Three Generations and a Freedom Story

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البحث بحسب الصور Children holding the national flag run at the beach, a day ahead of the Independence Day celebrations, in Kochi, Kerala.

Children holding the national flag run at the beach, a day ahead of the Independence Day celebrations, in Kochi, Kerala

While it may be true that the younger generation takes freedom too much for granted, the fact is freedom has a different meaning for them than it had for us and my parents’ generation

VANIT SETHI 

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]any years ago, there used to be a serial on Indian television, during the halcyon days of Doordarshan in the mid-1980s, called ‘Kahan Gaye Woh Log?’ (‘Where have those people gone?’). It profiled the stories of numerous freedom fighters – many of them unknown – who struggled valiantly against foreign rule, and gave their everything for the nation, without asking for anything in return. Truly, where have they gone?

With these thoughts in my mind on the eve of India’s 67th anniversary of independence, I was contemplating on what freedom means to successive generations of Indians. What it meant to the generation of my parents, what it means to my own generation, and what it will mean to the generation of my children? For this, I had to delve into the past, deal with the present, and dwell on the future.

My parents’ generation

My father was just 16 when India gained freedom. I would’ve thought my father was jubilant on hearing the ‘tryst with destiny’ speech of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, on the midnight of August 14/15. But all that my father remembered of that historic occasion was being uprooted from their homeland in Srinagar, trudging for over 20 days on horse-driven carriages to Jammu, and then branching off to other cities like Banaras, Delhi, and Dharamshala for higher education and employment. He remembered waking up at 4 am everyday to conduct tuition in Maths to earn some pocket money, walking for miles to work in an insurance company in Connaught Place, and then studying late into the night for his graduation. The only entertainment he had was sleeping like a log for 5 to 6 hours before the grind began again the next day.

Seeing the hordes of refugees on Delhi streets, who had been uprooted from what is now Pakistan, he considered himself lucky to be studying and working somewhere. But he always nursed a grouse that India’s partition – that came along with independence – scuttled his father’s dreams of sending him to the UK for higher education. Also, seeing the senseless religious hatred of those days – and what it did to thousands of Punjabi families on both sides of the border – made him become a confirmed agnostic.

Much later, life did turn sweeter for him after he married mom in Chandigarh – the new, modern city that thousands of refugees adopted as their home, as it gave them the freedom to set themselves free from the stifling traditions of the past, and embark on a new path of education to better their lives. Then, when he left for Hyderabad to join as a lecturer in the Central Institute of English, life become much pleasanter. The institute provided him a good opportunity to excel in his career as a phonetician, and also fulfil his long-cherished desire to fly to the UK for higher education, in the late 1960s.

Indian independence day children

After he retired in 1991, and mom passed away in 1993 – though they had built a house in Secunderabad – he decided to move back to Chandigarh, in a vague desire to search for his partial roots. He continued to live in Chandigarh from 2003 to 2012, when he passed away. On his deathbed, the traumas of the past came back to haunt him, and he warned us to beware of the ‘hooligans’ and the ‘police’. In a state of delirium, he breathed his last on a humid July night.

So, whenever we asked dad about India’s independence, he only talked of the terrible partition, the deadly riots, the unimaginable suffering, the tremendous hardships, and the arduous struggle to reconstruct lives shattered by the tragic course of events.

My mother was barely nine on August 15, 1947. She, however, remembers the excitement of the night and Pandit Nehru’s speech. But for a long while, she – like most other Indian Punjabis – could not get over the loss of Lahore to Pakistan. She quite vividly described to us the beauty of Lawrence Garden (now Bagh-e-Jinnah), the prominent Nisbat Road, the fine schools and colleges of Lahore, and the aromatic streets that evoked so much nostalgia. She wanted to visit Lahore at least once after the partition, but that was not to be. She remembered how everyone lived in perfect harmony, till the madness overcame us all. She would often talk of the graceful culture of Lahore, its etiquette and refined social norms. Most of all, she missed her school friends, whom she could never meet again.

Her father had sent the family to the Indian side of the border, hoping that when things cooled down, they would all be back in Lahore. As it turned out, my grandfather had to leave all their possessions and properties in Lahore, and flee on the last train to India, in the coal engine.

When he arrived in India, his face was covered with soot. For a few months, my mom’s family stationed themselves in Nainital with a relative, before moving to Calcutta, where my grandfather picked up a new job. Slowly, the bitter-sweet memories of Lahore faded away, and my mom took to Calcutta life and her new circle of Bengali friends like a fish to water. However, by the mid-1950s, destiny took them back to Punjab, but on the Indian side.

