Republic Day Dilemma
was just another Sunday. Lazy souls like me generally prefer an
extra hour of sleep on Sunday mornings. I jostled out of the blanket
and with reluctant steps toddled to the bathroom. Once out, I settled
myself upon the sofa, tucked myself with a shawl and before taking
the first sip from my coffee cup, flicked on the TV. Seeing the
parade on the screen it suddenly occurred to me that it was 26 January,
our Republic Day. Somewhere deep within me everything got scrambled
and I could no longer remain in ease.
The parade was on. Our freedom was being exhibited in strict discipline.
Citizens braved the New Delhi chill to cheer the processions of
the army and artisans, performing atop the colourful tabloids of
different states — a picture postcard representation of India’s
“unity in diversity”. This combined with a running commentary by
a lax commentator, extolling the spirit of “One India”, dotted by
the background tune of Saare Jahan Se Accha, Hindustan Hamara.
For me, though, our
Republic Day brings with it a different message. The golden ideal
of unity among different casts, creeds and religions has turned
a myth for me. Sands of time flowed back a decade in a whisker.
I could recall the day vividly when I first met her. Ideals would
have have tuned into a myth if I had not met her.
I was a mere
apprentice then, surviving on a skimpy stipend that was trifle
even in those days. Unsure, as I was, of my future prospects,
I unwillingly did a crime upon myself. I fell in love. Romanticism
was a luxury for those who couldn’t afford it. It is like
an indigestible diet for a man surviving on pittance. I made
the mistake of letting my heart rule over myself belittling
my brain’s advice to remain pragmatic and prosaic in poverty.
As an apprentice I had to wake up early, gorge two breads
down my throat with a glass of tea for breakfast and run to
catch the 6.30 bus to be just in time at the factory gate.
Missing it meant a day’s pay-cut and a volley of uncomfortable
questions from my training officer, the next day. As an apprentice
you had to keep your sahibs (mostly Parsees) in good humour.
It was on their report that your confirmation depended.
They not only made
you toil like an ox, but even forced you to do humiliating jobs
like preparing tea for them every other hour. An electric heater
stood upon a wooden stool at one corner on which the apprentice
had to exhibit his tea making skills.
Electricity was free
and so was labour; the labourer bonded by circumstances. It gave
the sahibs immense sadistic pleasure to order tea and get it at
the drop of a hat from apprentices who were science graduates. Ironically,
the sahibs were themselves age-old intermediates. I was neither
bequeathed with ancestral property nor a bank balance worth the
name. So I was forced to survive with the skin of my teeth and had
no shoulders to fall upon to vent my glum. Days weaned into nights
and nights broke into sunny days, but it hardly affected my trampled
soul. I almost became a machine, who only obeyed commands without
questioning. Slowly but surely I was getting depressed. Someone
up somewhere might have had some compassion on my pathetic state.
Or else why should I have stumbled upon her and grabbed her with
It happened on that
6.30 bus on a Wednesday. I was late and leapt on the footboard,
instinctively. But before I could make the next move to stand steady
on my legs, a young girl jumped up on the bus and landed on my feet.
I grimaced in pain. “I am so sorry” she apologised hurriedly. Alas!
Candy knives when shoved down throats feel sweet. I looked up after
a quick inspection of my feet to give her a befitting reply, but
my voice throttled. She had the eyes of an angel and the face of
a deity. Her pinkish white skin spewed pristine purity. “It’s okay!
Are you all right?” I asked with an aura of chivalry. “Are you sure
you are not hurt?” she looked curiously ignoring my question.
“No, No, I am fine”, I retorted.
The bus had a few
empty seats. We went inside. She sat right opposite my seat at the
other end. The more I tried to avoid looking at her the more my
eyes forced me to cast furtive glances. And then staring was considered
an offence in those days. Interestingly, I discovered that she was
also looking at me slyly and when our eyes met both of us smiled
in embarrassment. I could hear my heart beat.
Just then a
fat lady embarked on the bus and thought it prudent to place
her tummy in between us. As if that were not enough, her husband
followed her up and lovingly stood by her side, blocking even
the remote chance of a glimpse. The bus got packed in no time
with commuters standing in the aisle. Just as I was about
to go down I made a final attempt with all my strength to
jostle and have a glimpse at my angel. Alas! She was gone.
