November 16, 2002


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Dilip D'Souza

I analyse a lump

Every time, I fight an unexpected lump in my throat. It never fails. Like every other journalist, I like to think I am hardboiled and cynical. I like to think my antennae are tuned to detect and scorn the claptrap that routinely fills the air around us: empty slogans, meaningless claims, outright lies. Yet there are times, like the event I attended this evening, when that lump pops up. What does it say about my cynicism, I wonder.

Nothing very spectacular, this event. A small group that calls itself the Humanity Forum decided to celebrate Children's Day --- Nehru's birthday, November 14th --- by asking kids from local municipal schools to sing songs and perform skits. This was out in the open, with the sea and the setting sun as a backdrop. They were given a theme, Ham Sab Ek Hain (We are One), but left to do whatever they wanted around it. So one group of kids sang songs, another had a series of one-minute sketches, a third did an Akbar-Birbal story. The last group wound up by singing Ham Honge Kaamyaab (We Shall Overcome) and Bharat Jodo (Unite India). These tunes drew the kids who had finished back onto the platform and the whole lot sang out lustily, little fists pumping in the salty evening air.

Then they all trooped off for an iftaar party, breaking the Ramzan fast with their Muslim friends.

And me? I was on photo-taking duty, but most of my energy went in trying to push down the lump.

It's so silly, really. If I think about it dispassionately, I know how jaded I am with such things as Children's Day and people singing Bharat Jodo. I know too that there are the keyboard jockeys out there who are already whacking out abusive responses: what does it say of me that I am jaded with Bharat Jodo? But I am, without doubt. The cynicism comes from too long watching too many people mouth too many such phrases while simultaneously doing their best to turn Indian against Indian. Bharat Jodo means nothing to them. So given that, why do I not snort inwardly, as I would if I heard those hypocrites saying this stuff, and go about my business? Why do I instead feel so suddenly moved by these kids' renditions?

I don't know. But this was hardly the first time I asked myself that. One morning some years ago, I stood by as a few hundred kids in a small-town school commemorated Republic Day. They were in spotless uniforms, lined up in neat and disciplined rows. They saluted the flag with a dreamy look in their eyes, sang the national anthem beautifully. Then they marched and showed off karate skills with a precision and enthusiasm that a military unit might have envied. How do you put a price on idealism like that?

Yet it's also more than just slogans and the anthem on a national day. Take the bright, inquisitive and completely charming kids I accompanied to the Seeds of Peace camp in Maine last July. They were going to meet counterparts from Pakistan and, the hope went, learn that there was humanity on that side of the border as well. I wrote here some months ago: "I arrived at camp bathed in cynicism, but holding on nevertheless to a faint hope that the kids would erase some of it."

They did just that. It was hard and emotionally exhausting, but by the end of camp, the kids were asking themselves some tough questions. About themselves, about shared histories, about long-held assumptions, about the very meaning of right and wrong. And because they had reached that point, because they could see that their Pakistani counterparts had reached it too, but most of all because they had confronted and questioned their differences, they had discovered something about humanity and peace.

Yes, certainly enough to beat some of the cynicism out of me.

And finally, in a remote Maharashtra village last August, I watched as kids from the local tribal school gathered on a holiday morning to do their bit for a small hydroelectric project. On a day when they might have been running around, or playing, or just relaxing, this swarm of children instead chose to participate in a village project. They brought their gleaming little thalis. They streamed into the river, shallow as it flowed past the village, and waded out to a point about two-thirds of the way across. They filled their thalis with fine black mud from the riverbed. They streamed back to shore, along a narrow path that led around a spur above the river, to a spot on the other side of the spur where they dumped their loads on a pile of shiny black mud that grew quickly man-sized. The mud would be used to build a tank there, from where water would be piped downhill to a turbine.

The project is supposed to be complete any day now. When it is, 300 homes in this village and the next will have electricity generated by that turbine. Electricity in a place that has never had it. Electricity generated by a dam, a water channel, a tank and a turbine --- all built, blasted, dug, and assembled by those villagers themselves. Electricity for 300 homes, nearly 2,000 people.

And when the project is done and dozens of bulbs blink on in homes that have only ever had candles and lanterns for light, they will have done so with a little help from the village's littlest residents. Those hundreds of brown, wet, skinny, tireless and ecstatic little bodies I watched, ferrying black sand on gleaming thalis for hours that holiday morning. Vilas and Hemlata and Mengi and Sanjay and Tega and Bardinya and Sangeeta and many more. Shouting and splashing and singing as they went, occasionally raising a joyous and shrill Ammu Akkha Ek Se! Their version, of course, of Ham Sab Ek Hain.

And this hardboiled fool, possibly too complacently hardboiled for his own good, stood and watched. Stood and blinked back tears. Then felt shamed into wading in himself instead of blinking, wading in to do his own little bit.

Why the lump, every time? Because the spirit in these kids echoes the spirit my parents' generation told me they felt on that August day in 1947. A sense that an entire people were embarking on a joint endeavour to build something special, something new of this ancient land.

Fifty-five years later, we have instead built a place where thousands have been driven from their Kashmir homes because of their religion; where millions of my fellow Indians don't earn enough to feed themselves and their families; where men are lynched because they were suspected to have skinned a cow; where a community and a council rise up to defend the lynchers. You can add to that list. We have built a place whose defining national characteristic may soon be hatred.

But it's more than just this sense of profound loss that brings the lump. It's the frightening thought, as I watch the kids, of what they might become. I quail as I do it, but this too happens every time. I look around and I wonder: which one is going to grow up from Bharat Jodo to that most vapid of exhortations, "Love India or leave it"? Which one will be so callous as to pronounce of rising food prices, as a well-fed slug did to me, that it is a "flimsy issue" that the poor bring up only at election time? Which one will throw stones at cricketers from visiting teams, then accuse the stone-struck players of "over-reacting"?

And will they all quickly grow as cynical as I am? Even think, as I seem to, that that's a good thing to be?

You try it. Think these thoughts, ask these questions, as you watch kids and their idealism on Children's Day. Or any other day. See if you get a lump as well.

Dilip D'Souza

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