During the 1950s, when I was getting educated in a government-run, Hindi-medium vidyalaya in a small town of Madhya Pradesh, India had Congress governments in the centre as well as in most states. The BJP was then on the fringes, known as Jan Sangh, trying to make some headway in the so-called ‘cow-belt’ of Hindi-speaking states.
Each day in my school began with a ‘prarthana sabha’ (prayer meeting) on the playground during which we stood in rows while a small group of teachers and students led us in singing Vande Mataram. It was the same in the girls’ schools where my three sisters studied. Those were the days when owning a radio set gave a family middle–class status. My family didn’t own one so me and sisters got our share of film music from the radios plying film songs in full volume in some of the upmarket tea shops which we passed by on way to or return from school. We strained hard to memorize the words so that we could then amuse ourselves by singing those songs at home. Since we sang the two stanzas of Vande Mataram in the school daily, it was a song that sprung to our lips most often. We sang it with the gay abandon of children at play, with no care for what it meant or symbolized. There was also Jana Mana Gana, but it was played only at the end of school functions. At our single digit ages at that time, Jana Mana Gana was to us a signal which marked the end of all festivities.
Being raised in a orthodox Muslim family, we were made to offer the full Namaaz on a regular basis, recite the Koran as often as we could, and were told that soon we should start fasting during Ramzan. But such deep commitment to Islam didn’t stop our family from getting close to Mishraji’s family, as any two families can.
The house of the Mishras was conjoined with our house, with a common verandah. Whereas my parants were in their late thirties, Mrs and Mr Mishra were in their twenties, having married recently. They were not only pure vegetarians, but didn’t even eat onion and garlic. While we offered morning namaaz, we could hear a steady drone of Sanskrit words as Mishra did his morning pooja. After breakfast Mishra would come to our part of the house seeking the blessings of my father, whom he called ‘Bhai Saheb’, and they would go off to work. Mrs Mishra, whom my parents called ‘bahu’ – a term for younger brother’s wife – would finish her cooking and come over to spend the day with my mother till her husband returned from work.
For any food to be served to the Mishras, my mother brought over their utensils and cooked in them because the utensils of our house, in which non-veg had been cooked, would not be appropriate. My siblings and I had no such restrictions so we helped ourselves liberally with the snacks Mrs Mishra used to make.
In due season the Mishras were blessed with a baby boy. He became the centre of attention of both the families. He frolicked, napped, and pee-d with as much ease in my mother’s lap as he did in his own mother’s lap. The Mishras were forever asking my parents to bless their son, appearing certain that my parant’s aasheerwaad would do him good. Not that the Abbasis and the Mishras were exceptions at the time. Everywhere around us there was similar bonding and sharing. In our town, and wherever else we went.
More than 60 years have rolled by. The India of my childhood was a poor country, which had been looted by the British so comprehensively that it had been transformed into something that was portrayed by western cartoonists as an emaciated half-naked man in a torn dhoti stretching his hand with a bagging bowl. The India of the present is a massive market for luxury cars, designer goods, cosmetics and many other non-essential playthings of the rich and the wealthy. By the paradigm of development set by the World Bank, India is doing great things on the ‘development’ front. At least bits and pieces of India have become the land of riches as most of India used to be before the advent of the British.
But there is also an India emerging that never was. An India which wants to practice a certain form of a religion, follow a certain unsubstantiated interpretation of history, and treat everyone outside its ad-hoc definition of legitimacy as a subversive. Sometimes, here and there in the same India, Mishras and Abbasis still live together the way they used to in the 1950s, but they are rapidly losing their old spontaneity and innocence.
For someone like me whose childhood was inseparable from Vande Mataram, the mere mention of it now causes unease. If I don’t sing it, some fellow countryman will brand me a gaddar. If I sing it, some others will call me Uncle Tom. Foregoing lucrative jobs abroad and trading it with much lesser pay and much greater hardships, solely for the pride and satisfaction of serving India, is no longer any evidence of my loyalty to India. I could as well have migrated to the US after completing my education at IIT Bombay, 41 years ago, served my American masters and lived luxuriously on their dollars.
In fact, I probably would have been deemed a true patriot today if I had posted a video of myself on Youtube, showing myself singing Vande Mataram, while partaking the pleasures of some foreign land.