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India – The #NationalAnthem on the Terrace

Amit Sengupta

Indeed, the rose is a rose is a rose. And the anthem is an anthem is an anthem. So, why did we lose the plot, asks Amit Sengupta? So who killed the innocence and dream of the nation-state? The imagined community?

Politics is not always the last resort of the scoundrel, as hyper-patriotism or jingoism is not that of small town childhood. Childhood patriotism is eclectic, full of wonder and contradictions. The nation is an imagined community, like a dream, a train journey, an unknown railway bridge over an unknown river, a light twinkling in a hut in a distant village, the smell of food from across the neighbourhood. Children love sports and wars, hate and glorify the ‘enemy’, celebrate nationalism in sports and war, build icons and cult figures and paste them on their hearts and on their walls (from Sania Mirza and Maradona to Messi and PV Sindhu), stick up comic book characters like Phantom and Batman on their books and sketchbooks, salute cops and soldiers on the streets; they are inherently patriotic, as they are environmentalists and animal-lovers, and they worship the national flag and sing the national anthem with great fervour. If this sounds far-fetched then perhaps I am out of tune with the Internet childhood of contemporary modernity.

 

In our small town childhood, we would stand up wherever we were if the national anthem was being played, stand erect and stoic, till the last note of the anthem vanished into the chorus and the orchestra. Of course, there were the naughty boys in the school assembly who would sing only the last note of every sentence as a funny and jarring symphony, thereby making the entire school smile, even some teachers, because their lips would read the entire song anyway and no one could find out when they were disrupting the solemn chorus. Only once they were found out was when they were singing a bawdy full-throated Bollywood song in the classroom and, literally, got carried away – they forgot that the national anthem was being sung in chorus at the school assembly down below with ‘Father Principle’ brandishing his cane. Adolescent, irreverent and thick-skinned as they were, the senior-most students (some of them then big names in sports, academics, debating and theatre) of this famous convent school in a small town in Western UP were caned in front of the entire school, and then made to stand in different corners of the assembly all day, as punishment. Did they feel shame? I don’t think so. Adolescence and childhood are pure fantasies. There is no enduring shame. There is only wonder, magic and fantasy.

The flipside of childhood patriotism is that not only did we read every glorified text on the wars of 1965 and 1971, we celebrated a certain innocence which could easily mark a paradigm shift as we grew more wiser, mature and refined, however eclectic.

The flipside of childhood patriotism is that not only did we read every glorified text on the wars of 1965 and 1971, we celebrated a certain innocence which could easily mark a paradigm shift as we grew more wiser, mature and refined, however eclectic. We not only read the great solo battle of Captain Abdul Hamid against the Pakistani tanks in 1965, we also heard Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman’s speech live on radio, and what a great orator he was. The Bangladesh liberation war’s running commentary was in every household, and inside our home Kazi Nazrul Islam and Khudiram Bose’s revolutionary songs reverberated yet again, as did Ramprasad Bismil’s poetry (sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamare dil mein hain), and patriotic songs from Chetan Anand’s ‘Haqeeqat’. In fact, those days the film division would screen films on terraces on a screen, and the entire mohalla would watch the films with great awe and admiration. The terraces were the threads of multiple oral traditions, folk tales and ghost stories, and they would move from terrace to terrace like old Hindi film songs on the All India Radio’s Urdu Service.

 

Bhagat Singh’s mother lived close by, his nieces studied with my sisters, and she would lie on a charpai in the courtyard’s sunshine, even while we wished her with great reverence and affection; we saw her as a young mother in the film ‘Shaheed’, even while he was going to be hanged, and we all cried yet again and again, tears flowing in endless streams. Those days we used to cry so easily, there was purity in those saline waters. And our patriotism was not really loaded with viciousness or hate.

As our gaze shifted, and we witnessed the atrocities of the Emergency, how the ideals of the freedom movement were being openly betrayed, and how the feudal and rich classes had usurped the fruits of Indian democracy, the pocketbooks became the anthems of critical insight and enquiry.

The flipside was that we read all the bestsellers of Hind pocketbooks about the freedom movement and the life stories of Chandrashekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh, Jatin Das, Sukhdev, Rajguru, Batukeshwar Dutt, Khudiram Bose, Ashfaqullah Khan, Gandhiji, Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose, among other freedom fighters and revolutionaries. As our gaze shifted, and we witnessed the atrocities of the Emergency, how the ideals of the freedom movement were being openly betrayed, and how the feudal and rich classes had usurped the fruits of Indian democracy, the pocketbooks became the anthems of critical insight and enquiry. We read Munshi Premchand and Phaniswar Nath Renu, the great writers of the Progressive Writers Association. We saw the films and heard the lyrics and music of the legends of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), like Sahir, Salil Chaudhury, Shailendra, Chetan Anand, Sajjad Zaheer, Balraj Sahni, Ritwick Ghatak, among others, and we found a parallel stream of consciousness with the angry 1970s, with the cinematic language of Pather Panchali, Tamas, Manthan, Nishant, Ankur, Calcutta 71.

