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Happy Independence Day, India

India is seventy one and at a crossroads today. Its self image as a secular democracy that embodies liberal values of justice and equality for all are under threat. India’s founding generation gave it a Constitution that enshrined  these secular and liberal democratic values. The values of the current party in power are antithetical to that vision. They worship the assassins of Mahatma Gandhi and blame everything that ails India in 2018 on its first first Prime Minister, Nehru. But that is a post for another day. Today I want to pay homage to India’s founding document.

Writing the constitution was a collaborative effort that took over five years. The men and women who were a part of that entire process struggled with what a just and good government of the people, by the people and for the people would look like. They tackled the thorny issues of gender equity, religious freedom, untouchablity, language, land reforms and even the form of the government.

Although the majority of the members of the Constituent Assembly were from the Indian National Congress, the Chairman of the drafting committee of the constitution, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar was not a member and in fact was an opponent of many of its policies and had locked horns with Gandhi on more than one occasion. Can you imagine that happening today? A member of the opposition being given such a monuemental responsibility because he was the best person for the job?

If you are interested in watching how the most populous democracy gave itself a constitution  you should watch Samvidhaan, a ten part miniseries available for streaming from Rajyasabha TV made by the veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal.

The authors of the founding document gave India a constitution based on respect for all irrespective of their caste, creed, gender or religion. This is especially remarkable considering the ugly and wrenching experience of the partition that tore the former British India into two as the price of independence.

The title track echoes the spirit of Samvidhaan as it blends together Saare Jahan Se Accha (Best in the World) by Iqbal and Bankim Chandra’s Vande Mataram (I bow before  thee mother(land)) and Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana which is India’s national anthem.

Part One

 

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Happy 4th

USCIS_Officer_Giving_A_Speech

July 4th 2017, Old Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts,

A year ago I became a United States citizen. This is what I wrote the day after.

Yesterday, I swore the oath of allegiance to the United States and became a citizen along with 126 people from 47 countries on the village green of Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts.

“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”

The July sun was blazing, the sky was clear and there were no clouds, as I raised my right hand and repeated the words. Repeating the oath along with me was a slice of humanity, on my left was a man from Portugal on my right was my husband, to his right was a young Somali man, also in my row was a Catholic priest from Poland and a woman from Ghana. We immigrants, from every corner of the globe  believed in the promise of America and were swearing an oath to uphold the principles it was founded on.

 
“Life, Liberty and pursuit of happiness for all”

The Federal District Court judge, who administered the oath urged us to do our duty as citizens by getting involved in civic life as he welcomed us as new citizens. He told us to vote and even run for office. He acknowledged  our countries of birth, and how our upbringing had made us the individuals that we were. I was moved and I felt a sense of awe and wonder that I had not expected.
 

The entire naturalization ceremony reminded me very much of a wedding ceremony, there was a legal binding ceremony with a judge and an oath, there were witnesses. It felt like I had finally made my relationship with America official and permanent. There is no going back now. Our relationship is signed and sealed.

 

I believe in the promise of America, the power of the individual to change their destiny. That you are not limited by the circumstances of your birth. If you can dream it, you can do it. It was in early January that I decided that I would apply for naturalization. I sent in my application on January 19th. I had always felt like I belonged here, this was the time to make it count. Do my bit.  The ideal that we were all created equal is a principle worth fighting for. The American ideal is worth fighting for.

Happy Birthday, India

Its been seventy years since India got its independence from the British. Its birth was accompanied by the traumatic cleaving into two of British India and the traumatic loss of the Father of the Nation, Gandhi only five months later. Yet, India under its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru embraced a democratic and inclusive vision for India. This vision is under serious threat right now, but that is a post for another day.

I am going to celebrate this milestone by blogging about India. The highs, the lows and everything in between, over the next two weeks. I plan to cover movies, science, history, geography of the original melting pot.

I leave you with  national anthem  written by Rabindranath Tagore, performed here by its preeminent and beloved artists, representing India’s tremendous linguistic and religious diversity. First there is an instrumental version, then a vocal one, both arranged by A. R. Rahman, an example of India’s many cultural strands come together to form  a unique whole.  This version is from  2000, many of the performers featured here are no longer with us, like Jagjit  Singh and Bhimsen Joshi.

Jana Gana Mana

Happy 70th Independence Day, India

India is merely a geographical expression. It is no more a single country than the equator.
-Winston Churchill

Despite Churchill’s pronouncement, independent India is seventy years old, while her old rulers struggle to hold onto their not so united kingdom. On August 15, 1947, India achieved its independence from the oh so benevolent British rule, whose legacy involved mass death by starvation. One of the worst famines to strike British India was the Bengal famine of 1943.  While volunteer army recruits from India were dying by the thousands for Winnie’s King and country, his decisions led to millions of avoidable Indian deaths.

Home to every religion in the world and twenty-two official languages; India’s amazing linguistic and religious diversity is its strength. This diversity is reflected in Indian art, be it Hindustani classical music or popular Hindi cinema. India’s struggles are many and it still has a long way to go before it reaches its full potential, but those are topics for another day.

But today I want to celebrate this milestone by celebrating India’s unity in diversity. First broadcast on 15 August 1988 on Doordarshan,

 

Mile sur mera tumhara, to sur bane hamara ( when my note (musical) melds with yours, it becomes our note)

Mile Sur Mera Tumhara

Bhimsen Joshi gets its started in Hindi, then we travel the length and breadth of India, from north to south and from east to west, ending in Hindi again. I counted fourteen languages including Hindi.

