Independence Day

I grew up in Muscat, Oman, and went to an Indian School there. Legend had it that the school had started as a simple gathering under a tree, but by the time I got there in the late 1980s and until I left around ten years later, the school was a gargantuan, organically grown complex of grey buildings, and contained (or tried to) upwards of six thousand children from kindergarten to grade 12. Recess out in the dusty school field was like entering a medieval battleground.

Having so many people from so many different parts of India in one place was a unique experience. Places like Mumbai are highly cosmopolitan, but even though your classmates might be Bengali or South Indian they tend to identify as Mumbaikars first. Not so as expatriates in a foreign country, where many kids’ families had come directly from non-metropolitan towns or villages, places I’d never even heard of. We were aware of the differences — it was often the source of much mirth — but our collective identity was forged as Indians. Being an Indian school we’d sing Jana Gana Mana every day, celebrate all the Indian versions of things like Children’s Day (November 14th, Nehru’s birthday), and get holidays for Diwali, Eid and Christmas (not to mention Holi, Dussera and a host of others — it’s fun being Indian, the next festival is never more than a month away).

Independence Day, that is the day in 1947 when the British officially handed over power (August 15th, today), was always celebrated. Classes were canceled but middle and high school students were obliged to come to school that morning. It was just a half hour or so, nothing fancy; a flag-raising ceremony and a speech by the principal, maybe a song or two by the school choir, and then we’d roam around the field, maybe stalk the eerily empty corridors of the school, play impromptu games of football with pepsi cans (a teacher or two might join in), and then leave.

I was always surprised at the turnout at these events. Not just students, but their parents too would come along. Some of the school buses would ply their routes, and being one of the only Indian Schools in the country some kids lived hundreds of kilometres away, but they’d still be there. Maybe it was because we were Indians in a foreign land. Maybe it was even national pride. But maybe, just maybe, it was the spirit of independence itself.

I don’t like to think of India like most people do, as a nation now only sixty-one years old. India as an idea been around forever, India the place and the people and the intangible spirit has always been there even when it was a hundred disparate kingdoms and villages and hermits’ huts, even before it had a name. For me India is synonymous with independence, with freedom and liberty and fun, yes, fun! I don’t equate it with a flag and an anthem and a political party, and certainly not with a parade of military power.

For me Independence Day is about standing around a place where discipline and order are the norms, and just kicking a can around with your friends.

Isn’t that what it’s all about?

Vishal vs Apartment

Vishal K. Bharadwaj, circa 1986, in the balcony of his family's apartment in Ghusais, Dubai. Photo by either Keshav or Sneha Bharadwaj.
My mother let me draw on walls. It was 1986, I was three, and we were living in a one bedroom apartment in Ghusais, back when there was nothing there except for a block of already decrepit government flats, Al Mulla Plaza (closed because of a border dispute), and a procession of electrical towers between there and Sharjah.

She got a lot of flack for it, of course. Neighbours would come round and wonder why on earth I was still alive after such a heinous crime, and then look worryingly at their own children as the young ones gaped at the sheer audacity of the red and green scrawls, their eyes luminous with the shock of seeing freedom, tolerance and understanding — and of course, whimsy — for perhaps the first time in their fragile lives. Several adults vowed never to bring their children into contact with my parents, not the first and certainly not the last time that was said to them.

The rationale my mother offered — since the simple truth of “Why not?” was far too much for others to bear — was that since it was a rental, once we moved out the landlord would paint it for the next tenant anyway as per the local norm; if the landlord objected, she was gladly willing to pay for the painting herself. They never objected, but I would have liked to see the look on whoever came to that apartment after we had gone. The building itself was torn down sometime in the 90s to make way for a compound of houses.

It was the only place I ever drew on the walls, and even I am not sure why exactly. The rationale to my three-year-old self probably had something to do with not wanting to waste paper, and the fact that if I drew straight on the walls it would forego entirely the costly and time-consuming framing and hanging processes.

Mostly I just wanted to draw, and my parents wanted great art on the walls, for which I gladly obliged.

Vishal K. Bharadwaj, circa 1986, at the door of his family's apartment im Ghusais, Dubai. Photo by either Keshav or Sneha Bharadwaj.