Freedom of life

spirit of the age

Freedom of life
They say a person dies twice — once when his physical body dies, and once when his name is spoken for the last time. The same thing could be said about events: The human race, as a collective, loses something whenever the last survivor of a momentous occurrence passes away.

Over the past decade, we have lost the vast majority of those who saw India’s independence movement — grandparents, uncles and aunts, parents — who told us of the pain and anguish of that faraway decade. They were not only the survivors, but also the ambassadors of those days. In their consciousness was the vision of what Independence was to have brought us. Many times have we heard from them, about their disappointment that the country has not turned into the golden paradise they believed it capable of becoming. We thought they were always disappointed, they thought we should work harder to make their own vision come true.

But now they are bidding farewell. The zeitgeist of today does not include the antiquated ideals from the freedom struggle. Independence is a given. Bollywood movies no longer talk of the freedom struggle. We already have it, we think. We’re grateful to those who got it for us, but we can’t spend our lives being grateful. We are moving forward with our lives, we are looking for our own purpose, our own motivations. Who has the time to think about the country?

Yet our country does have a place in our hearts. We feel a surge of pride when a fellow countryman wins a medal at the Olympics. We eagerly forward WhatsApp messages about Indian scientists forming 30% of NASA. Whether we live in India or abroad today, we celebrate the country’s triumphs as our own. Some of us, nostalgic for the simple rules of childhood, still wake up and watch the Independence Day parade on Doordarshan; the rest wake up early to catch sales that malls have for the occasion.

But, what is it we feel about our nation’s independence? What do we think about the long journey of 60-plus years that our country has made since it became a country? Unfortunately, we have nothing to compare it against; we, this generation, have always lived in a Free India. It’s a struggle sometimes to explain to ourselves why it’s a good thing. And perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of the newer generation don’t quite see it as a pure positive.

I spoke to three people of different backgrounds to try and understand what they think. First, what do they think of the occasion of Independence Day? Shilpesh, a software engineer in Bangalore, had an instant response. “Oh, 15th August is just a day off from work,” he says immediately. Sonali, a writer and editor based in Pune, says that Independence Day reminds her of flag hoisting ceremonies and speeches from childhood. “It brings in a feeling of nostalgia,” she says. Akhilesh, a chartered accountant from Mumbai, remembers,  “My grandfather was a freedom fighter. He used to tell us stories of the time, and how everyone had celebrated on August 15, 1947. Later on he became a college teacher. He was very proud of what the freedom fighters had achieved. So Independence Day always reminds me of him and of his eventful life.”

Even 20 years back, watching the parade on Doordarshan was the programme of the day, and going out wasn’t as common. Not so now. “Well, my family always wants to go out that day, since everyone has a holiday.” says Shilpesh. “But this year,” he continues only half-seriously, “it’s on a weekend, so we lost one holiday!” Akhilesh remembers that Doordarshan used to telecast movies on the day. “I remember they used to show very old movies that day — after the parade was done, my mother would make a special lunch for everyone, and we would all just sit at home. But nowadays, it feels like the TV channels and malls make it very commercial. Sales everywhere, contests and dance programmes on TV.”

Does it feel like the original message of Independence Day is getting lost somewhere?
On the flip side“Actually I try not to think too much about the meaning of the day,” Shilpesh confesses. “Because if I do, it feels like Independence Day was the day we stopped being slaves to white men, and became slaves to convicts, rapists, and other sorts of criminals,” says Shilpesh ruefully. He’s talking about the less-than-stellar public image of politicians as a class. “More than half of my hard-earned money goes to pay taxes of all kinds. The least I can expect is things like good roads, law and order, and smooth civic processes. Instead, the money just disappears. I’ve put my faith in new parties and politicians several times, either they did not get elected, or they turned out to be the same sort of people as the others. I just try to stay away from discussions on this topic these days.”

He’s part of a growing tribe that feels Independence wasn’t worth it. You see several such opinions on a lot of discussion forums and news sites comment boards as well. “The British did unify India, and they abolished social evils like Sati. They even set up the Railways. So maybe they weren’t completely evil after all,” is the common refrain you hear in these forums. But of course, in reply, they’re inundated with patriots who talk of how the British drained the country of all its resources, and how the railways were just a way to siphon off the country even faster, and so on.

Sonali has a more positive spin. “It’s hard to tell whether or not the British era was a net positive or negative for India,” she says. “There are opinions on both sides. Who knows, maybe if they hadn’t come, we’d still be a bunch of small countries fighting each other. On the other hand, we might have been economically much better developed. So I think it’s useless to dwell on the past, and more important to focus on the future. The good thing is, we’re having a debate on the topic, which means people are thinking about it.”

