Republic Day and the idea of India

Chabees Janvaree (26th January) is a big day for the joint forces of Shri Badal Chand Sugan Kanwar Balika Senior Secondary School and Mahaveer Public School. We enter the playground of the former to see rows of children in freshly-pressed, white uniforms sitting – or rather shuffling, turning, and whispering – on plastic chairs. The girls among them have plats tied with shiny, red ribbons; the boys have oiled side partings.

“Does Monica Jhod go to this school?”, we ask a sensible-looking, sari-clad teacher, as she makes her way across the schoolyard towards us.

“Monica Jhod…”, she runs over a mental image of her register.

“Yes, yes, she is attending this school.” A male teacher – bespectacled, slightly older and perhaps more senior – takes control of the situation.  “You are most welcome here. Today, as in all of Hindustan, we are celebrating the Republic Da-”

“- Yes, we know. But we have come to see Monica Jhod get her prize,” explains (fellow volunteer) Corinne, “Does she attend this school?”

“Ok, ok. You kindly sit here.”

We are sat in the second row; the first is comprised of an odd collection of padded chairs and a sofa – clearly for guests very important, vey fat, or both. I had arrived in Jodpur from my village the night before. Govind, boss of Sambhali Trust (the NGO with which I’m currently volunteering), had requested that Helen and I join his three Jodhpur-based volunteers to attend various Republic Day events in the city. On the itinery: a school prize-giving; the dancing-marching-bandplaying collaboration of ten city schools at the local athletics stadium; and a brunch buffet at the residence of the new ‘Jodhpur Divisional Commissioner’ – all before Helen and I were to head back to the village to oversee the programme our own pupils were putting on for their parents and guests.

So there we were, in the playground of a local, private school, sitting on our plastic, second-row seats, waiting to see Monica receive the prize for the best student of the year. (Monica, by the way, is a fifteen-year-old Dalit (‘untouchable’) girl, and a participant of the Sambhali Trust‘s ‘Jodhpur project’; she is also sponsored by the trust to attend this school. Confident, outgoing, and intelligent, she is a firm favourite with the volunteers.) But there was no sign of her yet.

A handful of smartly dressed, (self-)important-looking adults entered from the back of the playground and congregated beneath a tall flagpole. The Indian flag was raised, showering them with confetti as it unfurled. The children clapped; the VIPs brushed bits of glitter from their noses trying to look as if they weren’t; the teachers shuffled and frowned.

A drum started. Uniformed children marched past the flag (arms swinging up to exaggerated right-angles) and re-formed into their ranks beside the stage. The VIPs followed: walking normally and therefore out of time, they looked somewhat awkward, self-conscious after the practiced precision of the marching. They were each given a bouquet of fabric flowers before taking their padded seats at the front. The most important of these veryimportantpeople sat alone, in a pinstriped suit, on the first row’s centrally-placed sofa, with the look of a man uncomfortable being looked at.

A teacher said a few, echo-ey words into the microphone, and the programme began. A group of girls in their early teens came jogging onto the stage in fully buttoned-up white polo shirts, white tennis skirts and white plimsoles, and filed into lines. There was a loud crackle from the audio speakers, and Run-D. M. C.’s 1983 classic It’s Like That (And That’s The Way It Is) came blaring out…

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact effect of the performance – the choreographed aerobic-workout – that followed.

It lay somewhere – on some previously unchartered territory – between Jane Fonda, 1950s Wimbledon, and a Bollywood set piece.

Is it just me? I thought, Or is this reeally weird?

I looked around: a small boy was picking his nose nonchalantly behind me; in front of me teachers with clipboards were talking among themselves.

Is this even Indian?, I wondered.

***

Arundhati Roy – writing on the subject of Indain-ness and the feverish need of her country’s people (or rather, its politicians, and anyone else with a vested interest in the concept) to define and protect it – suggests (tongue firmly in cheek) ‘a practical list of things to ban and buildings to break’ in its name:

They could begin by banning a number of ingredients from our cuisine: chillies (Mexico), tomatoes (Peru), potatoes (Bolivia), coffee (Morocco), tea, white sugar, cinnamon (China)… They could then move into recipes. Tea with milk and sugar, for instance (Britain).

Smoking will be out of the question. Tobacco came from North America.

Cricket, English and Democracy should be forbidden. [Etc.etc.]

