Today is the Republic Day of India, and I will be hearing everyone celebrating.
For the casual passerby, beware, for this is going to be a thoroughly unromantic entry, and entirely oblivious to the nationalistic expectations the country might have of me. For today is the republic day, and that means today we get to celebrate ‘a state in which supreme power is held by the people’.
Like most grand celebrations in India, this day is a charade. India has nothing to celebrate on a republic day. It might be argued that few countries – if any – have, but I have not been anywhere beyond the Indian subcontinent, so I’ll hold my tongue about those distant paradises. But India I know. India I have seen. India, I have grown up loving.
They are saying today we celebrate the birthday of the constitution. But the constitution is dead. Only its rotting body remains, walking the highway of our national life like a maggot-filled zombie. We have failed to secure for ourselves justice – social, economic, or political, and India today is a synonym for cronyist leadership, casual poverty, and everyday perversion. We have failed to secure for ourselves liberty – of thought, expression, belief, faith, and worship, India today totters like a drunken killer eager for blood, and no one hates an Indian more earnestly than another Indian of a different type. We have failed to deliver to ourselves equality – of status and of opportunity, and India is still a kingdom of feudal fools. We have not promoted nor practiced fraternity that assures the dignity of the individual and the unity of the nation, and today, the two concepts are inescapably at loggerheads with one another. Perhaps it was the ultimate trick the founders of India played on their successors, a final fuck-you for the post-independence patriots who seethed up to leech the broken land. Today as I look at the preamble it seems to be a paradox, an absurd exercise in rhetoric, an impossible task. India celebrates the constitution’s birthday as it continues to die, like Jesus hanging on the cross in churches on Christmas day.
There used to be a time when on this date, I said ‘Happy Republic Day’ to everyone I met on the streets. Long before that, I remember the time when I used to make tricolour flags on little paper rectangles, and hand them out to uncles and aunts, visiting neighbours, man on bicycle, milkman coming by. Then I think how inane it looks to me today when I see the roadside vendors selling tricolour paper-wheels to children and adults and shops decorating their doors with tricolour balloons. Men and women flocking to workplaces because their bosses ordered them to. The country observing a national holiday and buses filled with children who are going to school to demonstrate that they respect their motherland. Every single thing I see is a sham. Every single thing I hear is a farce.
Vivekananda wanted us to be educated. But it was his master who had said that there can be no spirituality on an empty stomach. So here we are, uneducated, on account of never having been able to overcome that first hurdle of filling our stomach. We are too many mouths, too many bellies, and too few brains or hearts to make anything out of it all.
This is a country where people have been torn apart for eating food, saying words, and wearing clothes. People have been erased for failing to toady, for sticking to principles. People have been left to starve in the body and rot in the mind, turn into thieves, turn into liars, turn into rapists, turn into traffickers who call themselves leaders. Cycle has fed cycle, endless loops have coiled around our life and roped us to the worst parts of ourselves. We have grown tired, frayed, unclean, impatient, cruel. We have lost the power to sympathize – or I’ll rather say we have given it up with our own hands, once we realized it was a necessary sacrifice. India, you have dehumanized us. Bankimchandra was wrong, mama, Atulprasad was wrong. Mama did not turn out to be what we imagined her to be.
Years ago when we were not yet twelve, a friend of mine had asked one of our teachers – “What is ‘society’?” The man was the assistant headmaster of our school, a young monk then, dressed in plain robes of white. He took the questioner to the other side of the room where a mirror hung on the wall. He made him stand before it, and said, “Do you see the mirror? What you see in it is what’s ‘society’.”
I heard this story over the phone at the age of twenty-six, because I had not been there to witness it all those years ago, and my friend hadn’t told anyone. When I heard it, I saw how he had been exposed to one of the greatest lessons we have to learn in life, the lesson of being the makers of our own vessel, the component parts of our own collective. I realized how our teacher had tried to tell him that in order to reshape society, he had to start from himself. But as I thought on it for longer, I also realized something else.
I realized that an individual is similar to society in their being a union of opposites. I thought of how a person is not one person but many, how we are not paintings on canvas but ripples and eddies in a stream. We change, we rise, we fall, we shine and soar, and sometimes we flutter and fail. We live from day to day and moment to moment, and we project our internal whirrings outward, and at the same time, our minds change shades in response to our surroundings. We love ourselves the most, and we are our own most intimate enemy.
Our society stands as the macrocosm to the microcosm of our individuals. There will never be a final solution. The sky is round, there are no eternal suns.
Our mistake was to imagine we were erecting an altar of marble. We cannot make that out of living things. We do not have an altar. What we have is a very big, very old tree. And the tree is going to keep on dying. It has always been dying. It has been dying for centuries. That’s what living things do.
I remember the ancient tree in the Indian Botanic Garden at Shibpur. It is a Ficus benghalensis, the Bengali bot. The original trunk is long dead. What remain – and prosper – are hundreds of prop roots that made their way to the ground over the course of two hundred years. The tree is called the largest tree in the world. The main trunk died in 1925, but the tree continues to grow.
There is no doubt that the India I grew up seeing, the India I grew up loving, and the India I grew up living – will die. I hope I can see some of the drama unfurl in my own lifetime. But things will keep on living even after all that. Those things are far bigger than the name ‘India’. They are the original story of the universe.
I guess I do feel a little bit happy, putting it all into perspective that way.
But I’m still not going to wish you a ‘Happy Republic Day.’ Just live this – happy, or sad, or any other way. It’s worth it simply because it is a part of the story. That alone is enough.