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Motichoor laddoos and dissent

Waking up to fresh rain and rumbling windows as the thunder cracked through the clouds. Eyes winking open to the grey skies, gently nudging to one’s senses that it was past 6.30 am. The gurgling rush of fresh water flowing through rooftop drain outside the window, while the soft breeze of the fan, making one shiver and pull the sheets over again. Gradually, the alarm clock’s hand would move towards 6.40, and the house would be waking up to get three children ready for school. Only today, the kids would be more excited, because they’d be returning home by noon, and parents would be in no rush to pack lunch boxes. This was how our family’s morning began every year on 15th August, India’s Independence Day.

Everyone would be more relaxed than usual, Dad humming as he prepared tea, delighted at a weekday holiday. Mum would be frisking us to get ready, ensuring that we finish our breakfast, even after being told that snacks awaited us at school. Our uniform would be sharper than rest of the days. One of the children would groan at not wanting to go, and then be reminded that attendance on that day was mandatory. The rain would provide no reprieve, and while the younger siblings had auto rickshaw/cabs assigned, I would wrap myself in a raincoat, and bicycle to school.

The Independence Day bicycle would be ride pretty uneventful, barring the quick manoeuvres to escape a speeding motor vehicle’s splash on my uniform, and hearing patriotic songs play in some of the homes, as I passed them by. Lata Mangkeshkar’s voice echoed in the streets that day, as her Vande Mataram rendition played from auto rickshaws.

If the rain stopped by the time school started, the celebrations would be held in the field, otherwise the auditorium, which drowned all voices except the heavy downpour outside. The celebrations began with the Principal giving a speech, then hoisting the flag with showers of rose and marigold petals, after which the students sang the national anthem, along with the choir. The anthem would bring with itself an adrenaline rush, as the words perhaps brought a sense of belonging and pride. I remember feeling goose bumps sometimes, as the anthem ended.

What followed next was nothing less than a party. School was officially done for the day. Teachers would distribute tricolour ice cream sandwiches, with flavours of pistachio, vanilla and orange. No student enjoyed those ice creams, and after years of disapproval, we moved to motichoor laddoos. Two laddoos for each student, which got finished as soon as they were handed out. Later, my friends and I would loiter around school, pick up our bicycles and walk along, rather than ride home. That was one day, when going home early wasn’t that exciting.

Later at home, television would be on, with a news channel telecasting the Prime Minister’s speech from the Red Fort, while classic old movies and songs around patriotism would be on air, for the remainder of the day. From Mother India and Naya Daur to Lagaan and Swades, channels ensured that that one day of the year, feelings of love for motherland accompanied you in the living room, while you snacked on chai and pakodas.

WhatsApp and instant messaging features were not the norm, so unnecessary greetings did not flood you, phone calls from family and neighbours did. A walk outside home in the evening, would mean running into neighbourhood aunties, and wishing them “Happy Independence Day!”, instead of the usual, “Namaste Aunty.” If you were lucky to live with your grandparents, they would narrate Independence Day stories from their days, when freedom was new and hearts were young.

The day would end, but the rain would continue. Later that night, post dinner, the weekday routine would return. Hurriedly finishing homework that was postponed on account of the holiday, ironing school uniform, polishing shoes which would be painted in wet mud again, and setting the alarm clock for 6 am. The children would let out a long sigh, wondering, “how did today go by so quickly?”, while parents would be relieved it did.

As India celebrates its 71st Independence Day today, I write this piece away from home, with a deep sense of longing. The memories are so joyful, but the present times make me anxious. India has had its share of dark periods, enveloped in communal tensions and rabble-rousing politics, and the current ground picture is a gruesome reminder of that. Lynchings, mob vigilantism, right-wing politics, stifling of dissent, sold-out media channels; are all indications of troubling times for the country.

We are gradually being convinced that these episodes are the new norm. We are gradually being warned of consequences if we speak out. We are gradually being given lessons of a new morality. We are gradually being governed into a new India.

An India that projects itself as a full-functioning democracy under a diktat. Independence consists of the right to question and speak truth to power. It is not merely being promised a degree of freedom under strict terms and conditions. That is a feature of tyranny, not a democracy.

This country’s birth is forever soaked into the painful memory of the Partition, one of the gravest forced migrations of the 20th century. The independent India, thus was ideated to belong to a population unified in diversity. All those visions, are being blurred today along the lines of clear disregard towards minorities. A power-hungry, economically dissatisfied youth is being fed an “us versus them” rhetoric, absolving basic humanitarian principles. India is once again being identified as a majoritarian nation.

Just two days before Independence Day in the capital New Delhi, a student activist escaped a fatal gun attack. The attempted killing was because he has been a vocal critic of the current government’s inaction over mob lynchings in the country. If a peaceful dissenter is not safe in the country, then who is?

As I leave for work, there are no laddoos or half-day holiday awaiting me. But listening to Vande Mataram, I yet again feel that underlying attachment towards my home country. Today, I hope to work towards making the collective voices of secular and rationale values grow stronger. Argue, question and debate, but above all read more and speak as an informed citizen, even at the cost of being considered ‘anti-national’. Dissent is my Independence day laddoo now.

Mariyam Raza Haider

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A journalist by training, Mariyam Haider is a writer and performance poet in Singapore.
She is the researcher of the book The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age written by James Crabtree.
Her writing has appeared in Hindustan Times, Livemint, Feminism In India, New Asian Writing and Kitaab.

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