Hussif and Button Stick

We were issued with a Housewife’ on joining the National Defence Academy (NDA) in 1979.  Why a housewife to a 16-year-old cadet? That too an item which was neither male nor female, and wasn’t even a living being.

It  was a simple Khaki pouch containing needles, thread, thimble, buttons, and a pair of scissors, meant for sewing on buttons, darning socks, and mending uniforms. It was called the ‘hussif’ by the officers at the Academy and housewife by many Cadets and the soldiers who were the Havildar Quartermasters at the Squadron.

Housewife morphed into “Hussif”   and first appeared in print in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1749 suggesting that it had already been in common use. The term appears to have possibly originated as a dialect of the shire of Lancaster, England. However, the term is now banned in modern armies which acknowledges that the gender specific term is not only outdated but also offensive to women.

By the mid 19th century these rolled-up sewing kits became standard army issue. Before the invention of safety pins for a quick fix, sewing needles were used to remove splinters and, at times, even sew up the soldier’s wounds! When I joined the Sainik School at the age of nine we had to carry a small plastic box with contents like the hussif. 

I hardly ever used my hussif at the Academy during my three years other than for sewing some lost buttons. Behold! It had to be carefully maintained as it had to be produced during kit muster held at the beginning of each semester at the Academy. The hussif was part of the small pack we carried in  the Field Service Marching Order (FSMO.)

The name hussif comes from a time when it was common for mothers, wives and fiancés in the 18th and 19th centuries to personalise these kits with embroidery for their menfolk to take to war.  It was often packed  in the holdall and stowed within the man’s haversack. Few hussifs of those days were covered with flowers or other feminine motifs and colours if the hussif was a gift from a needlewoman in their life.

The humble hussif played an important role in both the World Wars. Embroidery was widely used as a form of therapy for wounded soldiers, especially those recovering at the hospitals. The bright environment of the hospital was the perfect place for them to engage in  embroidery as an activity, which helped in their rehabilitation. The imagery and stories they stitched were  often reflective of pride in their regiment, the battlefields they had fought in, or messages of love to a distant sweetheart.

Armies and Navies, from Britain to Australia to North America, issued hussifs as part of the standard kit to their serving troops, at least up to the Korean War era. The British Army continued to do so, well into the 1960s and the Indian Army until the early 80s.

Another remarkable object that is etched in my memory is the Button Stick. These were used by the civilian bearers or orderlies to polish all the brass buttons, shoulder titles etc of our various Academy uniforms, though I never saw them later in my Army career.  

These button sticks were used by soldiers to polish the buttons on their uniform without spilling  any of the polish on the fabric. During WWI, when soldiers were out of the trenches, they often had to ensure that the buttons of their uniform were polished using Brasso. While tedious and time-consuming, soldiers used this brass button polishing guard to avoid staining the fabric with excess polish which left a nasty brown stain  on the Khaki or Olive Green uniforms. 

It could well be that the button sticks used by the orderlies of the NDA may date back to the World War days!

Why did the armies over the world have done away with the hussif? Repairing or darning the  uniform, stitching a lost button… are still needs of the day!

Poor Banian or a Wife Beater

One day our teenaged son came up to me and asked me if he could borrow my ‘Wife Beater.’ I lost all my balance and composure and I told him that I neither ever had beaten their mother nor ever intend to do so. I stopped short of telling him that the idea did sprout in my mind a few times, but good senses always prevailed over my impulse. Our son understood my predicament and explained that he wanted the sleeveless white vest I used to wear while in India. Hardly seen anyone wearing it in Canada; could be something to do with the weather and reduced perspiration level.

Our son explained that in the TV show ‘COPS‘ had a lot do with the creation of this word. Every time they showed a guy getting arrested for beating his wife, he was shown wearing one of those sleeveless vests.

Some say that in 1947 in Detroit, Michigan, when police arrested a local man (James Hartford, Jr.) for beating his wife to death, the local news stations aired the arrest and elements of the case for months after, constantly showing a picture of Hartford, Jr, when he was arrested, wearing a vest and constantly referring to him as ‘the wife beater.

