Travelling through my city on Independence Day morning a couple of years ago, we passed dozens of kids. Near-naked and drenched, streaked with mud from passing cars, they hawked shivering fistfuls of saffron-white-and-green-on-a-stick to us more mobile Indians. Come January and August, this is how we buy this Indian-ness we like to wear twice a year. Looking around as I roamed that morning, I could see: many of us had bought our little bits of instant patriotism.
A few more kids on the train. Near-naked and drenched, muddy from life itself, they sat on bony haunches and used raggedy brooms to sweep the floor we stood on. One had no broom, but stripped off his grimy shirt to do his best. Then they made their way among us, asking for a coin or two.
Might have been the same kids, these two sets. Only two things distinguished them. First, one set of little fists carried flags; the other held brooms. Second, the flags appear just twice a year. The brooms and the shirt? Most times I take the train.
And on subsequent Independence Days, I can't push either set of fists from my mind.
Every August 15th, you'll find one more crop of articles -- like this one -- about India and Indians and being Indian. Meaning no disrespect to my fellow writers, there's a familiarity to it all. To the process, to the content. Haven't we read this before? Won't we read this again next year? Do I want to read it again?
How do you find new ways to look at, to understand, freedom?
Simple: you don't. Freedom just is. Everywhere, all the time. It is that ordinary, must be that simple.
After all, our founding mothers and fathers fought for freedom not so we would remember it on two select days every year. They wanted it in our blood, in our every Indian moment, in our essence. Because it was not just freedom from the British they meant. They wanted for India freedom from want, from oppression, from poverty; from injustice, ill-health and ignorance. From all the evils that we have so long suffered. Their project was that vast; yet it was also that ordinary, that simple.
Thing is: freedom was not promised only to two of every 365 Indians. So why dissect it, agonize over it, gaze up in awe at it, only on two of every 365 days?
My feeling is that so much of what our parents fought for remains unredeemed because freedom sits on a pedestal. Buffed to a sheen every now and then, garlanded and saluted once in a while, but up on that pedestal nevertheless. It never did step off, get down and dirty as it should have.
And this is what I think about as I see near-naked kids sweeping and selling flags on August 15. There is something uniquely, yet routinely, Indian there. In kids who sweep beneath our feet because that might get more coins than if they simply begged. In kids selling us the badges of patriotism we like to wear, for the same reason. In this free country, no kids should have to do either of those.
Yet so many do, and we have become so used to the sight, to the idea.
I yearn for an India where these sights will be unusual to the point of astonishing, as they should be. Where every child has the opportunity my wife and I hope to give the children who brighten our Indian home. Where every Indian knows freedom as he knows the lines on his hands.
Where freedom is everyday, unremarkable and taken for granted, and in being so is that vast promise fulfilled.
And I'm no Rabindranath Tagore, so I trust he will not object when I say, far less eloquently than he did: "Into that daily familiarity of freedom, oh father, let my country awake."