National Child Day is celebrated on November 20 by most countries. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was very fond of children and in the 1950s dedicated his birthday, November 14 as Children’s Day to emphasize the need to care for, educate and protect children. Kids affectionately addressed him as “Chacha” (Uncle, typically father’s younger brother) Nehru. It is said that a young child once presented a red rose bud to Nehru, which he proudly placed in the button hole of his jacket; thereafter, it became, and remained a permanent and redeeming feature of his sartorial elegance. After his demise in 1964, India formally declared Nehru’s birthday on November 14 as “Bal Divas” (Children’s Day). “Punditji” (an honorific title – meaning, literally a teacher or priest – possibly because of his Kashmiri Brahmin family background) reportedly said that “At school, they (children) learn many things, which are no doubt useful, but they gradually forget that essential thing to be human and kind, playful and make life richer for ourselves and others.”
I must have been 8 or 9 years old when we were informed by our school Headmaster that Pundit Nehru would be visiting Nangal and that children from different schools, including ours would have the opportunity to meet with him. My father worked at the Fertilizer Factory in Nangal and I believe it was in 1961 or 1962 that Punditji formally inaugurated the plant. I recall my father telling us this amusing, and for him, intimidating encounter with the country’s Prime Minister. Dad was deputed to show Punditji around the complex, accompanied by a delegation of the Fertilizer Factory’s senior executives. As they were about to enter the Ammonia Plant building, Punditji stopped in mid-stride and pointed at a large painted sign in Hindi near the entrance. Turning to my father, he inquired abruptly, “What does this mean?” My father could not read Hindi but saw the painted sign of a red cross marked over the picture of a lit cigarette and so, blurted out, “Sir, it says “cigarette peena manaa hai” (smoking is not permitted).” Nehru exploded, “So, why can’t it simply say that, instead of writing “Dhoomrapan nishedh hai” (smoking is prohibited) in such tough, chaste Hindi that no one will be able to understand!” He then walked on, leaving everyone to rush after him.
Later that afternoon, children from several schools congregated in the grounds of the local Officer’s Club. We carried little paper tricolour flags of India and were asked to stand in orderly rows. It was a long wait before Pundit Nehru’s cavalcade finally showed up. I clearly recall his jumping out of the open top Cadillac convertible (yes, that was the official car used by the CEO!). Punditji would have been in his 70s at the time but his alacrity and energy as he bounded across the lawns to greet us, was something to be seen. My father and many of his colleagues later confessed how they had found it difficult to keep pace with this septuagenarian!
Excited shouts of “Chacha Nehru “zindabad” (Long live Chacha Nehru!” rent the skies, as all of us frantically waived our tricolours and jumped up and down to catch a glimpse of the towering, elegant personality we all loved. He took the time to walk past each row of the assembled kids, patting some of us luckier ones on the head, affectionately tousling our hair, asking our names and inquiring what we would like to do after growing up. He then jumped up on a low podium and our teachers signalled for us to start singing “Saare jahaan se achhaa, Hindustan hamaaraa” (Better than the entire world, is our India – Allama Iqbal’s composition, referred to as the Anthem of the People of India). Beaming, Pundit Nehru complimented all the children and then addressed the gathering. I have no idea what he said but remember that at the conclusion of his short speech, he walked over to a helicopter waiting nearby. With a final wave of his hands and shouting a loud “Jai Hind!” (Long live India!) he climbed aboard and was soon whisked away, a speck in the sky while we cowered to avoid the clouds of dust blown up by the chopper.
Pundit Nehru’s message was so prescient. As children, we had not yet been exposed to a world where hazing, bullying and shootings were going to become common place, where brainwashed child soldiers and martyrs would start to be glorified. This was to come later.
Celebrated poet Kaifi Azmi penned this moving song which is symbolic of Punditji’s spirit; it was picturized on Nehru’s funeral procession in a movie soon after his death:
“Meri awaaz suno, pyaar ka raaz suno
Meine ik phool jo seene pe sajaa rakhaa hai,
Uske parde main tumhen dil se lagaa rakhaa hai …
… meri duniya mein naa poorab hai naa pachhim hai koyee
saare insaan simat aaye khulee baahon mein …”
[Listen to my voice, hear about the enigma of love
This flower that adorns my chest
Under its guise, I have held you close to my heart …
… my universe is not limited by either East or West
all humanity is embraced within my open arms …]