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Lieutenant General Punita Arora, 59Director and commandant, Armed Forces Medical College. Recently became the first woman to attain the rank...

October 17, 2004

Lieutenant General Punita Arora, 59
Director and commandant, Armed Forces Medical College. Recently became the first woman to attain the rank of a lieutenant general in the Indian Army

IN THE PAST: Arora’s family roots go back to Lahore. Her father settled in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, after Partition. He was very keen that his daughter become a doctor, so this became her goal. ‘‘I studied in Sophia School in Saharanpur until Standard VIII, but then my father realised that this school did not have science, so he shifted me to Guru Nanak Girls Inter-College.’’ She had an early lesson in trying to make it in a man’s world. ‘‘After my Xth, I went for admission to the Government School for Boys where I was told I could take up Science only if there were three girls at least in Standard XI. Thankfully that happened.’’ That led to Kanpur Medical College and Armed Forces Medical College.

FIRST DAY IN THE HOT SEAT: ‘‘My taking over as commandant coincided with a major conference at AFMC on AIDS/HIV, so the media presence was huge. Add to that visitors and conferences, and it was a day that had me on my toes throughout.’’

A SPARE MINUTE: Is spent gardening. ‘‘I think hospitals, in particular, need to be green and filled with flowers to take away their gloominess.’’

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FAVOURITE DRINK: Litchi juice.

BEST POSTING: AFMC—first as student, and then as faculty. ‘‘Also, my posting to Army Hospital in Delhi was challenging. But I am really proud of the infertility wing that I developed at RR Hospital in Delhi Cantonment. Infertility in the wives of our army personnel almost becomes an occupational hazard due to the long periods that the husbands are away in field areas. But invariably, the wife has to bear the brunt of society’s barbs in such situations.’’

FAVOURITE WAR MOVIE: Border. ‘‘The song Sandeshe Aate Hain aptly captured the sentiments and life of the armed forces’ personnel.’’

ON STEREOTYPES: She’s irked by the notion that everyone in the army drinks heavily or that they spend their spare hours getting drunk in the mess. Also the perception that ‘‘the army is flush with funds and facilities’’.

KEY TO SUCCESS: ‘‘Just doing my job well, like any other officer, and never even thinking that I am a woman and hence need any privileges or concessions.’’

TIES THAT BIND: Arora’s husband, a retired brigadier, was a dermatologist in the army, and now works with Apollo Hospital in Delhi. ‘‘We share a deep bond, though we have had our share of arguments. There have been many separations, but we knew this was going to be a part of our life. Because he is a dermatologist and I am a gynaecologist, there was no rivalry.’’ Her two children also graduated from AFMC. Son Sandeep is a doctor in the Indian Air Force, daughter Sabina is a postgraduate student in the US. Arora has a six-year-old granddaughter.

THE ROAD AHEAD: “To fulfil whatever dreams the officers here at AFMC have for their departments and for the college, and to give them an environment where they can work with a free mind.’’ Retirement will likely be spent in Gurgaon.

Air Marshal Padma Bandopadhyay, 59
Recently became the first woman to attain the rank of an air marshal in the Indian Air Force

IN THE PAST: Bandopadhyay chose AFMC over the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, although her parents lived in the capital. The reason? The 1962 Indo-China war left an indelible impression. ‘‘So many of the young men I had grown up with and played with died during these operations. I was deeply moved by the Lata Mangeshkar song Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon, and was determined to join the forces when I saw how high the casualties were.’’

FIRST DAY IN THE HOT SEAT: ‘‘Hectic.’’ Although she says she can’t claim to have got very much work done. Television crews and print journalists swarmed over her.

A SPARE MINUTE: Is spent taking a brisk walk.


BEST POSTING: Halwara. She spent almost 10 years in this forward air base area in Punjab. ‘‘My husband and I were newly married and young. Those were the days of wine and roses.’’ Her older son was born there. Professionally, too, Halwara was among her most challenging posts. The base hospital was rudimentary, with one rickety ambulance. The larger medical facility was more than 90 km away.

FAVOURITE WAR MOVIE: None really, though she concedes that Bollywood’s recent offerings have been better. ‘‘Invariably, they get a stripe wrong or the ribbon or decoration is worn on the incorrect side. As for haircuts, the less said the better.’’

ON STEREOTYPES: ‘‘The image of the strict, disciplined defence officer, whom everybody is a tad scared of, is a good one. I can live with it.’’

KEY TO SUCCESS: ‘‘Join the club, and become one of the boys.’’

TIES THAT BIND: She says there was never any domestic rivalry, although her husband was also in the Air Force. ‘‘In fact, we hold the record for being the only service couple to be awarded the Vishisht Seva Medal for the same operations (1971) at the same investiture ceremony.’’ Rearing the children was also a partnership. She was often posted to non-family areas and says she coped only because of the support of her husband, parents and in-laws.

THE ROAD AHEAD: She sees a bright future for women in the forces outside of the medical corps. Combat roles may still be a while coming, but the areas of communication, engineering and IT have opened up for women officers. Retirement most likely will be spent in Bangalore.

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