A Tale of Two Independence Days

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.

2 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Independence Days

  1. Very well written Samir….brought back great memories of “pundra august”

    I knew the Indian National Athem by heart for we sang (i can barely remember ever reading it in a book) it every morning during Assembly in school. I had memorized the names of our Freedom fighters as a kid. I would listen to Aakash-vani (Nation Broadcast Radio) especially on Independence day so that I could sing along the patriotic songs that played all day. We would gather at the Red Fort by the thousands to listen to the PMs speech in the sweltering heat. I felt proud to be an Indian on this day.

    And now I am a proud US citizen who enjoys the luxuries, thanks to the freedom fighters of this land. Though sad to say this, but I have not been able to memorize Star Spangled Banner and I still pretend to lip sync at a ball game. I still struggle with the names of the freedom fighters because of whom I enjoy the security and liberty this land provides me.

    But I do thank God for giving me this great opportunity to be able to enjoy the bounties of this beautiful country and its citizens, and I hope I do enjoy the 4th of July with my kids for many years to come.

    Shuja

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