Saturday, November 17, 2007

CELEBRATING OUR INDEPENDENCE DAY

Neelu and I had been lucky to have been chosen to undergo professional courses at Maxwell Air Force Base located in Montgomery, Alabama, U.S. On the 03rd of July 1989, we were both having a quiet evening, when the telephone rang. My friend’s U.S. sponsor had called to invite us to his residence on the next day – 04th - the American Independence Day, and one of the three national holidays in the U.S. Our wives had not yet joined us and thus we immediately accepted the invitation to lunch and also in the process accepted the invitation to witness first hand how the common American citizens celebrated their independence day within their communities.

On the next day, we were ready well in time and on our way to our host’s residence. Our hosts were an Italian American couple in their mid-fifties, who were widely traveled and had spent extended periods of time in various parts of Europe, Africa, and Central & South America, and also parts of Asia, including India. We were accorded a warm welcome and were introduced to the two other guests who had been invited to give us company on the six seat dining table. We had a great time viewing and admiring all the artifacts that they had collected during their various sojourns abroad and more importantly listening to the details of ‘how’, ‘when’ and ‘where’ these had been acquired. It was pretty evident that the couple valued the memories of the places and peoples they had met during their wandering years. They had a sizeable collection of stuff and had brought it all home to the U.S. with them.

The beer was followed by a filling and pleasant lunch and now we were all ready to witness the community Independence Day celebrations. Our hosts took us to the street corner where a large number of people from the community had gathered along with their children. It was a pleasant sight to see people clutching on to their national flag and more importantly see young children enthusiastically waving them and the really young holding on to miniature flags in their clenched fists while still lying supine in their prams. We were introduced to a few neighbours and friends of our hosts. In the meanwhile the crowd was growing bigger and bigger – with a few more people joining in. Out of nowhere six riders in some sort of a uniform sitting astride six regal horses joined in, a volunteer brass band joined the proceedings and then we were on camera. The local TV channels had all converged on the spot to cover the event. At the appointed time the procession started the march down the designated streets of the community. It was heart warming to see people who could not join the procession come out of their houses and salute their national flag with their right hand on their heart. These people were generally the old and thus could not join due to their ill health.

The band, the horses, the TV crews and the large number of residents with children and a large number of national flags gave the occasion a very festive look and feel. Everyone was generally enjoying the day of their country’s independence, although none of them had personally witnessed their independence from the Crown. The procession finally reached an open ground – the final point of congregation for the community. Once again, out of nowhere appeared a mike with the necessary loud speakers to amplify the sound. A member of the community took the mike and started the first address to the community. His first words were “My dear fellow Americans” followed by “Look around you; if there is someone you do not recognize, go and introduce yourself, get to know everyone around you – we are all part of one big American family”. This seemed to energise the crowd and we could see people actually going around and doing the needful. It was a totally new experience for me.

At such a time my mind raced back to what we do on the 15th of August. I had spent 36 independence days in India and did not remember even one occasion when the community had voluntarily got together to celebrate 15th of August in this fashion. We generally enjoy the holiday and let the schools do the needful…..grudgingly. Some of us even stop our kids going to school on that day, as the function is generally in the early morning hours and it hinders our late waking up on a holiday. Some of us feel that since there are going to be no studies, why bother go to school. The schools treat it is a burden and want to finish the proceedings as early as possible so that the staff can then enjoy the remaining part of the holiday. The spirit is missing from our celebrations of the Independence Day.

That spirit is very prominently visible in all our religious celebrations. People voluntarily devote whole days and weeks to celebrate the minor and major festivals of their religions. We have voluntary processions for every major religious festival in India, but none to celebrate the freedom and the nationhood that 15th August bestowed on us. The basic purpose of religion, as per me, is to unite the part (individual) with the Whole (Creator). If every individual is a part of the same Whole, then each part is directly related to each other. Religion should thus give us a sense of unity. However for whatever reason, religion is being used by vested interests to divide us. In such a situation, the only thing that unites this great nation is our constitution, our flag, and our identity of being ‘INDIAN’. Why should we not celebrate something that unites us?

No comments: