'Into That Heaven Of Freedom...'
Childhood memories of Independence Day celebrations are not pleasant. Don’t get me wrong, I am just referring to the packaging of the entire event.
August 15th meant getting up really, really early and heading to school for the parade. But this had a lot of other preparations. New white ribbons had to be bought – because the ones bought at the start of the year would have become yellow. The sports shoes – white keds – had to be washed and ‘polished’. This was before they mercifully introduced ‘karate’ shoes that had a blue canvas. The sports uniform had to be starched and ironed.
The white ribbons had to be bought from a bangle store on Malleswaram 8th cross. I usually realized my ribbons have taken on the colour of tadka daal around August 14th 8:00 PM. With much chiding, face distorted with deep frowns, teeth gnashing and grating, Amma would drag me along to the shop, which closed by 8:30 PM.
The ribbon came in a roll. Amma had to then measure appropriately according to the length of my hair (two short plaits reaching my shoulders...for some years) and cut two equal ribbon pieces. Then I had to ‘treat’ the ribbon. The cut ends would have trailing threads – enough to get me ‘bad marks’ during the school assembly inspection. So the ends had to be singed over a candle flame.
But the worst was the sports uniform. Before the introduction of light-iron tericot, we had pure cotton skirts and shirts. The skirt had a million pleats. The only way to ensure wrinkle-less skirts was to starch the damn thing. Thankfully, after Robin liquid bloooooo, they came out with Robin starch, and life for Amma was a tad easier. Once sun-dried, the skirt looked like a cardboard heap. Ironing this garment was not possible for amateurs and weak-hearted. There was only one man who could do this – our istriwallah two streets away, near the Malleswaram Swimming Pool extension Raghavendra Swami temple. The istriwallah was a Christian – always had a kind word and a smile. But whenever he saw the skirt, he became Damien from Omen.
He usually took 45 minutes to iron the monster, and charged a whopping Rs.2.50. Amma called it daylight robbery. Anyway I would hand over the skirt to him and wander away to pester Raghavendra Swami in the temple. On some days, they would give kosumbari as prasada along with the kallu sakre. Of course protocol meant I had to pray, and I would pray listlessly for academic success ‘Please let me get just 45 marks in Arithmetic’ (45 was the pass mark in our tests). But my greed for kosumbari ensured I would be punished in the said Arithmetic paper.
On the day of the parade, I would be ready with red-rimmed eyes. Startling white ribbons snaking between my rat-tail plaits that were well oiled with Amma’s home-made oil ...an oil that carried the smell and thickness of an industrial lubricant. The ironed skirt and shirt would have taken on the stiffness of tin. The dazzling white shoes with the knee length socks completed the ridiculous get up. On such mornings I would usually have mosaranna for breakfast – that was the only thing that kept my childhood bulimia at bay.
But I did look forward to competitions lined up for the Independence Day celebrations. On one such Independence Day, there was a ‘patriotic group song’ competition. I don’t know how or why I was a part of the group. Some of my friends are terrific singers. Perhaps I was selected for the infrasonic bass effect.
And then came the ‘fancy dress’ competition for kindergarten and primary school kids. Poor things – all dressed up as erstwhile politicians. I remember a two-foot Indira Gandhi who came on the dais, waved a small flag, picked her nose, rolled on the floor and bawled. The dwarf Mahatma Gandhis with cardboard specs were the cutest. One such Gandhi started off with a spirited 'Vande Mataram'. Then 'Gandhi' lost interest and examined the walking stick...decided she is tired of patriotism and changed tracks. That was the first and last time I heard 'Gandhi' break into 'Ding dong bell'. Then there was the sullen Nehru who threw the cap and ate the rose pinned to the 'kurta'. Oh! It was a hoot!
Most enjoyed competition though was the ‘Painting competition’. Usually the topic would be 'scenic beauty' (also known as ‘seenry’ according to many of us). Although the world felt otherwise, I always held my painting skills in very high esteem. (Check my post Art Of The Matter) For me 'scenic beauty' was a standard template. Two mountains with razor sharp peaks like a giant alphabet ‘M’. A humungous, perfectly circular sun bobbing between the peaks. The sun would be a sickening doomsday orange, followed by yellow rays that shoot out in straight lines. Two to three crows – black smudges really – on an alarmingly blue sky. At the ‘foothills’ a ribbon of a blue stream, that strangely does not reflect the bleeding sun. Cows that resembled extra-terrestrial monsters, kind of jumping over the stream. A house made of rectangles and squares, with a tunnel-like opening for a door, sits a distance away from the stream. The house is disproportionate – if one stood on the roof of the house, one could hang clothes on the mountain peak. Or if one climbed the chimney, one could be launched into orbit. And of course, the mandatory, deformed coconut trees at the foreground. I would be crushed when I never won a prize for painting.
There was one ritual I most certainly dreaded though. Watching T.V. on Independence Day. But it being a holiday, it would be sacrilege not to watch T.V. August 15th meant the fatal combination of Manoj Kumar and Mahendra Kapoor. It meant listening to ‘mere desh ki dharti..eeeeeEEEeeeEEEeeeh.’ It meant watching poor, shrivelled freedom fighters being feted by smarmy netas. It meant watching netas struggle to bend and lay the wreath at Raj Ghat. And as the years passed, it meant watching ‘Gandhi’. It meant watching movies that had beefy, bulked up guys acting as soldiers, yelling obscenities at our neighbouring countries as a show of patriotism. Or Nana Patekar yelling his lungs out as a vein throbs on his forehead. Really why is patriotism such an angry emotion in bollywood?
As an adult, without the parades and flag hoisting, August 15th became just another holiday. A lot of newspapers carry articles of the same genre – they’ve done it for years – all asking ‘Are you a proud Indian?’ ‘What does freedom mean to you?’ ‘Reflect on our Independence’.
I usually find such articles pompous, jingoistic and preachy. But in truth, I don’t have answers to those questions. Because I suppose, we are STILL struggling for freedom. Freedom from corruption and oppression. Freedom from poverty and starvation. Freedom from fear and indignity. Freedom from ignorance and hatred.
So let me not say ‘Happy Independence Day’. Instead let me wish that all of us gain Independence in the truest sense. Independence of thought, word and action.
Indeed, the day you are able to live life the way YOU deem fit;
The day you are recognised by your merit, and not by your caste, religion or gender;
They day criminals can’t run for elections...and get elected;
The day you can walk into any politician’s office and demand information ...and it is given promptly;
The day violence against men and women is condemned and not condoned;
The day women are able to go about their lives as freely as men;
The day there is no death due to starvation ...because excess food grains lay rotting;
The day no farmer commits suicide because of failed crops and burgeoning debts;
The day each and every citizen has three square meals a day, no matter what;
The day every child is well-nourished and goes to school and has a fair shot at a good future;
The day every citizen has access to a clean toilet within the house;
The day you have freedom to choose your life partner because you love him/her, without fear of social repercussions;
The day the God you worship is just a personal choice, and not a political agenda;
The day every citizen can live with dignity within their means;
That day ...let us hail ‘Happy Independence Day’.
© Sumana Khan - 2012