I always marveled the simple in design white sleeveless vest for all the services it rendered. It never even cared where it ended up after its owner threw it out after clinging to his skin and exploiting it to the hilt. They mostly ended up as a shoe-shining cloth, a mop, a duster, etc. Why should someone discard such good quality pure white cotton cloth?

I never understood why any more layers than absolutely necessary are worn in a hot climate, but I always felt that it absorbed the sweat. It absorbed the sweat, got wet, making me feel a bit uncomfortable at times, but it always stopped the passage of the sweat to the outer layer of the Olive Green (OG) Uniform. The white salt left on the shirt after the sweat dried up was rather un-soldierly. My skin never felt comfortable touching the thick clothed OG shirt. The poor banian maintained an impregnable gap between my skin and the thick shirt.

Some of my friends in the Army wore a banian with sleeves. I always preferred the sleeveless version to avoid ‘Sunday is longer than Monday‘ syndrome. This happens when you wear a short sleeved shirt or T shirt, under which you have worn a sleeved banian and the sleeve of the banian creeps out of the shirt sleeve.

On joining Sainik School Amaravathinagar (TN) at the age of nine, my box had a dozen banians. We had to wear the banian for the morning Physical Training (PT). The aim was to observe the physical development of the body and to ensure that there were no skin infections. This practice of wearing the banian for PT continued on to the National Defence Academy (NDA) and the Indian Military Academy (IMA), till I was commissioned as an officer, after which I started wearing the white T-shirt as was the practice for all officers. The men still wore the faithful banian for PT. I still enjoyed the banian clinging to my skin and ensured that I had it on at all times.

My sahayak (helper) in the regiment was Sepoy Hukum Chand, who served me with at most dedication, love and care. He was my accountant, my personnel assistant, my bodyguard, my radio operator, my buddy in all aspects. He ensured everything for me – from when I got up, my morning tea, my cigarettes, my uniform, my room, my wardrobe, my outfit for the evening party etc. This continued for long seven years until seven year itch erupted – I got married and Hukum Chand refused to be dictated to as to what dress I wore for the evening party. My wife did not approve the suit Hukum Chand had chosen for me to wear that evening as it did not match her saree. My wife won and Hukum Chand lost.

Sepoy Hukum Chand had observed my keenness to wear the banian at all times and every six months he bought a dozen of them from the regimental canteen (he paid for it with my money as he was my accountant and I had no clue about the expenses). On enquiring as to why he bought new banians every six months, he told me that they become yellow on washing repeatedly in brackish water used by the waherman. He used to snip off the shoulder straps and cut open the trunk and it became a shining cloth for him to polish the leather boots and the belt and also the brass badges of rank. He said that the yellow shining-cloth available at the regimental canteen left yellow lint on the OG uniform and the black boots and looked awesome and he had to put in extra effort to clean-up after polishing. Used and many-time washed white banian was best suited for it and one did not have to pay to buy the shining-cloth – What a costly saving?  He had the thin cloth for the leather boots and belt and the thicker ones for the brass.

After five years of postings on staff and various long courses, I returned to the regiment at Sikkim as a Battery Commander. Sepoy Sri Chand was this time assigned as my Sahayak and Hukum Chand was by then promoted to the rank of a Havildar. A few days after I rejoined the unit, Havildar Hukum Chand came to my bunker while I was having my afternoon siesta and started admonishing Sepoy Sri Chand as he had not maintained the Saheb’s bunker as per standard. Hukum Chand started advising Sri Chand about my likes and dislikes, my preference of tea, food, clothes, cigarette, etc. At the end he said “Saheb likes wearing a banian at all times, even while he is sleeping.” That was the time I observed that I was sleeping in my favourite lungi-banian. He added that I preferred wearing the thick banian under the uniform and the thin ones under the civil dress. A preference I never had and may have been cultivated by Hukum Chand to ensure that he had a constant supply of thin and thick cloth for polishing the leather and the brass.

Many a times your preferences and habits are not self-developed, but thrust upon you by the environment.