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Yeh Hai India!

The Rediff Special Savera R Someshwar

Saare Jahan Se Achcha?

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...

Half-a-century later, the megapolis of Bombay -- supposedly the hub of India -- was fast asleep as the city clocks intoned the midnight hour, the hour when, 50 years ago, Jawaharlal Nehru's fiery speech urged a nascent nation to take its first tottering steps on a path of its own choosing.

The streets were quiet, the Gateway of India almost deserted, the Mantralaya waited in anticipation for something, anything, at all to happen. Nothing did. It was, for the city, its people and the government just another ordinary day. There was nothing special -- or was there -- about the fact that this day marks the freedom of a nation from foreign rule or that this day marked the sunset of one of the richest empires in world history.

Moving through the city, close to the midnight hour, was a painful ordeal. A few monuments were sparsely lit, petrol pumps thought it fit to invest in only a string of light bulbs to brighten their outlines. Diwali, it definitely was not.

More enthusiasm was generated by the fact that it was the birthday of a Muslim pir (holy man). Bhendi Bazaar and Mohammed Ali Road were a cluster of brightly coloured stars. "What independence, saab?" asked the people who had gathered around us. "We don't know all that, we are celebrating our own festival."

This was not the time to get disillusioned, not yet anyway. After all, had we not seen a huge national flag, created out of brilliant little saffron, white and green light bulbs? Onward then, towards Byculla, Mazgaon and Dockyard Road.

Khilafat House was silent, no lights illuminated its white facade, no sounds emanated from its dark interiors. The house from where Mahatma Gandhi launched his famed Khilafat movement -- which, for the first time, united the Hindus and Muslims against the British during World War I) was strangely quiet; not a single ghost from its historical past tread on the hallowed hallways.

In Mazgaon, though, a solitary church lay awake, acknowledging the moment with a midnight mass dedicated to the nation.

A little ahead lay a series of homes, if you could call it that. More like a haphazard collections of corrugated sheets, cardboard walls, bricks, step ladders, odds and ends. A series of temporary roofs, housing hundreds of people, that have been here for the past 25 odd years.

"Independence Day?" the troubled face looked at her neighbours for assurance. "I don't know anything about that."

But she would like to help out. "Yes, but why don't come back tomorrow? My husband will return tomorrow morning; I am sure he will know about it. Only my husband knows about all these things." Her two little daughters are asleep in the nearby shanty.

Groups of men have gathered for their nightly gossip session a few feet away. Some of them are dressed, but many have only a towel wrapped around their waists. They slouch around, or squat on the pavement and stare into the distance. Some of them engage in desultory conversation.

"Independence? Hah, saab, you must be joking!" Gyanu Somat Thorat, somewhere in his late 20s or early 30s, glares at you. He points at a boy angrily. "Look at him. He has studied till the 12th standard. Now, he stands at the naka (corner) and does hamali (carrying heavy parcels/cartons/suitcases for a few rupees). If he is lucky, he will earn a few rupees. Otherwise, he will go to bed hungry.

"Most of the men here are jobless. Many of them are educated till the tenth standard, but no jobs. We survive only because of our women. Most of the women here, they buy garlic worth a few hundred rupees and then go to all those posh areas and sell them to the memsaabs. That is how we fill our stomachs."

The white-haired Sheikh Abbas Ibrahim nudged him aside, "I wonder why we were cursed with this. Life under the British was much better. We came here 25 years ago, we have ration cards and voters I-D cards, but that is all. We are stuck -- we cannot go back to Osmanabad because we will die of starvation and if we stay here, we will become animals because of this inhuman life that we have to live."

A face in the crowd added, "We have one tap here for 600 people. No bathrooms. No toilets. We have to use the public toilet and, each time we visit, we have to pay one rupee. God forbid, if someone gets diarrhoea... "

Someone else adds, "Politicians come and make promises. That's all we ever get, promises... and still more promises. In another 50 years, India will celebrate 100 years of freedom. And we will still remain here, on these pavements, in these kuccha (makeshift) houses. Nothing will change for us. I think the rest of the world should know that. They should know what India has done for us in the last 50 years!"

Behind us, voices were raised in anger. A few men were trying to roll a drunk aside; he was sitting right under the spot where they had to fix a loudspeaker onto the bridge support. "The... this is my country too, I can sit where I want, sleep where I want, do what..."

It was time to move; were tears and pain the only things associated with the fiftieth year of India's independence?

