AS A CHILD, I invariably spent the morning of August 15th with my grandfather and my great-uncle in Kolkata. The routine was always the same. First, they would arrive at their factory gates in an area of south Kolkata that is now entirely residential. A small gathering of workers who lived in nearby hutments would be assembled and my grandfather would hoist the national Tricolour. My great moment of excitement was in seeing the flowers scatter from the rolled-up flag as it reached the top of the flagpole. As the flag unfurled, there would be lusty chants of “Bande Mataram” and “Jai Hind”, perhaps a patriotic song or two and, finally, the national anthem. My grandfather would deliver a short speech, which I barely understood, and then we would drive off to his other factory in Tiljala—an area where civic facilities seemed woefully inadequate. The flag-hoisting drill would be repeated, and everyone would then gather round for tea and snacks. There were many elderly gents and they would happily reminisce.
My recollections are of the period between 1959 and 1963, a time that also coincided with the rising influence of the Communist Party and tensions along the border that culminated in India’s war with China. My grandfather—and, indeed, the whole of his large, extended family—were committed nationalists and great believers in swadeshi. He was one of the earliest graduates of Stanford University and had spent many years in the US. He was also unflinching in his admiration of Japan, which he had visited as a student. However, despite these strong “foreign” influences, he was always dressed in white khadi kurta and dhoti. At the same time, he rode in a big Studebaker car which I was constantly told, was made in America, not Great Britain. In his perception, anything American was kosher while anything British was unacceptable. Politically, my family seemed to only know the Congress Party, although this attachment was qualified. In our house in Ballygunge, there was a photograph of Mahatma Gandhi prominently displayed, and portraits of Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and scientists JC Bose and Acharya PC Ray. Curiously, there was no picture of Jawaharlal Nehru and I don’t think he counted as a favourite. I was told that after Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, the entire household observed mourning, Bengali style—by eating only vegetarian food—for 12 days.
The freedom of India from British rule mattered enormously to my grandfather. It also mattered in a quiet sort of way to my grandmother who was otherwise preoccupied in a deep study of some esoteric branch of Hindu philosophy and spent more than half the year living near an ashram in Madhupur, a favourite haunt of Bengalis in the Santhal Parganas in today’s Jharkhand. Her family was from Chittagong and some of them had been involved in the famous armoury raid in 1930.
It is interesting that this revolutionary strain of Indian nationalism was also venerated in the family. The elders of the family didn’t find anything incompatible between Gandhian non-violence and armed revolution. Nor for that matter did they find anything odd in negotiating my father’s marriage with the daughter of an eminent lawyer who had been awarded the CBE for his services to the British Raj. I don’t want to make any generalisations, but it seems that political allegiances and social relationships were kept firmly apart. In their own way, both nationalists and loyalists were seen as being committed to India’s path to self-government. Subsequently, this ideological permissiveness extended to those who, on the strength of their beliefs, became activists in the Communist Party.
Going purely by my childhood memories, Independence Day in the early-1960s was a celebration of high idealism. The belief that India was a poor country was combined with the conviction that every new factory and every new road was a big step in the direction of self-reliance and robust nationhood. The military debacle in the war with China in 1962 came as a rude shock. I recall being quite scared when a relative told me that soon Chinese soldiers would be walking the streets of Kolkata. So intense was the scare that my family chose to boycott Chinese restaurants and many Chinese-owned establishments shut shop. My father, with his impish sense of humour, assured me that the kitchens of Chinese restaurants concealed transmitters that sent secret messages to China.
The fear that Indian Independence would be subverted was all-pervasive. My mother spent countless hours knitting grey-blue jumpers for our jawans who apparently lacked warm clothes. One afternoon, all the women in our joint family trooped off to some government office to donate some of their gold ornaments to the National Defence Fund. As far as I recall, it was an entirely voluntary donation. Likewise, there was nothing contrived in the anger that was directed at Indian communists during the conflict. One distant relative who lived opposite our house was known to be a Communist Party worker and he was often heckled quite mercilessly in the neighbourhood and taunted as a dalal of China. Yet, I don’t think he was ever subjected to any violence.
Political violence first entered our lives in 1967. After the Left-dominated United Front Government was established following the General Election, there were reports of troubles everywhere. In drawing room conversations, people began talking of “gherao” of senior managers, including some who had been kept surrounded by menacing workers for nearly 20 hours at a stretch, and not even been allowed to go to the bathroom. That summer we first heard of Naxalbari, without knowing too much of what it meant. There were reports of peasants looting fisheries and forcibly occupying land. We heard of rival student groups hurling bombs at each other. My parents stopped going to the cinema night shows because it was deemed dangerous. Around Independence Day, school was closed for nearly three weeks because it had become unsafe. And, in 1969, we heard of a fracas at a musical evening in south Kolkata where women were said to have been molested and even raped. Some women had apparently been found floating on the adjoining lake.
If Independence Day in my childhood had been marked by a nationalistic innocence, verging on optimism about the future, my teenage years were marked by tensions, uncertainty and even despondency. Maybe, it was West Bengal that was the worst affected by this gloom, but it must have affected the rest of India too.
We could sense the downturn in our daily lives. One by one, the Anglo-Indian teachers in our school—and some of them were rather good teachers and certainly great in sports—began emigrating to Australia. I think they saw no future in the city they had lived all their lives in and which they were a crucial part of. The foreign airlines began terminating their services from Kolkata and auction houses were kept busy by the expatriates selling off their household goods. In the newspapers, Independence Day was invariably marked by articles such as “Whither India” and speculation over the Green Revolution yielding to a Red Revolution. We first read of statues of nationalist icons being beheaded and then about the decapitation extending to traffic policemen and venerable vice chancellors. There was talk of IIT graduates failing to find jobs and buying one-way tickets to America and one industry after another closing down.
Between the late-1960s and the 1970s, India appeared directionless and lost. The country seemed a great place to get out of. I spent most of the time between 1975 and 1984 living overseas. When I decided to return home to make my life in India, many of my friends were genuinely perplexed. What, they asked, are you going back to?
For those of us who chose to return, it was a gamble that paid off. Somewhere along the way and despite the shambolic politics, India managed to get its act together. I think the initial optimism surrounding Rajiv Gandhi helped immeasurably. And though he ended up as a tragic disappointment, he kickstarted a new cycle of optimism. There were moments of intense frustration in the 1990s and genuine consternation over Mandal and Mandir, but some of us found the seeds of resurgence in the churning. We were finally back to asking a crucial question: what sort of India do we want?
The answers, predictably, differed. There was convergence over the fact that almost everyone wanted Indians to have a high standard of living. Povertarianism may still have a romantic attachment among those who can best be described as ageing hippies but it no longer sells politically. Most wanted Indians to have the best the world can offer, but without losing Indian identity. The points of friction lay in defining Indian identity or grasping the so-called idea of India. To me, this seems a natural progression from the days my grandfather celebrated the restoration of India’s national sovereignty. At that time, we had recovered our right to make our own choices. Now, with each Independence Day, we must choose wisely. So far, we have mostly done well, though not always.