Fifty years ago when I was five, I was taken by my parents to the Red Fort to listen to Chacha Nehru make his Independence Day speech. My mother, who worked for All India Radio, had been transferred from Calcutta to Delhi the year before, so this was the first of many August 15 visits to the Red Fort. I donít remember Nehru at all from that first time: all those visits have collapsed in my mind into a single too-long speech delivered from on high while my brother and I sat fidgeting in some distant row of seats, wondering why they didnít have a parade instead, as they did for Republic Day.
In hindsight, I wish I had been older or had paid more attention in 1962 because less than two months later the Sino-Indian war broke out and Chinaís swift victory inaugurated a Nehruvian twilight. This was a landmark Independence Day; it marked the end of our post- colonial idyll. The Sixties were a terrible decade, filled with war, famine and the consolidation of dynastic rule. So, I wish I had a proper memory of that 1962 speech if only as a souvenir of independent Indiaís time of innocence.
I do remember though, that once the speech was made and the anthem sung, we dispersed in an orderly way, and my mother cautiously drove us back in our fat black Austin. Once we got home to Kashmiri Gate, the last neighbourhood in the walled city before Civil Lines began, my brother and I collected our tri-colour kites and sped up the stairs to the terrace to properly celebrate independence. August 15 was the last day, the culmination, of the kite-flying season in Delhi and all the kites in the sky, for that one day, were saffron, white and green.
I donít know how it came to pass that a political event defined the end of the kite-flying season unless it was just a coincidence that independence happened at the time people stopped flying kites every year. I remember I resented the fact that we couldnít fly kites afterwards. Well, we could, but nobody did, which prompted the first (and only) meaning-of-life questions that occurred to me in childhood: why was kite-flying seasonal? And why did the season end with Independence? Then I discovered that it didnít. My cousins who lived in Jaipur flew kites right up to Makar Sankranti, which fell on the 14th of January every year.
This makes me wonder if the nationís impress upon the lives of Delhiís citizens was exceptionally strong. Take the national anthem: through the Sixties and early Seventies, I heard it sung or played twice a day each week day. I went to a Jesuit school and every morning when assembly ended, the entire school sang (to the extent a thousand tone-deaf children can sing) Jana Gana Mana. Clustered near the concrete lecternís microphone, a choir of tuneful boys led the singing. Nobody thought this was strange or that immediately afterwards, as we marched off to our class rooms, the public address system played an instrumental version of ďCome SeptemberĒ.
Then, once television came to Delhi, at the end of Doordarshanís evening telecast a monochrome tricolour would ripple across the television screen as the anthem played. This raised an issue of decorum. It was hardwired into my generation of schoolchildren that when the national anthem played we had to stand to attention. In school, we would be brought to attention from the at-ease position before singing the anthem. In a cinema hall, when a feature ended, we rose as the tricolour was projected on to the screen and stood stock still as the anthem played, looking disapprovingly at the slobs who shifted about.
So, when the national anthem played in his living room, our neighbour, Mr Verma, who owned the only television set for miles around, sprang to attention and all of us children awkwardly followed suit. It didnít last, though. We knew, instinctively, that the national anthem was a congregational ritual meant for public places, so you could keep sitting when it played in the privacy of a home.
The systematic singing (and playing) of Jana Gana Mana meant that every school child knew it by heart. This was class-determined: the poor, specially the poor who didnít go to school, didnít know the words. This might seem obvious, but itís worth pointing out without being cynical that nationalist rituals like anthem singing were a middle-class preoccupation.
Despite the fact that we had committed the national anthem to memory and could sing it in our sleep (standing at attention all the while), we had no idea what the words meant. Maybe Bengalis did, given that it was written in Bengali, but no other species of Indian had a clue. There were bits that we thought we understood, like the place-name passages ó the Punjab, Sindhu, Gujarat, Maratha line for example ó but the rest of it was a mystery. The jaya hť end represented a return to meaning because it seemed to indicate invocatory cheering, which comes naturally to schoolboys.
Otherwise, the national anthem is the only verse Indians learn by cramming up sounds not joined together by meaning. Itís rather like learning to sing an Edith Piaf song without knowing French. Not one Indian in a hundred thousand knows what the first line of the anthem, Jana gana mana adhinayaka jaya he, means. In its official English translation it goes ďThou art the ruler of the minds of all peopleĒ. And no, you didnít know what it meant before you read it here, unless you looked it up on Wikipedia as I did.
Why is this important? Itís important because it illustrates two things: one, the primacy of sound over meaning as far as political or anthemic songs are concerned and, two, the genius of republican nationalism in recognizing that in a radically multilingual nation, it was useful to have a resonant, easy-to-remember song whose words didnít mean much to the citizens singing it.
If Abid Aliís free translation into Hindustani of Jana Gana Mana, Subh Sukh Chain, commissioned by Subhash Bose, had been adopted as Indiaís anthem, its meaning would have been clear to Hindi speakers and opaque to the rest of India. This might have excited discord because Hindi speakers tend to feel proprietoral about the things they think they understand. Sensibly then, the Constituent Assembly on January 24, 1950, adopted the original Bengali version; written as it was in an elaborately Sanskritized idiom, it kept Indians equal in their common incomprehension.
I havenít been to the Red Fort for the Independence Day event in decades now. I try, out of a diminishing sense of duty, to turn on the television for the prime ministerís speech, more out of nostalgia than nationalist feeling. As a boy, I sat in the chairs at the Red Fort, restless but respectful, because I knew in my childís mind that Nehru and Shastri were honourable men. With age, that deference has disappeared, which is unsurprising and not particularly significant. It is disquieting, though, that the politicians who have delivered those Red Fort speeches in recent times seem bored themselves.
It worries me even more that having read the Jana Gana Mana translated, I still donít know what it means. This 65th anniversary of Independence is a good time to remind ourselves that if we donít continuously spell out and define what it means to be free, some less benevolently bearded person, some plausible charlatan or charismatic sectarian, might do it for us.