Today is July 4th, Independence Day in the USA. That is some forty-one days distant from another Independence Day, August 15th, which will be celebrated in India. I have not ‘celebrated’ August 15th for many years. It meant there was a political speech being telecast live; prime ministers spoke of national achievement and sacrifice; I tuned out. It meant the national television channel would show documentaries on ‘freedom fighters,’ men and women whose service to the ‘nation’ always put mine to shame. It meant I would be reminded, yet again, of the words of a stirring speech by the most un-Indian Indian to ever be Prime Minister. I never saluted a flag, never sang the anthem on August 15th. (I sang it on many other occasions, always standing to attention when it played.) The ‘freedom struggle,’ despite the best efforts of history books, national broadcasting systems, and political parties, remained a dim portion of the past I shared with my ‘fellow citizens.’ I knew about, and vaguely sensed, Independence Day, but it passed me by every year, without fail.
I never failed to find Nehru’s speech moving though. And I never failed to appreciate the day off from school.
On August 15th, 1987, I caught a flight to New York via London and left ‘home.’ I cracked the expected joke for anyone that cared to listen and humour me: I was free at last, gone over the black water, over the oceans. On December 1st, 2000, in down-town Manhattan. I took the citizenship oath for my newly adopted nation. There were many others present that day, a veritable United Nations of origins, saying the magic words out loud. Then, my American passport handy, I flew off, to another land, elsewhere, Australia, to live and work there for two more years. I was very confused about nationality but I was not confused about travel documents. I needed them; some of them made life way more convenient, they meant easy passage through airports, friendlier customs and immigration officials the world over. Getting a visa to go to India felt like a small price to pay for that convenience.
So now, Independence Day comes six weeks earlier, with a bigger number attached to it. (Sixty-five back in India, two hundred and thirty-six here.) I live in New York, in Brooklyn. I teach American pragmatism, Dewey in New York City. This is a less sober holiday, more of an open invitation to hedonism. There’s more beef being cooked, for one thing. (I will celebrate July 4th, in all probability, as I have for many years now, by attending a barbecue.) There are fewer reminders of freedom fighters, but more flags are visible. I still don’t salute a flag, I still don’t sing the national anthem. (I stand to attention for the Star Spangled Banner in sports stadiums but don’t place my hand over my heart.) The English are still dastardly, that much hasn’t changed. (There is a greater fascination with the Royal Family though.)
And I still appreciate the day off. Nations are good for holidays at least, a small compensation for their otherwise immense burdens.