‘We were huddled under the berth in the train, and through the gaps in the planks, we could see outside. I wish we hadn’t.’
The train was carrying my father-in-law who was seven years old then. The cost that was paid for independence was immense. The costs were related to us through stories, history books, nostalgic conversations on wintery evenings that we eavesdropped on, and the deep sighs accompanied by a shake of the head by the grandparents. They understood freedom for what it was.
My generation was born in a free country and we took that bit for granted. While growing up our struggle for freedom was limited to the assertion of the teenaged choice – mostly absurd and illogical. It was limited to the length of the skirt to be worn, the subjects to be studied at college, and the curfew time. Then we kicked and cracked our cocoons open to the supposedly free world. We grew further in the euphoria of freedom.
As the pace of life settled down, we paused and looked around. Is this truly the freedom that had scarred the seven-year-old boy who witnessed bloodbath that would haunt him for years to come? The clothes I wear, the missing markers of being married, and my choice of words judge me, an educated woman. Do I feel free? My friend, a financially independent woman, is questioned by the man about the five-minute delay in coming back home? Is she free? A girl applied towards the fag end of the admission period for higher education. She had missed out on better courses and colleges because her parents had not allowed her to study further then. She also missed out a year after school. She wouldn’t care about a date for the flag to unfurl.
My helper has started putting a muzzle on our dog lest he barks at the sacred cow. He has been roughed up in the past since he didn’t stop Buddy from playfully barking at the cow. The cow didn’t seem offended. Yet a man felt his religion had been disrespected. The helper definitely doesn’t feel free. His children are getting the worst primary education possible like millions of other kids. In fact calling it an education has to be a crime when they mindlessly copy the shapes that the teacher scribbles on the board, without knowing that those are alphabets. Will they taste the sweetness of freedom ever? I doubt it.
A colleague struggled in her own office to get her dead sister’s medical bills passed. The concerned officials wanted chai-paani. Another one slipped a crisp 500-rupee note to a clerk to be able to withdraw her own salary. In a free country you shouldn’t be paying up to get your own dues. This doesn’t look like the freedom that they had in mind when they drove the Britishers away.
The higher up you are in the wrung of bureaucracy, the heavier are the doors of your office that remain shut to the public. I saw an old man with the thickness of the file in his hand matching the number of creases on his forehead, waiting outside a bureaucrat’s office, mustering up the courage to walk in. The fact that the bureaucrat was put there to make sure that his doors were always open to the public doesn’t instil any confidence in the old man. He falters and is ultimately shooed away by the peon sitting outside. Does he breathe in the air of independence? Our history books lead us to believe that we paid a heavy price for our freedom – many lives were lost, families scarred forever, and skeletons buried in the foundation of the vision of a great nation. A vision that is still that – a vision.
The flag will truly unfurl when the poor man’s child gets an education that is comparable with the child who just hopped off his posh car. Education, mind you, not reservation. We will be free when we arm everyone sufficiently to make a mark and to grow, rather than handing it out to a select few on a platter. I’ll be free when I am judged for what I am and not what I appear to be. My children will be free when they are allowed to express themselves at school and not expected to wait for their turn at the assembly-line production of engineers and doctors. The man standing in line at a government office will taste freedom when his file doesn’t wear around the corners by having been tossed from one desk to another, from one office to the next. We will all be free when the driver who stuck out his hand from the truck with a hundred-rupee note in place, without slowing down, for the cop standing by the side, has to actually follow the rules about driving a heavy vehicle.
Till the time that we send our children to school to just get a stamp and certificate, Independence day will purely be a number- 69th today, 70th tomorrow. The day the minds are truly ignited, the day the babu has to think twice before demanding grease for moving a file, the day I walk out without fear – that would be our independence day. Till then we will continue to be the child under the berth, crouching in fear and watching his world get bathed in blood.