The morning of August 15th found me on a lush hillside overlooking the lake behind a dam west of Pune. It was raining hard. Through the rain, I could hear wisps of "patriotic" songs from a loudspeaker in the tiny village below and to my right. That's when I remembered: we had to be at the school there for their I-Day celebration.
Quickly, we got ready and sloshed down the track to the school. All its students, some 40 kids in starched uniforms, were packed in a dark concrete room. Several adults from the village were there too -- parents at the back, teachers in the front directing the function. One by one, the kids leaped up and rattled off short speeches in Marathi about one or another of our founding fathers -- Gandhi and Tilak figured repeatedly, but others too. There was a formula to these orations. The sentences at the beginning addressed the honoured Chief Guest and everyone assembled, then "I am going to say a few words about Tilak (or whoever). It is my humble request that you pay sincere attention." The sentences at the end were invariably: "With these two words I end my speech. Jai Hind, Jai Maharashtra." (The last four were said so swiftly as to be nearly unintelligible, and accompanied by a small fist waved in the air).
In between that opening and end, one or more sentences about Tilak (or whoever). And periodically, a child would stand and lead the gathering in a few shouted slogans.
I sat on the floor near the back wall, my city-bred legs slowly stiffening. While I enjoyed watching and listening to the kids, I also found my thoughts wandering ... to other schools, other times. To January 26 three years ago in a school in Kutch, where the suddenly quaking earth caused the walls to cave in on a set of kids much like this one. Then to Kumbakonam in July, where a fire roasted alive 92 kids much like these. As my country turned 57 years old, as my legs went numb in a concrete block schoolroom with the rain beating hard on its tin roof, I thought unconnected thoughts about kids. About this nation they and I live in.
In Kumbakonam, it isn't the 92 small Indians dead, horrific as that was, that most turns my stomach. It's the general lack of surprise that the horror happened in the first place. After all, we think, haven't we seen overcrowded schools and buildings, fire regulations flouted? Don't we live with the mess that electrical wiring is in too many buildings, the lack of adequate fire escapes? Haven't we cared not at all as inspectors are paid off, reports are ignored, the guilty escape? Haven't we watched such tragedies as the Uphaar cinema fire, the Ervadi mental "asylum" fire?
I mean, in Ervadi the patients were actually chained to their beds. Thus they were unable to flee from the flames that destroyed them. Which left me to wonder: which is the greater tragedy? That several human beings died in a fire because they were chained? Or that some of us think it's OK to chain such humans down solely because their minds are disturbed?
After all, if you flout regulations and bribe school inspectors and a fire then breaks out, kids will certainly die. If you chain men to beds, they too will certainly die in a fire.
So for one more August 15th, I think -- and if this strikes you as a large leap, bear with me -- neglect like this, attitude like this, has some roots in a perhaps unwitting turn we took somewhere in our national youth. In that pursuit of something we called a nation-state, with all that's attendant on that term. In our neglect of building a society, rather than that nation. In our yearning to be a world superpower, our concern with an image abroad rather than what we are within our borders. In forgetting that national security must mean, can only mean, and above all, the way our people live.
All our people. Including those promise-filled little bundles of joy in Kumbakonam. Including those troubled men and women in Ervadi.
I'm the traitor
Had we done that, here are a few glimpses of what today would look like.
Nobody sleeps on our streets at night, ready to be run over by filmstars or the wayward progeny of arms dealers. We buy our twice-a-year dose of patriotism -- that tricolour, you know -- not by handing over a few coins to a naked urchin shivering in the rain at a traffic light, but from a shop. (Then again, we might have seen through the hypocrisy of twice-a-year doses of patriotism). Every road in the country has a pavement for pedestrians, and if one such person on foot steps off, traffic immediately halts until she is safe on a pavement once more. All of us have reasonable health care available to us within a reasonable distance. All our kids go to school, though not in buildings that we realize are fire-traps only after they have burned down and taken the kids with them.
And such things as fire regulations are observed faithfully and fully -- be it in a school, an office building, or a movie theatre.
All this good stuff, and much more, is the result of that resolve in our early days: that in this India, everything is done with an eye firmly on how it will affect how our people live. Every single thing. All our people. And it's not just laws and policies I'm talking about, but attitudes too. (The bit about traffic coming to a halt, for example). Because I truly believe that a focus on people, right from 1947, would by now have persuaded us that it is our people that make our country. Nothing else. That the strength and integrity of India is measured by the strength and integrity of a billion Indian lives. Nothing more, but nothing less either.
As I sit in that rain-lashed classroom, one final thought strikes me. On this day that patriotism is on minds across this country, when we recall great Indians of the past and sing rousing songs, it seems to me that the greatest patriotism of all, maybe the only patriotism there is, lies in concern for the people around us.
If that is how we looked at patriotism, if that is how we looked at India and our fellow human beings, I feel confident many things would have been different. And the tragedies of Kumbakonam and Ervadi would never have happened.
Here where I cannot feel my legs any more, the children have finished their string of speeches. A young woman, guest at the school for the day and sitting up in front, rises to speak. In flowing Marathi, she says:
Today we hear so much about patriots. We all want to become patriots
ourselves. I remember seeing a film where a man rode off on a horse
saying he was giving up everything -- love, family, friends and relations
-- to go serve the country. They applauded him, but I was frightened by
this. I don't want a patriot who leaves everything behind, because then
what's left? I want patriots who bring us together.
That's the attitude I'm thinking about, I say to myself as I clap. Because if you have given up on love, family, friends, your fellow human beings, what do you have? What is the country you think you are serving?
But if you hold on to those things, well. Things could be different.