time was spent trying to prevent me from eating his notes or drinking the ink on his desk. The wilderness, it inspires...I guess.

I’m somehow also from Wellington because my sister attended her fourth school there (Holy Innocents! You?) and that’s a memory you add to the family treasure and flaunt at will. That’s how fauji kids live. We have first schools, ninth schools, and countless photographs to prove everything.

I don’t own the rights to this picture but I love how it makes you feel like it’s just rained. You can almost smell it. Wellington, I will visit you again.

BANGALORE, KARNATAKA

Bangalore is where I begin to write from memory (and not calls to my parents to tell me what actually happened). I remember so much of Bangalore — all in the early 90s. It looks and feels different now. It’s transformed into an urban, fast paced…let’s just call it traffic. It’s a giant traffic. And it doesn’t help that the Bangalore airport is in Hyderabad. That, and the fact that its new name sounds like it could be the brother of a pretty girl called Rubella.

Bangalore was my land of firsts. It was the first time I stepped foot in a real school. I learnt what a friend was and went on to make many of those lovely creatures. My first bicycle ride was on an empty tennis court. We played dark room in the squash courts. First Bharatnatyam class. First set of stitches at SSQ for a deep wound on my forehead. The first time I walked to the bar at the officers’ mess, ordered Pepsi and masala peanuts, and signed the voucher. I wrote my name, drew a line under it and then put two dots to make it official. Then they called my Dad. The first Air Force party I was allowed to attend. Cotton-Eyed Joe, Coco Jumbo, and lots of Whigfield to practice my non-Bharatnatyam moves. And this one beats them all — my first Kendriya Vidyalaya! There is no discomfort in life a K.V. can’t teach you to tolerate. A kid once threw stones at a beehive in school and we were held hostage in our classrooms for many hours, it seemed like days. We learnt patience and how to deal with fear. I hate bees.

Then came the first heartbreak…knowing it was time to move and I had to leave everyone behind. Couldn’t I just take them along, a few maybe? I didn’t know this then but leaving behind what mattered the most would become a pattern. You are forced to learn to move on. Six years is a long time on the fauji timeline. We were lucky to have called Bangalore home for that long.

We would wait for the Aero India (Air Show) in Bangalore every single year and I’d get really scared of the fighters and duck when they passed, or worse, bawl.

DELHI, DELHI, OH DELHI

I didn’t get into Loreto Convent, Delhi in the first attempt. They weren’t taking kids mid-term. So I joined Air Force Golden Jubilee and started competing for the ‘Student of the Month’ tiny trophies, I even got a couple. No, it’s not where Karan Johar got his inspiration from. It was just an obscene number (60? 75?) of children stuffed in one class — fighting for recognition.

Fauji kids basically go to one of the many schools in the Delhi Cantonment area, they play basketball in one of the few popular ‘Vihars’, and congregate in DSOI with their parents to have soda and peanuts. It’s a thing.

Shopping meant going to Rastogi in Gopi Nath Bazar — his shop kept getting deeper over the years. You’d meet your 10,000 steps-a-day goal if you go there today. It’s all in a straight line that starts with the school uniforms section, swimming costumes, and goes into biscuits, puppies, iPhones…you name it. Nobody has seen the end.

I was playing a full human being now. Spoke grammatically correct sentences, started writing with a pen, and spent hours trying to master gallery and pitthoo.

And of course, it was time to move again. We went back to Agra for a few years. And then came back to Delhi. And then Agra again, at some point. It was tiring. The constant cycle of change — new schools, strange people, I mean strangers, new homes, a new life, every few years. As you grow older, it gets even more difficult to join a class in a new school. Kids have their closed groups, known jokes, shared memories, and there’s just no place for aliens. You have to learn to take the initiative, be confident, and make room. More than trying to fit in, you encourage them to create space. I struggled till I decided to fight it. I made friends with change. I stopped resisting it. And somehow that made it easier to cope with it. Fauji brats just know how to ‘adjust’.

Even today, change and I remain BFFs, breaking into closed groups, one weird city at a time.

I went back to Delhi many years later and took a picture of this beautiful mosque and shared it on Instagram. I guess I’m saying I don’t have a picture that does justice to the childhood memories of Delhi. Just words and many memories including the kidney bean shaped swimming pool in DSOI where I learnt how to swim.

SHILLONG, MEGHALAYA, SCOTLAND

I miss you. The glass house, the fireplace, the rains, the hills, the stream next to our house (an actual stream!), Kendriya Vidyalaya Upper Shillong (called K.V.U.S. with pride), my very strict English teacher, all the hours spent playing basketball, badminton, football, and numerous walks around the beautiful Malse Lake. Eastern Air Command is one of the most gorgeous Air Force HQs in India. I loved every single day of my Shillong life. I attended my first concert wearing orange pants. Michael Learns to Rock. Shillong, it’s musical and it doesn’t judge.

Of my many retirement plans, one is to build a small house in Shillong (like with my own hands), speak Khasi fluently, and learn how to play more than five chords on my old guitar. And of course, keep sixteen Golden Retrievers.

Elephant Falls — a short walk away from home in Shillong. I miss you.

A few other cities have played supporting roles and still continue to, but those aren’t forced transfers, I decided when and where. While I welcome change, I also don’t forget my treasure trove of fauji-lifestyle learnings:

— the discipline, without any obvious rules (supported with caffeine and masala peanuts)

— the courage, to try and fix what’s broken on my own first (before relying on the MES-equivalent)

—the bravery, except when it’s bees (they put it in my name so I don’t forget this one)

…and finally, that there’s no place on the planet you can’t call home— all it takes is your favourite people on a dining table, eating a mom-cooked meal, a garden with at least 4 flowers, in different colours, and hopefully a cuddlesome animal under the table.

I’m (proudly) from nowhere.

I have copied a lot of images here that I don’t own. Sorry — but this is a nice and colourful map of my country and I’m sort of trying to make a point here. Maybe Trump will read and learn. Oh, wait.