Of goose-stepping and goose-pimples

Boom, boom, boom-boom-boom. SAAAV-DHAN!!! Boom, boom, rattle-rattle-rattle, VISSSSH-RAAM!



The Europeans don’t do it, neither do the Japanese.  Even the Americans are wary of goose-stepping past their citizens every year.  We may be one of two new Asian kids on the block of superpowers, but our love for Soviet-style military parades, unimaginative floats and flatulent commentary will last forever.
Every year towards the end of December, the vast lawns flanking India’s most impressive avenue are dug up. Doggedly, dare I say. Crude poles appear, then uneven screens of cheap, corrugated iron. (Don’t get me started on what this dismaying mutilation of New Delhi’s Rajpath costs the tax-payer, or worse, where our money actually goes)
After the barriers have served their purpose, our sarkari sloth-bears take weeks, increasingly even months:  to emerge from their winter snooze, remove the poles and fill the craters with earth again. This means that for most of New Delhi’s best season, when bus-loads of tourists arrive at the India Gate hexagon every day, the area looks like a plundered graveyard.
 But back to the run-up.  Every day of every January, residents of central Delhi - where I have lived for more than half a century - routinely fall out of bed at 4.17 am every morning.
Boom, boom, boom-boom-boom. SAAAV-DHAN !!! Boom, boom, rattle-rattle-rattle, VISSSSH-RAAM !
Thick fog shrouds Delhi.  It is pitch dark. Rashtrapati Bhavan and India Gate are optical illusions. Drowsy roosters haven’t even begun to think - if chickens can - of heralding the day.  But in the soupy mist, shivering school kids, jawans in New Indiabanians and emaciated police-bands in faux leopard skins and Scottish kilts practice their strides, throw and catch batons and wobble atop motorcycle pyramids on Rajpath, morning after morning. 
Over the weeks, the hexagon’s lawns begin to resemble a war-zone. Artillery, battle-tanks, armored vehicles and even warplanes take positions,  crunching the tarmac of the wide roads to a sticky pulp ( guess who pays for their re-tarring?) as they trundle their way there. Camels and elephants abound, demolishing every juicy tree top with cheeky nonchalance. Meanwhile and in heated offices, eager babus are at work (for once), ‘designing’ floats to represent the states.
Their ‘artistry’ never fails to make me fall off my couch in mirth, year after year.
Kashmiris mostly pick apples, crack walnuts, paddle shikaras and pluck santoors.  All Goans are fisher-folk, saucy women with their saris hitched up, men in strange, ‘Portuguese-type’ gear, dancing and laughing at God-knows-what alongside a fat, gaping pomfret made of shiny plastic. Tamil Nadu performs Bharata Natyam in front of a cardboard Madurai temple, overlooked by a tubby Nataraja made of Plaster-of-Paris and painted in, what Southies call ‘Ananda (read sickly) blue”.  Hefty Punjabis grind wheat, strip ganna ferociously with their teeth and dance thunderous bhangra.  All Rajasthanis are  Banjaras, eternally traversing a desert in the midst of which, illogically,  a fragile, styro-foam Hava Mahal quivers in the breeze.    (the sustained metaphor is entirely unintentional, of course).  Karnataka is one big, shiny computer with bespectacled ‘scientists’ in lab coats milling around. The mud-heaps around them (that look more like ant-hills) are, by a long stretch of imagination, the ruins of Hampi.  Kerala is awash with Kathakali Ravanas and Krishnas, furiously wiggling their eyebrows next to shoulder-high, polyurethane coconut trees probably made in China, the kinds that are the preferred embellishment of petrol pumps across India in recent years. If you’re Maharashtrian then you’re a dabbawalla, and your state is nothing but a Dickensian landscape of grey, industrial chimneys.  The only time I sat up from my usual slouch in front of the idiot box and laughed till I choked, was when serene Buddhist monks once accompanied the ‘jhanki’  for Gujarat. (Gujarat? And Buddhist non-violence??? Get outtahere...)
Then there are the ‘departmental’ floats: horticulture, which trims perfectly aesthetic shrubs into giraffes, aardvarks, dolphins and bears, while a so-not-funny man in a dirty white suit and a tiger’s mask jumps up and down. He is Sheru, the CWG mascot. (now, that was NOT an event to be proud of).  Then there is science and technology, which showcases India’s nuclear might by mounting giant, atomic reactors made of  pâpier-maché atop a truck skirted with silly satin frills in startling colours.
Okay, okay, I know I am an old cynic.  Though Kerala had dusky Indians in blonde wigs peering out of a ‘houseboat’ with binoculars, while Delhi had a mysterious, red pelican and a girl in a pink ski jacket, swaying to her boyfriend’s guitar, the jhankis were a – wee bit – better this year.  Importantly, most floats carrying my national sisters ploughing, weaving and cooking told the truth : that Indian women do most of the hard work.
But I feel sorriest for the poor sucker who is dragged along as ‘honoured guest’ for our Republic Day every year.   Even if you are the royal couple of tiny Bhutan – as this year - which depends on India for greater protection, it must be quite unnerving to have every other battle tank of the third largest army in the world, turn and lower its gun in a slow menacing arc, or a hefty sardar glare, yell and flash his sword at you, every couple of minutes and over several hours.
At the same time and after the horrifying events of recent months,  I do NOT feel the least bit sorry for either our president, no matter how elderly, trotting down grandly in his pony-cart, nor for our netas, enjoying their ‘baba-log day out’ in the VIP enclosure, soaking in the winter sun on velvet sofas, while hundreds of citizens who walked miles to get there, shiver on the metal stands, thirsty, hungry and devoid of cell-phones - all in the name of ‘skorty’.
Coming from families of  faujis myself (who used to stand ramrod straight, every time the national anthem played and struggled, in later years, to haul themselves up from wheelchairs), I can’t help my goose-pimples when our armed forces stomp past.  (On a more serious note, I would enjoy it more if they could shake off the blot of the countless violations under the AFSPA in some of the very states whose tableaux they lead every year).
Overall, I dislike the choice of military display as a celebration of what was essentially a peaceful, non-violent booting-out of the Brits. And yet, I can’t help craning my neck heavenwards (though inwardly sympathizing), when air-force pilots loop the loop in ancient, creaking Soviet-era aircraft which, of late, have had a depressing tendency to fall out of the sky.
 But for all that and all that - as poet Robert Burns wrote - and after the last hilarious float, the last ( hunky) president’s body-guard, the last camel’s copious droppings and the last snort of laughter at DD’s mindless running commentary (“In the warmth of the sunlight and a lively winter morning, the fishermen are ready to face the deep and endless sea, every wave coming towards their boats brings the message of a great catch which makes them dance with joy and ecstasy”......Oh, brother.) :  I hear it. And immediately brim over with huge love, for every inch of this gigantic, maddening, frightening, beautiful, crazy, myopic, loud, blessed plot that’s yours and mine.
Sare Jahan se achcha, Hindustan hamara.
Happy 64th  to all of us.
But, will somebody please spare us that syrupy rendition by the Mumbai nightingale and find a new singer next year? 
 (The author is a senior freelance foreign correspondent)

Lastupdate on : Sat, 26 Jan 2013 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Sat, 26 Jan 2013 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Sun, 27 Jan 2013 00:00:00 IST

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