Is India, then, not entirely Indian? True, the country has absorbed, gobbled, mimicked, and had thrust upon it the customs of various alien civilisations since the 1500 BC movement of Aryan tribes from Afghanistan and Central Asia. Indeed, the uniquely-Indian chaos of India is fueled by the heady, sometimes incongruous, yet somehow functioning mix of races, religions, cultures and values that exist within its perameters. Perhaps this very intermingling is what’s Indian; I’m not sure.

***

If the morning’s school prize-giving displayed the country’s more culturally-omnivorous tendencies, our next stop (the dancing-marching-bandplaying collaboration of ten city schools, as you will recall) felt more reassuringly, authentically Indian. Accha.

In keeping with tradition and the mindset of a people whose national language has one word for both yesterday and tomorrow, the performance started an hour late. A polite though bodiless voice told us to feast our eyes upon the colours of the Great Desert State of Rajasthan as school girls twirled and turned to fast-paced drumming. Then children with ribbons (either saffron, white or green) tied to their wrists formed into three blocks and waved their arms in the air, so that serendipitous air-passengers flying overhead would have been able to make out the Indian flag. For those on the ground, the effect was less, well, effective.

Our brunch party was somewhat less colourful. In the place of Rajasthani reds and oranges were sober suit-greys and the neutral bieges of kurta-pyjamas. It was less noisy, too: the guests’ hushed small talk was muffled still by sticky mouthfuls of gulab jamun. Stared at and randomly greeted (on account of our white skin) whereverelse we go, inside the marquee we were pointedly snubbed by other guests. Refreshing, yet mildly offensive.

Was this Indian, then? Not Indian as I’d known it so far. Not very: only partly.

My uneasy sense that I wasn’t getting the Indian-ness I’d been promised was not allayed by the Republic Day event at my own village school. Though it included receitals of (nominally) English poetry, and Hindi speeches, it felt more local, more Marwari than anything else – dominated as it was by fast-paced, wrist-turning drum dances.

Were the girls of Bengal in the East, Tamil Nadu in the South, or Kashmir in the North waving the same saffron, white and green plastic flags as my pupils? Probably. Did they feel some sense of patriotic sisterhood? Probably not: not really. Here they don’t even call Republic Day ‘Republic Day’; subconsciously stripping it of its national significance, reducing it to a mere date, they call it ‘Chabees Janvaree’.

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Khushi, with Rajasthani bangles

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Yogita

***

The idea of India is one Bollywood, Indian politicians, and plastic flag shops wish to promote and concretize, and one internationally-acclaimed Indian writers (often of the Non-Residential variety) wish to reveal as myth. Salman Rushdie, in his BookerofBookers Midnight’s Children, pinpoints the birth of said myth as the moment of India’s independence from British rule: Midnight, August 14th 1947.

August in Bombay: a month of festivals, the month of Krishna’s birthday and Coconut Day; and this year – fourteen hours to go, thirteen, twelve – there was an extra festival on the calendar, a new myth to celebrate, because a nation which had never previously existed was about to win its freedom, catapulting us into a world which, although it had five thousand years of history, although it had invented the game of chess and traded with the Middle Kingdom Egypt, was nevertheless quite imaginary; into a mythical land, a country which would never exist except by the efforts of a phenomenal collective will – except in a dream which we all agreed to dream, it was a mass fantasy shared in varying degrees by Bengali and Punjabi, Madrasi and Jat, and would periodically need the sanctification and renewal which can only be provided by rituals of blood.

Though I have been fortunate enough not to have witnessed in my time here any ‘rituals of blood’, I have found there to be some truth in Rushdie’s last point. The idea of India was, for me, most tangible, most alive at Attari, an Indian-Pakistani boarder crossing-point in Punjab. It was one man’s job to whip up (with the help of a microphone and several large speakers blasting out Bollywood music) a vociferous patriotism in the Indian crowd. On the other side of the gate and the two flapping flags, it was another man’s job to do the same with the Pakistani crowd. Both sides were full: the people in both crowds were willing to pay to be part of something larger than themselves, to sharpen their sense of selfhood against their supposed enemy. But perhaps that’s the case with any distinction: that we define things (and ourselves) against what is Other.

And, it has to be said, the fierceness of the Attari crowds was not seriously threatening. It was the competitive fierceness of proud parents at a school hockey match, not that of bloodthirsty nationalists…

Elsewhere, I’ve heard, it’s more bloodthirsty.

~ by Griselda Murray Brown on March 12, 2009.

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