Not really, Sony was using the opportunity to push A R Rahman's debut non-film album Vande Mataram. A huge van, windows draped in the national colours, parked near the Gateway, blaring loud music. "Nothing to do with Independence Day, man," a long-haired dude enlightened us. "We are just promoing this new cassette! Want one? It's only..."

We were on way. A few houses had multi-coloured light bulbs at their windows, but, cynics as we were fast becoming, we just saw and refused to believe. If they were in honour of Independence Day -- well, hip, hip, hooray!

Chowpatty did nothing to alleviate our by-now sour mood. En route, we had bumped into some cops to whom -- we were getting used to the chant by now -- ID-50 didn't mean a damn thing. Oh, of course, it was a good thing, though none of them could tell us why. But pay packets were still the same, families had grown larger, how on earth was one supposed to manage? Yes, there were fancy new cars on the road, saab, but they don't belong to the likes of us. They are for you. Aish karo, saab.

Chowpatty was deserted, the waves rumbled gently towards the shore, the breeze was cool and, in the distance, groups of men gathered around in circles and dances to the beat of a couple of drums.

The actor Deepak Shirke was there, whispering into his mobile phone. He looked at us. "Just roaming city, you see, wanted to see the celebrations. There was none. I'm disappointed." He was returning from Regal, after having watched Anaconda with some friends, and had detoured to Chowpatty to spend a couple of minutes with the statue of Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak. "This man inspires me, after all he was the one who popularised Ganeshotsav. He was the one who gave us the slogan, Swaraj is my birthright and I shall have it."

Just then, the clock struck midnight. There was a burst from a cracker, that aimed for the skies and fizzled out in one solitary burst of red. Looking at that the residual trail of smoke, Shirke continued, "I remember my mother telling me about this night, about Nehru's speech. As a kid, I remember how much we loved this day. It was so exciting. All of us in the colony used to hire a truck and roam around in the city. Or we use the train or the bus. Do you know, in those days, till about 1962 or '63, the public transport would be free for two days to celebrate this special event?"

This was getting morbid. We raced toward the governor's bungalow. It was lit up. Not brilliantly, but at least it was lit up. Not really, though, only once entrance was lit up the rest of the place was in darkness. Likewise, Jinnah House and Varsha, the official residence of Maharashtra Chief Minister Manohar Joshi.

Who, of course, was spending the midnight hour with his remote control, Bal Thackeray at Sena Bhavan. The place was brightly lit, beautifully decorated. Cops scattered around like confetti. Apparently, we had missed the event in city.

"Arre, Balasaheb was here. So was the chief minister. He unfurled the flag. They both gave speeches. And Balasaheb gave everyone a shapat (vow) for the country. You are too late. It's all over and we are going home," the cop was loquacious.

But, yes, we were late for what seemed to be the only celebration of India's independence at the midnight hour. Smouldering mashals torches were strewn around, and the last mini-van -- echoing faintly with a few 'Jai Maharashtras' -- made its way home.

Official celebrations, that is. For, at this moment, there was a little glow in our hearts. Lit by a duo called Sanjay and Kishore Jadhav. They had been tramping the streets for hours, and would continue to do so until the crack of dawn. Fluttering in Sanjay's hands was the Indian tricolour.

"I do this every year. At the moment, my heart is full of so joy that I think it will burst. This is my way of expressing my feelings for my nation."

Suddenly, the voiced lowered, the expression changed to one of despair. "No, that's not true. Actually, I doing this as a mark of respect to all those people because of whom we are a free nation today. I'm not happy, not with the state our country is in today. I hate politics and the politicians. I hate what they have done to our country."

We watched him until the fluttering flag was a mere speck. Suddenly, a loud burst. Not one, but a whole series. Someone was actually bursting crackers. I don't believe it.

She was there, a young girl in blue dungarees and an orange blouse. In a midst of a group of boys, all of them intent in setting off crackers.

"Hey, what's the occasion?"

"Feels good. Independence day, isn't it? Actually, I was saving these up for a cricket match."

Between loud bursts of crackers and screams, giggles and much stuffing of fingers into ears, "I work for Air India, you know, and I've just returned from a flight..."


"The airport was all lit up and we were distributing sweets...


"It felt good. There was such a nice feeling all around. Every...


"... one looked and sounded so happy!"


August 15, 11 am

He was all of five years old, she was a year younger. And, for the last half-hour, I watched them fight over a tiny paper flag, say Vande Mataram umpteen times (the girl, struggling with a new word, kept saying Vande Maatam) and sing the Jana Gana Mana at least thrice. And, as they got off the train, she began singing Saare Jahan Se Achcha...

Happy Independence Day!

Additional Reportage: Syed Firdaus Ashraf

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