Independent … and free?

India and Pakistan celebrated their Independence Days on August 15 and 14, respectively. Amidst parades, civic receptions and celebratory cultural events, national and local level leaders delivered rousing speeches extolling everything from age-old civilizational virtues, landmark achievements during the past few years and grandiose plans for the future. Leading national and international publications provided extensive coverage of these activities. Prominent journalists and columnists wrote “analytical” pieces to support or counter the proclamations of successes achieved while a prominent writer inquired, “We are independent, but are we really free?”

Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms, including the more “professional” LinkedIn channel have been abuzz with (self-)congratulatory messages of patriotism and emotional outpouring of nationalist pride.

As a young kid in the 1960s, I recall being excited about “Pandrah Agast” (Fifteenth August) celebrations. We would cut, paste and string together little paper “tricolour” Indian flags on short bamboo sticks and wander around waving these, humming the many popular “patriotic songs” that would play ad infinitum on the ubiquitous All India Radio airwaves. Our class teacher Mrs. Thapar (a New Zealander married to an Indian) would arrange special story sessions to remind us of the many Indians who had died in their fight for India’s independence from the British. She would also organize a competition for us to sing patriotic songs. I recall winning one such competition at the age of ten or eleven, but was mortified because my emotions got the better of me and I broke down while singing the very popular “Ai mere watan ke logon zaraa aankh me bhar lo paani” (O’ my fellow countrymen just let the tears flow from your eyes) immortalized by the famous singer Lata Mangeshkar. She had transformed this song into a national treasure after her live performance at India’s Republic Day (26th January) celebrations in 1963 in the presence of (then) India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who was moved to tears. I was consoled that if a 74 years old man could weep publicly, it was not humiliating for an eleven-year old lad to cry in front of classmates!

As a young lad I witnessed, but at the time could not comprehend, why my maternal and paternal grandmothers would withdraw quietly into their own shells and turn into recluses for a brief period close to Independence Day. Over the years, as I learned more details about the ignominious Partition of the Punjab during the summer of 1947 leading up to the two countries’ independence, it became clear that while others “celebrated” the independence, my bhabhiji and baiji (both terms for grandmothers) would be trying to suppress the searing images and painful memories of the Punjab’s Partition that their mind would resurrect. Very rarely did we hear from them the story of the hurried, chaotic and terror-filled traumatic journey across the border leaving behind their home, friendly neighbors and some never-again-to-be-seen family members. They would limit their stories to the fond, pleasant memories of a lifestyle they had been forced to give up.

It is estimated that around 15 million people were displaced and close to 2 million died. Men turned into beasts and wantonly engaged in massacres, arson, forced conversions, mass abductions, and savage sexual violence. Some seventy-five thousand women were raped, and many of them were then disfigured or dismembered; in most cases, their own families refused to accept them because of the “dishonor” they would bring. Khushwant Singh’s “Train To Pakistan” published in 1956, remains the earliest and finest fictionalized but true-to-life illuminating account of the partition. Later, in 1988 the TV serial based on Bhisham Sahni’s novel “Tamas” (Darkness) showcased the misery of a divided people and highlighted the complicity of political and religious leaders across all spectrums who chose solely to further their own agenda.

It is said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.  Just like stories of human suffering from times immemorial before and after 1947, some day someone will document the travails of the refugees who are today knocking on doors closing on them globally, begging to be allowed in and treated simply as humans. We may be independent, but will minds ever be free of lasting prejudices?

The longing for one’s homeland – lost forever – is evident in this exquisite song composed by the famous Indian poet, author and lyricist Gulzar for the movie “Pinjar” (Cage/also Skeleton), which is based on a Punjabi novel by noted poet and author (late) Amrita Pritam. My weak attempt at translation is reflected below:

Watnaa ve, o’ mereyaa watnaa ve Native land, O’ homeland of mine
Bat gaye tere aangan, bujh gaye chulhe saanjhe Your courtyards stand divided, fires in the shared hearths are cold
Lut gayi teri Heeren, mar gaye tere Ranjhe The Heer*(s) have been ravaged, Ranjha*(s) are dead
Kaun tujhe paani poochhegaa, faslen seenchegaa Who will offer you a drink, water your crops
Kaun teri maati mein thandi chhaon beejegaa Who will plant the cool shade (of comforting trees) in your lands
Bairi kaat ke legaye teriyaan thandiyaan chhaanvaan ve Intruders have chopped and taken off the cool shades (we enjoyed in the now lost land)
Hum naa rahe toh kaun basaayegaa teraa veeraanaa If/when we are not there (then) who will inhabit your desolate lands
Murhh ke hum naa dekhenge aur tu bhi yaad naa aanaa Neither will we turn to look back nor must you ever appear in our thoughts
Geeteh kanche baant ke kar li, kar li kutti** watnaa ve Having divided the dice and marbles we forswear never to talk to/about you (ever again), O’ my homeland

*Referencing the lovers Heer and Ranjha, from the tragic epic by Punjab’s famous Sufi poet Waris Shah, circa 18th century.
**Kutti” is an expression used by young kids to declare their displeasure when “telling-off” a friend that they will never again speak with him/her.

3 Replies to “Independent … and free?”

    1. Thanks a lot for your appreciative and encouraging comments. I love this song as it speaks to me of not just the lands, but the very way of life that we all (continue to) leave behind every day. Gulzar’s choice of expressions – especially the use of “kutti” is simply outstanding and resonates deep inside ….

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