Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The 59th anniversary of Independence ...

Modern India was born on August 15, 1947. Google India is celebrating with the tricolor ...

This is the second year in a row that I've been back in India, and in the capital at that, for I-Day.

Via Desipundit, here's an interesting comparison of Nehru's famous "Tryst with Destiny" speech with Jinnah's speech the day before as Pakistan came into being.

Here's a travelogue I wrote last year on I-day, after going to see Mangal Pandey at the NOIDA Mall. Enjoy! Jai Hind!

Well, it's I-Day weekend (Pandra Agast, August 15th being the 58th anniversary of independence from British rule), and to celebrate, we went to see the most expensive Bollywood movie made to date, the much touted (I saw 7 ads for the it in yesterday's Indian Express alone!) Mangal Pandey: The Rising, the story of the First War of Independence of 1857 (the Sepoy Mutiny to the Brits), which opened this weekend.

The multiplex in the multi-story Center Stage Mall in NOIDA (New Okhla Industrial Development Area, a large swath of land across the Yamuna river in eastern Uttar Pradesh which has become a fancy Delhi suburb. There's no sign of any industrial development whatsover) is itself a sign of the "rising," so to speak at one level, of India in the nearly 11 years that I've been gone. Swank, hip, with many fashionable brands Indian (Woodlands, West Side, Planet M) and foreign (Ruby Tuesday's, Pizza Hut and, of course, that wonderfully spicy desi incarnation of McDonald's), and crowds of the well-heeled swarming about, rupee notes flashing, credit cards whizzing; prosperity, wealth, consumer spending, the Indian Tiger finally unleashed, and the millions cashing in (India's middle class alone is about as large as the entire population of the United States).

"I told you, it would be just like America," said Papa as he went with my nephew and niece to see Madagascar. Well, yes (all hail the mighty dollar, um, rupee), sure; but this is most certainly India. There's the security -- a guard checks the underside of the car with a mirror for bombs; one passes through a metal detector and is frisked before entering the theater itself (Delhi has been dealing with terrorists for decades, since the infamous "transistor" [radio] bombs left in DTC buses during the separatist troubles in Punjab in the 1980s, to the October 18, 2001 attack on Parliament, and continuing separatist trouble in Kashmir and in the northeast). There's the "Driver's room" in the basement garage -- a room with pastel green walls and loud fans to spread the hot air for the chauffeurs to sit in while the memsahibs go shopping. And everywhere, there's the lower rung of the middle class (or the upper rung of the lower class, who knows) -- the sweepers keeping the mall floors clean, the liveried "liftmen" (elevator operators), the waiters in the restaurants who bravely try to take the orders of the bara sahibs in English, quite likely not unhappy to have a better paying job than many.

And of course, not even a New York mall (were such a thing to exist; well, I guess the Sixth Avenue Mall compares) would be this crowded, or this hot. The air-conditioning tries bravely to cope, and manages to keep everything 10 degrees cooler than the outside, which still leaves it at a steaming 85 or so. One simply accepts a layer of grime and sweat.

Yes, it's I-Day weekend. The Indian tricolor is everywhere. I don't recall this kind of popular identification and connection with an Indian national identity per se (as opposed to Hindu, or Muslim, or one's caste, or regional affiliation), a decade ago. I-Day celebrations seemed to be the domain of officialdom, with the PM's speech at the Red Fort, and flag-hoisting ceremonies at schools and government offices, something imposed from above by the State. We enjoyed the holiday and took a kind of ironic, cynical pride in being Indian. "Mera Bharat Mahan" ("My India is great," the corny slogan created by Rajiv Gandhi's Cong-I regime for the 45th anniversary of Independence) was said with a good deal of sarcasm, in the face of practically non-existent public services, rampant corruption and the stifling stupor induced by the license-raj. The pride in being Indian now, seems deeper, more genuine. The license-raj has practically disappeared, the economy is taking off, and while corruption is no less rampant, services have improved only somewhat, and politicians are still crooked, there is a sense of hope in the future. In the mall, the flag is everywhere, on every pillar, against every wall and door. Orange, white and green. "Vijayi vishwa tiranga pyara, zhanda uncha rahay hamara" (Our world-dominant, beloved tricolor, may it fly high).

The movie itself was, rather unexpectedly, quite good. I was expecting patriotic schmaltz, and a one-sided anti-Brit screed. The story, of course, is well known. Every schoolchild knows it; of how the new Enfield rifle, whose cartridges, greased with pig (abomination to Muslims) and cow (sacred to Hindus) fat caused outrage amongs the Indian soldiers of the Honorable East India Company; of how Mangal Pandey, the brave sepoy of the 34th Infantry Regiment at Barrackpore (near Calcutta) rebelled, shot his superiors, and was martyred, but whose rebellion sparked a fire that raged across the nation, and woke the slumbering giant of Indian nationalism, bringing an end to Comany rule, and 90 years later, ended with the departure of the British from the jewel of their empire.

Yes the schmaltz was there, as was a rather villanous East India Company and the men in red, and the politically correct noises of Hindu-Muslim amity. Of course there were the obligatory Bollywood song and dance sequences (decent music by A.R. Rahman), with only passing relation to the plot. But the story extrapolated from the historical facts was quite rich, dramatic and moving: the deep friendship between Mangal Pandey and his immediate superior, a low-born Scotsman, William Gordon, himself marginalized because he's Catholic, a Papist, and who, in another era in the American South, would have been called a N-lover. There's the fiery Hira, sold as a slave into prostitution, who falls in love with Pandey. The beautiful Jwala, rescued from being made Suttee (burnt alive on her husband's funeral pyre) by Gordon (and yes, an actual, if rather brief, on-screen kiss between them later on), and the unnamed outcaste sweeper who proves invaluable to the Brahmin Pandey as a source of information. While the greed and corruption of the Company are on display, there is no attempt to whitewash or sanitize the Indian side -- slavery, prostitution, Suttee, caste discrimination, are all part of the landscape, presented with minimal moralizing. And the cinematography is simply breathtaking.

Bollywood is not known for subtlety, and pulls no emotional punches. One's buttons are pressed, and one can't but be moved by the human drama of the story. And yes, even one who is on the verge (inshall'ah) of being a permanent resident of the Land of the Free, feels an upsurge of patriotic fervor and pride in being a citizen of the world's largest (if rather bizarre) democracy, and the land of a sixth of humanity.

स्वतंत्रता दिवस मुबारक। जय हिन्द

Happy Independence Day. Jai Hind!

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1 comment:

assiniboine said...

"This is the second year in a row that I've been back in India, and in the capital at that...." Not "...and that too in the capital"? :)