She must have disembarked at an earlier stop.
I prayed all night so that I could see her the next day and
even rehearsed a number of times what to say when I meet her.
Fortunately, I was not late the next day, but my prayers went
in vain. Suddenly she appeared from nowhere in the bus stop
on the sixth day. I smiled at her and she smiled in return.
For a few moments we kept silent. I tried to recall my rehearsals
but my memory betrayed me. I looked at my wristwatch. It showed
“The bus is seven
minutes late already”, I uttered to myself looking at her, giving
her a chance to avoid my soliloquy if she felt like avoiding it.
“Yeah! I am already late”, she said.
And thus a confab
started between two souls willing to make friendship. Before the
bus arrived everyday we talked about ourselves. It arrived preciously
three and a half minutes after we started our conversation each
day. The seats for ladies were separated by an aisle that allowed
glances to be exchanged. But within that three and half minutes
I had come to know she was a student of zoology. She had practical
classes to attend to every Wednesday. Normally she availed of the
8.30 bus on other days. I told her about my job prospects if I happened
to scrape through the coming exams but withheld its negativity,
for obvious reasons. The best foot should naturally be put forward
in these cases.
Those few minutes
on Wednesdays offered me sustenance from boredom and indignity.
Gradually I came to know that she was from a Gujarati Brahmin family
of strict vegetarians. I sulked as she told me that she came from
a conservative family. But it didn’t deter me to build castles in
the air. I waited for some positive indication from my bosses regarding
my confirmation to finally place the proposal for marriage.
One day we decided to get down together a stop earlier so that we
could talk for a little while for she was not allowed to go out
alone anywhere except to college. On that day she said that she
had talked about me with her parents and with their permission would
like to invite me on her birthday. I was elated and quickly threw
the portents of language barriers into the wind. I picked up an
expensive bouquet that dug deep into my already shallow pocket but
I couldn’t care less. When she introduced me to her parents and
grandma, I touched their feet and sought their blessings. Some other
relatives and friends were also present but I was probably the only
We sat on the floor mat for dinner when her mother suddenly said
in broken Bengali:
“Sorry, we don’t eat fish. We are pure vegetarians.”
“I don’t like fish either”, I replied.
“Chhaio machhi nathhi khaye soon? Jhoot kae che soon?’ (The boy
doesn’t like fish? Is he lying?), said her grandma in Gujarati.
was unaware that I had worked with Parsees and understood Gujarati
“Te hame logan ne impress karu e kaeche, (the guy is trying to impress
us), said her father wearing a satirical grin.
I felt deeply hurt
by such a demeaning gesture. I felt the warmth of adrenalin running
into my face. I checked myself and replied looking at her grandma
in Bengali: ”No, I am not lying, I do not like the smell of fish”,
then turning to her father said, “Sir, I have no mind to impress
you.” It was their turn to experience adrenalin flow on their faces.
I sat through the rest of the dinner fiddling with the food. All
along I thought that even if language barriers had been broken,
cultural barriers proved tougher to break. As I was about to leave
my friend apologised on her family’s behalf. I nodded half-heartedly.
I never saw her in the bus stop, ever since, probably due to remorse
or some other problem I know not what. She was obviously ashamed
at the prospect of facing me and preferred to bunk her practical
classes. Two months later I gathered that she had been married to
a Gujarati, Brahmin financer in Maharashtra and, as was only to
be expected, the groom was a strict veggie.
All of a sudden my trance broke amid the heightened tune of our
national anthem: Punjaba, Sindhu, Gujarata, Maratha, Dravida, Utkala,
Banga….I felt a lump in my throat. A peculiar feeling of deprivation
and disgust filled my heart. I flicked off the TV for I couldn’t
bear it any longer. Impulsively, I threw the remote on the floor,
vowing never to watch the Republic Day parade again. I found my
heart in the broken pieces of the gadget on the floor.
Amitava Chakrabarty, marine
officer of Kolkata Port Trust and a freelance writer/ poet.