My grandfather very enthusiastically enlisted himself in the building of Chandigarh project. They lived in the green and sylvan campus of the Panjab University for a couple of years. That’s when my mom and dad met each other. She was doing her MA in Hindi from the university, and he had started teaching at the newly set-up Regional Institute of English.

Both discovered love, freedom, and a thrill for life in Corbusier’s dream city. Chandigarh gave them wings to fly higher – the city was brand new, not many people knew each other, and everyone could freely pursue their avocations. Later, Hyderabad gave a definite positive direction to their lives. Mom would cycle to her school in Hyderabad where she taught – it was unusual for women to drive bicycles in Hyderabad in those days. She read voraciously and had a passion for gardening and interior decoration.

An accident in 1977 on the way to Bangalore put her off car driving, but she kept driving her moped till the early 1990s when she worked in a school. A nervous ailment made her confined to home for over two years, and she passed away in February 1993, in a house in Secunderabad that both she and dad built very lovingly.

So, for mom, freedom – and the partition – opened up new avenues, and made her explore new places in India she had never seen before. She also kept making new friends everywhere she went – something she inherited from her mother – and was often a leader among the girls. But she very much missed Lahore, though she was very young then, and remembered much more about Calcutta and Chandigarh. Freedom, for many uprooted Punjabi women, meant a new life in the pursuit of education and fresh livelihoods.

My own generation

One of my earliest memories of Independence Day is standing in the sun in a school in Hyderabad, listening to some national, patriotic songs, and joining in the chorus. And then came the boring, long speeches by some staff members. I heard their voices becoming fainter, and the sun dimming its shine gradually. Suddenly, it became very dark. What happened next, I don’t remember, but I saw myself seated outside the principal’s office with a lot of people hovering over me. Then, the questions kept pouring – one after another. What happened? How did it happen? How did you faint? Didn’t you have breakfast this morning? etc etc.

I was at a total loss. I just remained silent and stunned. After a while, my parents arrived, took me in their arms, and we went back home. I had also mildly fainted about two to three times later in life, but this was one experience I remembered clearly.

Of course, memories of I-Day became happier later on, as we got those chips, laddoos, and a soft drink to gulp down. So, I-Day meant ‘no school’, ‘flag hoisting’, singing ‘Vande Mataram’, ‘Hum honge kamyaab’ or ‘We shall overcome’, and ‘Where the mind is without fear’. All of it was topped by refreshments and endless chatter.

Sometimes, we would be shown black and white films about Gandhi, Nehru, Bose, and other freedom fighters. Much of the time, we would be wrapped up in colourful raincoats, and kicking stones in the water on the way to school. Teachers too would be dressed up in their colorful best, and some of the strict lady teachers too looked so charming and attractive in their new sarees.

In college, I-Day just meant a holiday in the rains, when you could sit at home and get up late, listening to the music of the raindrops, and call up some friends. Many a time, it meant a gathering in someone’s place, listening to ‘Rim jhim gire saawan’ or ‘Rainy days and Mondays’ and other sundry monsoon songs. Often, we could take off to some gardens in the city’s outskirts on two-wheelers, or a rich friend’s open jeep, singing songs on the way, Bollywood style.

Sometimes, we friends would wonder what living under British rule could be like in our father’s and grandfather’s days. Often, we thought – mistakenly – that the freedom fighters led very romantic, exciting lives, living in the shadow of fear and tension. Our lives paled in comparison, we believed.

The 1980s were not a very thrilling time to be young, unlike the swinging ’60s and ’70s, when you could wear bell bottoms, Hawaiian hats, and colorful goggles, strum a guitar and sing John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ in protest against the Vietnam war and all other useless battles. The 1980s were troubling times for India, what with problems like Punjab, Northeast, and later Kashmir. Nevertheless, there were some silver linings in the dark clouds.

The Asian Games in November 1982 fuelled our youthful patriotism, and so did India’s first Cricket World Cup win at the Lords in 1983. When I was in my final year of post-graduation in 1984, that was the worst year for the country, when one tragedy after another struck us – Operation Bluestar, Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the anti-Sikh riots, and the Bhopal gas tragedy.