What is it that prevents us from reaching our true potential? Are the British to blame for that, too? “No, I think it’s more our attitude,” says Sonali. “We’re all so tired out from our daily battles, so annoyed by shortages and problems. When we see someone take a shortcut to get ahead, we just follow him. Then the rules don’t matter, and we wind up always looking for shortcuts.” This spills over into every aspect of our lives: whether it’s traffic rules, cleanliness, or even getting an admission. “I’ve seen people with doctor’s degrees who just got them by paying for them. And reservations and quotas only serve their purpose to some extent. What we really need is pure meritocracy. The best suited should always be chosen for a job, no matter what their background. Places like Singapore, that got independence after us, have grown faster just because of this. I agree Singapore is much smaller, but still, this is a worthy principle.”

As is usual with India, there’s a contrary view that’s just as valid. “Not everyone starts from the same starting line,” Akhilesh says. “We need reservations to help those who have economic or social disadvantages. Just because someone can afford tuitions and better schools doesn’t mean he’s automatically better.” Akhilesh himself is from a small-town background. “I grew up in a village near Rajkot. Until college, I hadn’t gone out of Gujarat. But now I’m here, in Mumbai. Only I know what struggle I’ve been through. And it’s the same for all sorts of people. Corruption is the number one problem that India has today. As an outsider to Mumbai, I had to bribe all sorts of people, struggle to get even the basic things set up for my small business.”

Shilpesh has a different take on why we have trouble reaching our potential. “The education level here is very low. Most people don’t have the awareness and civic sense to do their duty well. They are willing to do anything to get ahead. Even politicians are only in it for themselves. I feel that as education levels increase, we will get better as a society. Hopefully, this happens in the coming generation. If we’d focused on education from the beginning, we wouldn’t have so much trouble with corruption and under-development.”

Proud to be Indian

All this doesn’t mean we aren’t proud of what we have achieved since Independence. “There are many things that we can be proud of,” Sonali says. “ISRO, for example, is setting an example for everyone. And every day, I see teachers who are helping their students do the right thing. In a government school behind my house, I see the headmistress address the students during assembly every day. She talks to them about not littering, following traffic rules, being sensitive to others, and so on. It’s heartening to see kids from all social levels being made aware of these things from a young age. They are more likely to be model citizens as they grow up. In fact, if there’s one group of people who I nominate for role models in India today, it is teachers.”

Shilpesh says: “I am very, very proud that we all, with different languages and cultures, manage to live together as one country and respect each other. This is unique to us, and I haven’t seen it anywhere else.” Maybe the British could get credit for it, or maybe not, but this unity in diversity is a thing of pride for many others. “My friends are from all over,” says Akhilesh. “And we enjoy each other’s culture and festivals. When someone goes to their hometown, they always get back some snacks or sweets from there, and we all share it — whether it is Gujarati ganthiya from Rajkot, or sandesh from Kolkata.” Akhilesh points to Anand Kumar’s Super 30 coaching classes — meant to help poor children in Bihar get into IITs — as something he’s proud about India. “I’ve never met him, only read about it in the papers. But there are many stories like this from all over India. People helping others, people learning about each other, people with very different backgrounds, but in the end, we are all one.” And he proudly shows me the thangka — a Buddhist painting made on cloth — that he has hanging in his living room.

If at all we needed it, there’s another trend that shows we are going in the right direction. I’d spoken to several Indian start-up founders about small industries a while ago: these are folks who set up restaurants, snack-food brands, and publishing houses. A surprising percentage of them had been NRIs before they returned to India with an idea and the will to implement it. In one voice, they talk of the winds of change sweeping the country for entrepreneurs. “We wanted to build something that’s for the people of my country. And there has never been a better time to do a business. People are interested in trying out new things, and there is money to spend.”

Does this mean all is hunky-dory? Of course not. The problems of education, corruption and poverty still need to be solved. But, as citizens, we can start with the simple things: Don’t litter. Pay your taxes. Follow the rules. Stay aware of the government’s actions, and vote for the best candidate every time an election comes around. Try and be good human beings — even as simple a dictum as that goes, a long way towards helping the country.
While we do work to improve our lives and that of our countrymen, we shouldn’t be forgetting what we do have already. Think of this: as a millennia-old society, we have learnt to live with others in a way no one else has. We know how to handle all kinds of relationships, from the best of friends to the can’t-stand-em-but-gotta-work-with-em.

Our sense of community has helped us in bad times, just as it has helped us celebrate in good times. Over the centuries, we’ve taken the good stuff from other societies and incorporated it into our own: whether it was the love for procedural codification from the British, or the fiercely independent startup culture that is even now seeping into our workplaces. We could describe our life as “Thoda hai, thode ki zaroorat hai”, and we’re free to look for our happiness. And ours being an independent country has everything to do with that, right?

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