Saturday, January 27, 2007

Security blanket

For years I loved Republic Day—the camels; the pomp and ceremony; the uniforms; the marching; the floats; okay, not the floats, but the camels are cool.

It was partly just vicarious thrills. I spent my teenage years imagining myself to be very special and brave, and therefore an excellent candidate for the armed forces’ officer corps. I mugged up the military phonetic alphabet and (for some reason) Morse Code, did forty pushups a day, and yearned to lead a regiment to glorious victory. An army officer relative gamely took me across to a cantonment tailor, who stitched me a set of fatigues complete with Velcro nametag, which I wore a lot. He (the uncle, not the tailor) let me drive a T-72 tank all over a bunch of unpatriotic desert shrubs, and shoot the hell out of enemy cardboard at the firing range. This further fuelled what my family called my delusions, though I like the phrase ‘rich inner life’.

But life is unpredictable. My plans to be tall and brave didn’t really come through, and as it turns out, the army discriminates shockingly against cowardly midgets. Besides, I read Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen’s poetry on the Great War, and Michael Herr’s Dispatches, about Vietnam, and lots of other literature on war, and it quickly cleared my head of any glory-of-battle nonsense. So now, although my brother still calls me Genghis Khan and my sister mutters about Napoleon complexes, my uniform just hangs in the closet and makes me feel like a bit of an alpha sierra sierra.

Anyway: around the time I stopped seeing the glamour in needless violent death, I started seeing Republic Day as mostly a huge waste of taxpayer cash preceded by three days of traffic snarls. Frankly, rolling military hardware through the streets of the capital also strikes me as a horribly public display of national insecurity. The floats, for all their endless tedium, might pass as cultural celebration, but what’s with the rockets and the tanks?

I’m the first to admit that my understanding has, over the years, been shortened by millions of brain synapses, thanks to certain nameless grain and grape products. Still, as I understand it, Republic Day marks the transition of a colonial dominion to a republic supposedly governed by the rule of law and elected representatives faithful to a Constitution. There’s a rumour that we won our freedom mostly by non-violent protest. Maybe, then, it would be more appropriate to roll the President, the Prime Minister, judges, policemen, and maybe some of our less pot-bellied parliamentarians through the streets instead.

Plus, this will be India’s sixtieth year of independence, and coming up on a sixtieth birthday is always a good time to take stock, time to identify the things you still have left to do to ensure that you aren’t full of regrets when you croak. The problem is that when you have a lot to feel bad about, you tend to brush it under the carpet and defend, to the point of absurdity, the two and a half things you do have to be proud of. But in the spirit of a sixtieth year bash, maybe we could break with tradition and include some more honest, realistic floats next year, just to remind ourselves.

Let’s do one with a bunch of illiterate, starving children making firecrackers on one side, and a bunch of crooked politicians and businessmen endlessly passing money and halwa around to each other. Or one with a bunch of burning brides on one side, and female deities being adored on the other. And one with a million burning candles before a picture of Jessica Lal on one side, and on the other, a bunch of bones in a drain before a framed empty FIR form on the other.

I wonder whether the foreign dignitaries would still be invited.


Anonymous said...

Celebrations are meant to elevate the spirit, not reflect reality. By focusing on the good, however little there may be of it, the human psyche has surmounted odds that no statistician would bet on.

There is a time and a place to focus on the ills of society. A Republic Day parade is not it. You can protest the problems in letters to editors, lead morchas against egregious corporate acts and expose corrupt politicians. This of course will require you to summon up that Genghis Khan and Napoleon within.

But to pick on an event that has entertained millions for little more than a tiny fraction of the TV/Radio license fee (till the 1980s anyway) or a trip across the city, seems like you're lashing out at the wrong target. Pride, after all, is just an endorphin release. With it comes all sorts of civic-minded actions.

March in February said...

Hear hear. Will you stop at nothing to tear down our precious national symbols?

Even Gandhiji used to enjoy the Republic Day parade!