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A tribute to India in celebration of its 65th Independence Day
On the eve of India’s 65th Independence Day, I want to start this paean to the country of my birth with a poem by the greatest modern Indian poet, novelist, educator, essayist, painter, songwriter and the first non-European who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, for his “Gitanjali” poems. “Ah, the light dances, my darling, at the centre of my life; the light strikes, my darling, the chords of my love; the sky opens, the wind runs wild, laughter passes over the earth. “The butterflies spread their sails on the sea of light. Lilies and jasmines surge up on the crest of the waves of light. “The light is shattered into gold on every cloud, my darling, and it scatters gems in profusion.”
If a man who went through as much tragedy as Tagore did (his wife, two children and virtually his entire family died in his lifetime), could write of “light shattering into gold on every cloud,” then there is hope for us all as we navigate the various land mines life puts in our individual journeys. “Look Aapa,” said my sister—using her childhood name for me, grabbing my hand at the Sindhi funeral service of the mother of a dear friend of ours—“It’s just like India.” The image was so fleeting that it was disappearing even as I blinked at the white light out of the deep cold shadow of the crematorium doors: a funeral party in white moving, as in a dream sequence, down cascading stairs like one organism, kurtas, dupattas, flapping, flashing in the white midday heat, bouncing off the whitewashed stairs and narrow walls and disappearing in the street below.
My sister’s words took me back to childhood, a simplicity we all sometimes crave, like slipping into warm water in sunshine; like holding a sister’s hand and feeling like it’s your own. I am not undermining the exhilaration and ultimate privilege of having access to three continents (thanks to sacrificing parents), nor am I saying I am not devoted to my adopted country where my parents live, where I married, where my children were born, to which my grandmother travelled, eventually to die and be buried. No, it’s not that at all.
Our origins give us a sense of self
My friend’s mother had come from India over 45 years ago, loved Trinidad, but her accent sounded, as her bereft daughters remembered while smiling through their tears, like she got off the plane from India yesterday. I laughed with a kind of relief when I heard that. Our origins give us a sense of self, a sense of safety from which we can fly and return when we need nourishment, when our wings are clipped—which could be why we in T&T celebrate Emancipation and Indian Arrival Day with such gusto—a homecoming of sorts. Call it serendipity, but last week my father finally triumphantly produced a proper birth certificate mailed from the army hospital in Guwahati, Asaam, something I had not possessed in all these years.
Last week, too, on this eve of India’s 65th Independence Day, the month-long hunt for my long cancelled Indian passport was over. I was rifling through shockingly untidy files and there it was, wedged between a broken frame and some old photos.
I am now eligible for the “green card,” the Overseas Citizenship for India (OCI) card for Indian-born expats which allows me to live in India without reporting to immigration. I doubt I will ever return to live, but procuring it will take away the feeling of being on the outside looking in. And finally, the pièce de résistance. Hans Hanoomansingh, the doyen of broadcasting asked me if I wanted to do a radio programme on August 15, on Heritage radio called “My India.” It would be India from 1947 onwards through music. I called on the one man in T&T who I knew would help me, the man who fought three wars for India—my father, who served in the Indian Army for 22 years. We spent a day together looking at the decades through India’s music and without knowing it, India was restored to me in a manner I had not thought possible.
Dad talked...I listened
My father talked. I listened. “The first inkling I had of India becoming independent was early August, 1942, when the Indian National Congress led by Mahatma Gandhi declared a “Quit India” movement starting on August 9. On August 8, key leaders including Nehru, Gandhi, and Patel were arrested to pre-empt meetings on August 9. The meetings still took place all over India and the police carried out lathi charge everywhere. On my way home from school in my hometown Aligarh, in the company gardens (a colonial remnant), I witnessed police hit and charge at people with bamboo sticks, to disperse them.
“My second experience of pre-independence India was in 1945 when I was going to a wedding from Aligarh to Bareilly with my brother and we had to change trains at Kanpur. We had second-class tickets, and I needed to go to the bathroom (then called retiring rooms) on the first floor. As we were climbing up the steps we saw a big sign that said: “No Dogs and Indians Allowed.” I was ten. A chaukidaar (watchman) said: “That’s only for Englishmen.” That shook me. “On the eve of India’s Independence towards midnight on August 14, 1947, I heard our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru giving his now famous speech to the Indian Constituent Assembly. I was 15 years old. There was one radio in our courtyard and there, my parents, my older brother and I heard Nehru’s speech. Our hearts and minds were shivering with pride as he began...
“Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom...” “After independence Mahatma Gandhi’s prayer meetings in Delhi were broadcast live every day by All India Radio which I listened to without fail. “Once a foreign correspondent asked him to summarise his life in 24 words. He said: ‘You are giving me too many. I can do it in three words—Renounce and Enjoy.’ In other words, do your duty without worrying about the results.” For once in my life I didn’t interrupt as my father spoke.
“Bapu was assassinated on January 30, 1948. I was playing cricket that day when my father came for me. He was afraid of trouble. We all initially thought a Muslim had killed him, but it was a Hindu. I actually cried. I wept. It happened with a lot of people. We looked to him to guide the country. He was guiding everyone. He was the symbol of all India. “All the shops closed. Everyone went home. There were news reels shown of his funeral in cinemas throughout India. His funeral starting in Parliament House and going to Raj Ghat a few miles away was a sea of white. It looked to me as if all of humanity came to mourn.”
That was an abridged version of an ongoing conversation, but today I want to close this tribute to India with more of Nehru’s universally applicable words which my father and grandparents heard on the radio on August 15, 1947:
“That future is not one of ease or resting but of incessant striving so that we may fulfil the pledges we have so often taken and the one we shall take today. The service of India means the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity. The ambition of the greatest men of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us, but as long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over.”
Ultimately, on the eve of India’s 65th Independence Day, Rabindranath Tagore (who died in 1941) like Nehru and Gandhi would have seen today’s advancing India as a fulfilment of their dreams summing up a perpetual sense of hope, not just for myself, but for us all: “The light is shattered into gold on every cloud, my darling.”