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India@60: Celebrating our great nation
There was a subtle simplicity about the place -- god's place on higher ground; then the place of learning; and below rolled the rest of humanity like a well manicured, but imperfect Mirzapuri carpet.
However, on that day, the 26th morning of the New Year, we would gather in front of the tall flagpost, not in deference to the almighty or to those mortals who dared to teach us, but for a cause that seemed real yet amorphous -- to honour the Republic with a hope for better things to come for all, to remember the founders long gone and to think of those who serve in the nation's armed forces.
The January air in the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh is clear and invigorating. The early morning sun has a cool orange glow to it. The ground beneath would have the last remnants of early morning dew as we would make our way towards the ground. We would be careful not to stamp our feet, lest the red clay -- typical of the land around where the three rivers meet in Sangam -- soil our well-polished black shoes.
The unruly accumulation of children on the ground could only be gathered in formation by our physical instructor and 'game' teacher Mr Pandey's shrill whistle. Over the years, he came to occupy that unique position in our heart that only comes when someone is able to infuse fear while earning respect. His dry, mocking sense of humour -- somewhat typical of those raised in the prairies around Banaras -- added to his personality. As our small years turned into teenage, Mr Pandey managed to transform the relationship to one of camaraderie.
Once assembled, the Republic Day routine would take over. The rope hanging off the flagpole would be pulled in ceremony, unfurling rose petals in the clear cool air, as the Tiranga would flutter out only to be pulled back by the assertiveness of the rope. In attention, we would all sing the national anthem, followed by remembrances of Bapu and Chacha Nehru.
Sometime that early morning, there would be a roll call to ensure kids did not take the day off. Both parents and teachers discouraged missing Republic Day celebrations.
Next, we would once again board the bus and head to the community ground. There, the celebrations would be more elaborate, with the whole town gathered. Our school band, an institution that I joined later, would once again play to the tune of Tagore's most recited poem. The chords of the anthem would have a restraining effect on everyone gathered as the melody would soar and travel across the valleys of the mountainous hamlet disappearing in the eternity of the Vindhyachal ranges. Then, the local police would march. Those in the community who had served with distinction would be honoured.
The day's celebrations would end with a speech by the local business leader. Us 9 and 10 year olds would sit barely listening or understanding the message that contained examples of far off places we had read in geography lessons -- Japan, Russia. Once again, Bapu and Chacha Nehru would be recalled.
By late morning, we would patiently await the fruits of our labour -- four moist Boondi Ladoos in a brown paper bag, crushed en route their journey from the kitchen to our venue. Hungry, ignoring the form after a momentary disappointment, we would devour them in no time.
The almost mechanical choreography of that day, experienced year after year, lays layers of patriotism and belief in nationhood in a child's malleable psyche and stays forever with him or her. As I write these thoughts, I hope that those who read it encourage their children to make it to the local Republic Day events. Perhaps those away from the country could share their experiences with their children.
So, I would urge those 9 and 10 year olds to wake up early and go and watch the unfurling of the flag, listen to the anthem in attention, watch the smart march of the police, peer over the photographs that come from Delhi showing a soldier saluting the President, and understand the significance of the day when 284 members of the Constituent Assembly put forward a framework for the infant nation in 1950.
Also, as a parent, guardian or teacher, your task is not done till you make sure that at the end of the festivities every child gets a treat of moist Boondi Ladoos, ideally served uncrushed.
For those of you who wonder, the hamlet that I talked about is very much around and thriving today, although the place has changed over the years. For one, children do not run and stand in straight lines pulled by the shrill sound of Mr Pandey's whistle. Some years ago, Mr Pandey passed away, having done his job gloriously -- of shepherding the children with his reprimands sprinkled with dry humour.
On days such as the 26th, one hopes there are others like him out there who can make unruly children stand in straight lines to watch the flag unfurl, letting loose a shower of rose petals in the cool January air.
Girish Rishi, an essayist, can be reached at email@example.com
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