However, young hopes triumphed again in 1985, when Rajiv Gandhi became the country’s new prime minister. At that time, I was doing a communication course in Hyderabad. The exciting course became even more interesting because we youngsters felt we were living in a bright new India, full of promise and potential. During one of the classes, I had read out a poem I wrote, ‘Today is mine’, which was much appreciated by classmates and teachers. On the I-Day that year, all of us from the class went to watch Sound of Music in a movie hall on a rain-soaked afternoon. It was the second time I was watching that classic, and I liked it even more.

While working abroad in Dubai, all my Indian colleagues felt a surge of patriotism on I-Day and R-Day. We felt immensely proud to be Indian – the citizens of such a diverse and fascinating country; such a vibrant, flourishing democracy; and such a fast-growing, thriving economy. Much of the time, me and my family would be in India on August 15, during our annual vacation.

Quite often, we were travelling across the country by train, gazing at the breathtaking landscapes, and taking in the scenes of a tranquil countryside from the windows of an AC compartment. The few I-Days that we were in Dubai, I used to lap up all the special supplements of newspapers on India from cover to cover.

Since returning to India in 2011, I’ve spent four I-Days in India – all in Chandigarh – enjoying one of the few holidays we journalists get in a year. This one was spent partly in hospital, visiting two ailing aunts, and penning this piece – which provides joy and satisfaction, and an excuse to indulge in nostalgia.        

My children’s generation

Just as I was wondering what independence means to my children and their friends, my elder son shared a link on Facebook – a Youtube video clipping of AR Rahman’s classic ‘Maa Tujhe Salaam’. That is one song that never fails to move me, and sung so deeply from the heart. Does this song move the younger generation too? Obviously, it does, especially the full-throated rendering of ‘Vande Mataram’, my son had said. I’m sure the same emotions are evoked by many other patriotic songs like ‘Bharat humko jaan se pyaara hai (Roja); Lata Mangeshkar’s classic ‘Ae mere watan ke logon’, that brought tears to Pandit Nehru’s eyes; ‘Kar chale hum fida(Haqeeqat); ‘Ae mere pyaare watan’ (Kabuliwalah); ‘Chhodo kal ki baaten’ etc.

Listening to these songs stirs something inside me, and all those who grew up with these songs. But if they move me and my generation, they can move my children’s generation too. They only don’t get to hear them in the flood of Sheila, Munni, and Babli songs. Good music, it goes without saying, is timeless. But the problem is they don’t make these songs anymore. The last such moving song I heard was ‘Ek lau’ from Aamir, which played often on TV after the 26/11 Mumbai massacre.

While it may be true that the younger generation takes freedom too much for granted, the fact is freedom has a different meaning for them than it had for us and my parents’ generation. While my parents lived through the last phase of the freedom movement; and we could stir the patriotic feelings in us just by listening to I-Day speeches and R-Day parades; for our children, freedom means ‘they can do their kinda thing, without khich-pich’. The freedom to do what you want to do in life, the freedom to pursue a dream, the freedom to move to any part of the world in pursuit of goals, and the freedom to choose their life-partner – caste, creed and community be damned.

So, freedom lies in substance than in mere symbols – though even they love to flaunt the national flag. Moreover, the opportunities they have to concretise their dreams, are tremendous. I wanted to be a singer in Bollywood, but I never had platforms like Saregama, Indian Idol etc. Then, very few from our generation could dare making sports as their career. Today, youngsters choose not only cricket, but also many other sports as their careers.

Most importantly, the world has truly become a global village – and it’s not just a one-way street to the West. Many youngsters choose to come back and a make a living in India itself – not only because of some deep emotional connect with the motherland, but also because it now pays well too, especially if you are in the IT sector or MNCs. Some youngsters are also making millions by developing gaming and other useful websites. Finally, people of my generation will have to accept whoever their children choose as their life-partners. And believe me, they are not going to get restricted by the C-C-C walls. We may become not just Pan-Indians, but Global Indians too.

All said and done, there are many things which connect the different generations of our countrymen – the love for song, dance, and cinema, good food, gossip, cricket, politics etc. And there are some things which will never fail to move us all. Like ‘Maa Tujhe Salaam’ and ‘Mere watan ke logon’, no Indian can fail to get moved after reading the following lines from an epitaph at the Kohima war cemetery, in memory of Indian soldiers who died fighting against Japanese invasion during the Second World War:         

‘When you go home

Tell them of us and say

For your tomorrow

We gave our today’

 

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