In the order they appear:

  • Bhimsen Joshi (Hindustani Classical music maestro) sings in Hindi
  • Boatman  in Kashmiri
  • People on the tractor in Punjabi
  • Shabana Azmi  (actor) in Urdu
  • Narendra Hirwani (cricketer) in Sindhi
  • Cast of Tamas, a Doordarshan miniseries on India’s partition  in Hindi/Punjabi
  • Balamurali Krishna (Carnatic music maestro) in Tamil (In his audience I could identify Kamal Hassan, Venkatraghavan and Meenakshi Seshadri)
  • Prakash Padukone (Badminton player) in Kannada
  • Couple in Telugu
  • Man on the elephant in Malayalam
  • Mrinal Sen (Film director), Arun lal(Cricketer)  etc getting out of a train in Bengali
  • Assamese singer
  • North eastern dancers (with no voiceovers)
  • Oriya couple
  • Mario Miranda (Cartoonist/illustrator)  in Goa (again no voiceovers)
  • Mallika Sarabhai (Dancer) in Gujarati
  • Tanuja (Actor)  in Marathi

Again we end in Hindi

we see

  • Waheeda Rehman (Actor)
  • Hema Malini (Actor)
  • Sharmila Tagore (Actor)
  • Lata Mangeshkar (Singer), then the voice behind the women
  • Amitabh, Jeetendra and Mithun  (all actors)

Ends in refrain of the Indian national anthem

  • I could only identify Syed Kirmani (cricketer)

If you can identify anyone else who I have missed, let me know in the comment section.

Happy 69th, India

India is celebrating its 69th independence day. On 15th August 1947, at the stroke of midnight, the long nightmare of British rule was finally over. The departing British gave the  newly independent India one last parting gift of a hasty partition which left millions dead and displaced.  My interest in the British rule, both the Company Raj (1757-1858) and then the British Raj (1858-1947) has been heightened ever since I heard the Indian Member of Parliament, Shashi Tharoor, argue for reparations for the colonial rule at the Oxford Union debate.

The reality of the colonial rule was far from the enlightened ideals the Victorians liked to lecture upon. Nothing highlights this difference between the ideals and the reality than devastating famines that ravaged the country side at regular intervals and the official British response. With more than 45 million dead, it was nothing less than genocide by starvation and disease.

Quite simply, Indian lives meant little to their British administrators throughout the duration of the Raj. A fact brought home by Churchill’s response to the Bengal famine during the height of World War II and Mountbatten’s hurried and inept handover of power which lead to the death and displacement of millions of Indians.

Although, the possibility that India will get back any of the unprecedented loot from India, including but not limited to the Queen’s crown jewels is remote, it is not too late to discuss who gained what from the Empire. Especially since these days we see a hankering for a “benevolent empire” from some quarters. We heard the same tired excuses that justified the overreaches of Europe’s colonial era trotted out during the buildup to the Iraq War. A war which was supposed to bring democracy to the Middle East but has brought  mayhem and anarchy instead.

It is also important from the Indian context to look back at history and figure out how a handful of people from a tiny remote island  far away could impose their will on a once mighty ancient civilization. However those are posts for another day. I leave you with this, an instrumental rendition by the masters of Indian classical music of India’s national anthem penned by Rabindranath Tagore. It showcases the tremendous cultural diversity of the nation.

Instrumental Version of India’s National Anthem

Happy Birthday, India

On August 15, 1947,  67 years ago while the world slept, India awoke to a new beginning, or in the immortal words of Jawaharlal Nehru, its tryst with destiny.

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.

It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.

At the dawn of history India started on her unending quest, and trackless centuries which are filled with her striving and the grandeur of her success and her failures. Through good and ill fortune alike she has never lost sight of that quest or forgotten the ideals which gave her strength. We end today a period of ill fortune and India discovers herself again.

The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us. Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future?

Freedom and power bring responsibility. The responsibility rests upon this assembly, a sovereign body representing the sovereign people of India. Before the birth of freedom we have endured all the pains of labour and our hearts are heavy with the memory of this sorrow. Some of those pains continue even now. Nevertheless, the past is over and it is the future that beckons to us now.

That future is not one of ease or resting but of incessant striving so that we might fulfill the pledges we have so often taken and the one we shall take today. The service of India means the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity.

The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us, but as long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over.

Full speech here

The birth of the Indian nation was traumatic and joyful at the same time and in many ways India is still coping with the PTSD associated with the Partition that followed the independence. 

Were it not for Prime Minister Nehru and his cohorts, India could have easily ended up like Pakistan instead of the democracy it is now.  Unity in  diversity became India’s motto replacing the divide and conquer strategy practiced masterfully by the colonial masters.  There are few countries in the world as diverse as India, in terms of both languages spoken and the religions practiced.  In light of countries splitting across ethnic and religious lines as we speak, the Indian experiment seems almost like an anomaly. 

Stressing what bound Indians together rather than what separated them in those early years is what kept India united and viable. In some ways  its truly a miracle, because the fault lines that divide India are too many to count. Although it is majority Hindu, it has the second largest Muslim population in the world, second only to Indonesia. There are  nineteen languages on an Indian currency note, and for many if not most Indians, their regional and  linguistic identity supersedes the national identity. Focusing on what binds Indians together therefore not just noble but also politic.

Jawaharlal Nehru was not unique though, instead he followed the lead of the previous leaders of the Indian National Congress, Mohandas Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Both Tilak and Gandhi formed alliances beyond narrow regional, caste and religious divides during India’s struggle for Independence.  Here is hoping that this tradition  continues as India navigates the twenty first century.