The 2002 FIFA World Cup was special for me as it was the first time I was following it all away from home, and in England. Football mania was everywhere, and support for the home team was running high.
At the St. Albans high street weekend market, there was a stall selling outrageously oversized flags of what seemed like every nation on earth, the sort that would be draped by fans over the side of stadium balconies to cheer their team on.
On an impulse, I asked the man if he had the Indian tricolour. Yes, he had. Before I knew it, money had changed hands and I was walking away with an outrageously oversized Indian flag and not a clue what I was going to do with it.
I decided to fly it from the top of my hospital digs, directly above me. A few hospital officials looked at it and me with bemusement at first, but they left me and the flag alone. Even my Pakistani colleagues took it in good humour, and local cabbies told me it had become a convenient landmark in the maze that NHS accommodation can often be (“Take the second right after you pass the tricolour”). It has fluttered at other UK destinations that NHS subsequently chose to send me, each patch of land each time becoming “forever a piece of India” in spirit, well, at least for the duration of my stint there.
Two years before that, when I came home to bury my father in St. Inez, I draped the fresh earth over him in three bands, of marigolds of orange and white, and palm fronds, because I felt it would be a fitting thing to do, as the idea of India meant so much to him.
I still have a sheaf of letters in my possession, from Tristão de Bragança Cunha (1891-1958) to him from the 1940s and 50s, my dad’s Bombay years, that can attest to this. My parents even chose Independence Day as their marriage date, although for my mother the feast of Our Lady on that day as well made it a welcome additional bonus.
When I came back to India to set up Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org) and after the inception of our ensemble, Camerata Child’s Play India in 2013, the first piece I arranged for it was our national anthem, motivated not just by patriotic fervour, but because I felt that a good four-part harmony arrangement of the Jana Gana Mana was sorely needed. Many of you who have been to our concerts will have heard it, as we have begun so many concerts with it. The timing of our monsoon and Christmas concerts makes it appropriate as they fall fairly close to Independence Day and Liberation Day respectively.
When my son came of kindergarten age, one of the first songs he learnt to sing was the anthem, and when we went to the cinema, he would sing it with gusto (and I with him) before the main feature began. And we still do, whether at the cinema, or at our balcony watching the flag-hoisting at the Post Office on national holidays (as did my father with us as children).
Where am I going with this? All the above examples of outpourings of patriotic spirit were spontaneous, motivated by a genuine, deep-felt love for our country. There was no diktat from above, or from anywhere, no arm-twisting “do this or else”.
To put it simply, we were being driven by an innate love, not by external coercion. And this love had absolutely nothing to do with fear. It had even less to do with hatred. It was certainly not measured by how much one hated anyone else, whether a historic enemy or enemies across our borders, or anyone even within our borders that a ruling dispensation might deem ‘anti-national’, or a recasting of historical figures from the past, again because a ruling dispensation felt it suited a certain narrative better.
This is why the current political and social scenario is so disappointing, disheartening and soul-draining. A handful of people have become self-appointed custodians of that sacred entity called patriotism. A deft sleight-of-hand by them can turn a vested interest into artificial matters of burning national importance.
The atmosphere is so charged and the climate so fraught with fear that one has to weigh every sentence, every word, lest some bigot find even an imaginary whiff of ‘anti-national’ sentiment or sedition within it. It is the anti-thesis of the country that Tagore envisioned “Where the mind is without fear, where the head is held high.” On the contrary, ‘keep your head down and your mouth shut’ seems to be the order of the day.
Where does one even start to cite examples? There are so many. But the alarming pattern of public lynching of members of a minority community by self-appointed vigilantes and guardians and rakshaks of culture and morality in different corners of the country, the flagrant hate speech and calls for public hangings of people over food choices, the moral policing, is getting more and more entrenched, while the government and law-and-order machinery is either mute spectator or at best offers wishy-washy comments (“We have to look at both sides.” Really? Isn’t the public beating to death of a citizen by a mob an unequivocal crime? What “other side” can there possibly be?) that only embolden and shield the perpetrators. Too few in the media and in society are speaking out.
Any criticism of, or objections to projects that seem to be motivated more by corporate self-interest and greed rather than the public good are condemned as “anti-national.” It seems a handy rug under which any annoying public dissent can easily be swept, no questions asked.
One is reminded of Arundhati Roy’s recent article “My Seditious Heart” in Caravan magazine. Instead of being compelled to submit to a rigid, austere, authoritarian, straitjacketed, oppressive, singular vision of what it means to be Indian, she asks: “What if some of us dream instead of creating a society to which people long to belong? What if some of us dream of living in a society that people are not forced to be part of? What if some of us don’t have colonialist, imperialist dreams? What if some of us dream instead of justice? Is it a criminal offence?”
The India I want to belong to has no place for hatred and violence. Let there be love instead, for our country and for every one of her citizens, regardless of background, gender, faith or any other consideration. Amen.
(An edited version of this article was published on 02 July 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)