 

If a luminescent fire of a spontaneous uprising was burning at the College Street of Calcutta and in the oppressed fields of North Bengal, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab, it was also moving like stories and songs across the terraces of our childhood and later, like memory etched in stone. Give flowers to the rebels who failed, we later wrote on the walls of JNU, celebrating the Sorbonne students’ uprising. We also wrote, ‘Society is a Carnivorous Flower’, and ‘One Pleasure has the Bourgeoisie, that of degrading all pleasures’. We were the invisible prophets of innocence and dream.

That we moved from peace to the language of jingoism and war, or, from the suffering and injustices of poverty and hunger to the crass commerce of cricket, or from the secular narrative to a supremacist, racist and xenophobic jingoism, from rebellion to submission, it is that purity of the ‘Bhagat Singh’ moment which we seem to have lost so decisively.

As filmmakers and dissenters are arrested in Kerala for not standing up to the national anthem, or as a raging debate continues on the nuances of ‘constitutional patriotism’, as a nation-state we have certainly lost the innocence of our childhood idealism. That we moved from peace to the language of jingoism and war, or, from the suffering and injustices of poverty and hunger to the crass commerce of cricket, or from the secular narrative to a supremacist, racist and xenophobic jingoism, from rebellion to submission, it is that purity of the ‘Bhagat Singh’ moment which we seem to have lost so decisively. A nation which celebrates inequality and oppression with such great consistency, and where the handful of the affluent and powerful have become transparently rich and famous; a nation which so crudely chooses to forget the struggles and sacrifices of its freedom fighters and revolutionaries; a nation which hates to talk about its farmers committing suicides, or lakhs losing jobs, food and shelter due to the whimsical policies of a closeted dictator, is bound to lose its innocence, and all the eclectic beauty that we inherited from the small town terraces, the by lanes of our villages and quaint little railway stations, and the songs of the road from our many Pather Panchalis. A nation-state which has lost the art of crying saline waters, which is not touched by suffering and injustice, and which has become hard, short, nasty and brutish, it will never be able to celebrate the patriotism of its flag or its anthem. And, that is a tragedy.

The only contradiction is that a culturally pluralist and diverse country should celebrate its unity in diversity, with all its fragmentations, with a certain multi-dimensional vibrancy and pulsating optimism, which is not forced down its throat.

The anthem by Tagore is sublime, no doubt. Tagore’s views on blind nationalism are also sublime. Is there a contradiction between the two? No. The only contradiction is that a culturally pluralist and diverse country should celebrate its unity in diversity, with all its fragmentations, with a certain multi-dimensional vibrancy and pulsating optimism, which is not forced down its throat. We are a chaotic country and that is how it is so beautiful and different – its sights and sounds, its dreams and friendships, its solitary and social. We are not a sanitized country which celebrates hate and jingoism, pumping our chests, abusing our neighbours, declaring war on human beings each day, puffing up our chest 56 inches, when all we need to do is to sing another song of Sahir, Kaifi, Shailendra or Kazi Nazrul Islam, or read a poem by Ghalib, Jibonanda Das or Faiz, or sing the chorus by Tagore.

The poet on the wall, the writer with no money and a fading script, the lover always unrequited, the friend who is the truest moment of human warmth, they are all anthems, which make a nation.

Football players sing it. Tennis players sing it. Children in schools sing it. Patriotism is childhood magic realism embedded in our political unconscious. The homeless on the street, and the mother whose farmer son has committed suicide, or the woman fighting the mining mafia in that remote forest, they are all the anthems of our daily life. The single woman crossing the street, working hard to earn a living, the vendor who does not know if anyone will buy from his mobile food cart today, the college student with an ear-plug plugged like a testimony, the young men and women on the streets, looking for Najeeb, they are all our anthems. The poet on the wall, the writer with no money and a fading script, the lover always unrequited, the friend who is the truest moment of human warmth, they are all anthems, which make a nation. Like a Walt Whitman poem, you sing the beautiful and the sublime, and the song becomes an anthem. Like the Sahir song: Woh subah kabhi to aayegi…

 

Indeed, the rose is a rose is a rose. And the anthem is an anthem is an anthem. So, why did we lose the plot? So who killed the innocence and dream of the nation-state? The imagined community?  

 

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Comment (1)

  1. K SHESHU BABU

    The narrative is relevant. In the present situation , when jingoism is becoming common medium of expressing nationalism, the singing of national anthem anywhere is a sign of patriotism

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