Fifteenth August. The mystique of the enchanting date lingers on, albeit much faded and jaded after a lapse of forty-six years. But what a day it was when it began! I distinctly remember myself as a nine-year old kid going out in the evening with my mother in the family car (already converted into a taxi, having been bought by our chauffeur) into the Muslim quarters of Calcutta: Chitpore, Rajabazar, Colootolla, and Metiaburuj. I could still smell the sickeningly sweet aroma of rose water and attar being sprayed by the Muslims and the Hindus on each other—the very same people who, a little while ago, had sprayed bullets on or hacked each other to death.
The Independence Day, therefore, seemed to register in my young impressionable mind an occasion for uninhibited and unlimited fun to share with friends and strangers. I recall having done a dozen sketches of Mahatma Gandhi (after having seen him in Beliaghata a couple of days earlier and I particularly liked his marching poses, be that from the days of Satyagraha movement or from his recently conducted Noakhali tour), Pandit Nehru, and above all Subhas Chandra and Vivekananda—men who had become the most prominent icons of the Indian political and cultural pantheon. My special fascination with Swamiji and Netaji was caused not because I presumed to understand their historical worth but because, plainly speaking, they projected the image of two handsome defiant daredevils—some kind of a model for a sickly, homely, naïve Bengali boy.
I even remember having read voraciously the adventure stories in the special issues of Jugantar and Anandabazar Patrika recounting the exploits—mythologized and romanticized to cater to popular imagination—of patriots like Master-da’, Kshudiram, Benoy-Badal-Dinesh, Bagha Jatin, Pritilata Waddedar, or Matangini Hazra. It felt good to be born in the land of so many heroic personalities. Those were the dies halcionii of my pre-teen childhood—enchanting, exciting, hopeful, hunky-dory.
The next impression of Fifteenth August comes from my college days. I was a second year arts student at the Presidency College then—no longer a neophyte freshman smelling high school but a “veteran” sophomore smelling cigarettes (a definite sign of adulthood) and more, a patient, as it were, of the well-known adolescent affliction—getting goosebump at the sight of a coed. I now vividly recapture in my mind the events of the Independence Day anniversary at college for two good reasons. First, I had the most rapturous experience of listening to our history professor (whose American suits as well as quasi-American accents had intrigued our entire class) expatiate in superb Bengali (something I thought he had forgotten or did not care for) on the historical and cultural significance of our national flag. Second, and more important, a friend from the science department (who has since relocated overseas) spotted in the crowd our joint heartthrob, a very pretty senior from the department of English. Most women students of the college, their academic status notwithstanding, were objects of fancy and fantasy in the drab stag world of freshmen and sophomores. It’s amusing but quite pathetic (it seems) to remember our following the utterly flabbergasted and frankly furious female to her home—a feat that seemed then as the epitome of romantic escapade on the part of two repressed and obsessed youths from traditional and authoritarian households. However, the national Independence Day did make a progress toward maturity in my life.
Since those carefree, innocent initial years at college, I grew up, cultivated an interest in history, and graduated. I had given up drawing and painting and instead embraced the life of a university graduate student, which meant as far as I and a couple of my close associates were concerned, books, barbells, beer, badminton, and broad (not necessarily in that order). I eventually fell in love, married, had a child, and left the country. Since 1967, during our peregrination through the globe (until finally settling down in the US—that ek je aache majar desh of my adolescent dream), the Indian Independence Day has become an occasion for feast, fun, and a bit of fraud, that is, ritual public proclamation of the uniqueness and the unsurpassed beatitude of being an Indian. Nevertheless, after over four decades, the birthday of sovereign India seems quite boring and even doubtful, just like my own birthday. I celebrate the former rather mechanically, as part of the annual ritual for an ethnic Indian living abroad, while I still resist the latter, though to little effect, due solely to those “corrupting” gifts from my wife and daughter.
I sometimes wonder why I have lost the zest and the zing for these two birthdays. But when I reflect, as I do now, I think I know the reason. As for my personal birthday, it’s the reality and apprehension of the oncoming autumn of life, a time to beware of what the Japanese call aware no mono (“the sadness of things”), and wait—not like Samuel Beckett’s Estragon for Godot, but for the approaching specter of my older and uglier self. While I can do nothing but accept my biological inevitability either with rationalized equanimity or with honest grudging acquiescence, I can still dare to say a few words on our national birthday. Even at the risk of sounding somewhat hypocritical, I must confess it is heartbreaking to realize that the Indians have not groomed themselves for their “tryst with destiny” which our first Prime Minister had announced on the of August 15, 1947. Instead of evolving as a civilized, humane, tolerant, patriotic on our national, and intelligent people, we have regressed into primitive barbarism, abdicated common sense, and let ourselves be duped by fanatics, fortune hunters, fortune tellers and charlatans with their ideological and spiritual gobbledygook. As a nation we have little to display except our cosmeticized and conceited image as the most non-materialistic and most god-fearing people with a millennia-old heritage of culture.
Meanwhile, Mother India quivers under the flag fluttering in the tropical breeze, like an aging and tired bird with her wings spread over the diseased subcontinent, and scarred with the many wounds inflicted by her benighted children, who have corrupted her very soul. Her melancholy and wretched visage can no longer be attributed to the malfeasance of a foreign imperial power against whom poets like Dwijendralal, Rangalal, Rabindranath, and Nazrul had raised their voice of defiance. It’s the face of free India, scarred and charred by the flames of the burning brides and widows, and butchered or blown up men, women, and children—those countless innocents who are being daily sacrificed at the altar of tradition, faith, and ethnicity, thus making a travesty of the late Mrs. Gandhi’s confident assertion made in her speech on August 15, 1972 that “our national unity, democracy, secularism and socialism remain strong and firm.”
And yet, in spite of her multiple injuries and indignities, the Mother still breathes and broods and dreams of her day of deliverance. Her dream is sure to come true some day because not all her children have failed her. If there are some who have little qualms in launching a religious fratricide in the name of “holy brick” or “holy book” and, as was the case during the last election campaign , in trying to elicit vote by publicly worshipping the cosmic mountain Govardhan made up literally on cowdung, the “holy shit” (as an incumbent Minister did)), or by dressing up as the “divine monkey” Bajrangbali (as a sadhu contestant did), there are countless others who are able to see through the fraud in abusing religion with politics and vice versa and separate secularism, real socialism from party tyranny, and functional democracy from unbridled demagoguery.
These sincere and well-meaning sons and daughters of Mother India are struggling to keep her alive and hopefully well; their efforts perhaps render the Independence Day worthy of remembrance and celebration. There is no gainsaying the fact that she has mothered innumerable luminaries—a veritable ratnagarbha! I have no words to sing her paeans on his day, nor can I summon the right mental disposition for the occasion. By default, then, as one of her many prodigal sons who would never cease to commiserate with her, but could never, alas, “come home,” I can only echo the solemn invocation composed by one of her illustrious sons, which has retained its gravitas in sonorous Sanskrit to this day: Bande Mataram.
Originally published in The Sunday Statesman (August 15, 1993)