Have you had your daily dose of Vitamin P?
- Patriotism, at its best, is about debate rather than cheerleading
- It has always been a messy business with no fastest route to optimum deshbhakti
My great-aunt Doluma had “tasted" a police lathi-charge during the freedom struggle. At least that’s what I had heard from my parents. I had never asked Doluma herself.
When I heard Air India wanted every announcement to come with a Jai Hind, said with “much fervour" and after “a slight pause", I wondered what Doluma would have made of it. My freedom-fighting great-aunt had never needed to “Jai Hind" her way to patriotism or administer Vande Mataram spot tests.
I knew her as an old woman in a spotless white Khadi sari, with cropped grey hair, black-rimmed glasses, her lips stained with paan. Her real name was Dr Phulrenu Guha. After she died, I discovered she had received a doctorate from Sorbonne in 1938. Most of us just knew her as Doluma, one of three sisters, Bulu, Dolly and Jolly. I called her mantrithakurma or “minister-grandmother" because she had once been a Union minister under Indira Gandhi. Minister-grandmother sounded more glamorous than Doluma.
I won’t pretend she was the cuddly grandma who told us fairy tales. She hopped on and off jeeps even in her 80s and went on the campaign trail in rural Bengal. She could be intimidating and vinegary, blunt-spoken and no-nonsense. But she came from a generation where patriotism did not need to be a performance sport.
Not long ago, the courts announced we needed to listen to the national anthem before every film—a booster shot of Vitamin P(atriotism) best administered in the dark of a cinema hall. The anthem might be optional now but virtually no theatre dares to stop playing it, so we shuffle to our feet, spilling cheesy popcorn while surreptitiously scanning the dark to see who is not standing.
Patriotism is not just a performance sport in new India, it’s a blood sport. Lynch a Muslim dairy farmer transporting cows in Rajasthan, capture it on a mobile phone and share it with the world to prove that when it comes to patriotism we put our lathis where our mouths are. Bash the Kashmiri dry-fruit sellers in Lucknow to show some post-Pulwama-patriotism and demand to see an “I-card". An Aadhaar card is not necessary to get a mobile number any more but it is clearly mandatory to prove patriotism.
These days a Union minister heckles a television anchor for being so unpatriotic as to ask if there needs to be any proof of the figures being bandied around about the number of terrorists killed in the Balakot air strike. Good patriots these days are meant to be seen and not heard, except when they are singing along to the national anthem in a movie hall or complaining about Surf Excel promoting kiddie love jihad. Doluma would have bristled if someone told her it was anti-national to ask questions.
What we forget is that patriotism has always been a messy business with no fastest route to optimum deshbhakti. Three brothers used to live in the house next to ours. One followed the CPI. One was die-hard CPM. The eldest, and most eccentric, a fan of Netaji’s Forward Bloc, hung a giant portrait of Subhas Chandra Bose from the balcony along with the national flag every year on Netaji’s birthday. Doluma was their aunt and a Congress minister. Their ideologies were different, passionately so, but their patriotism was never in doubt.
Now a BBC survey says that 43% of Indians believe those who oppose them politically care less about the nation’s future. Thirty-five percent believe one should just avoid a conversation with those whose views are opposed to theirs. I’ve flounced out of a school WhatsApp group unable to take the vitriol being spewed in it by “friends" and the silence of the majority who just don’t want to get involved. Some said I should stay put and argue my case. Perhaps so. But one can only argue from a common bedrock of fundamental decency. Without that, we are just flailing in the deep end of the cesspool.
Social media has connected us like never before but it has also divided us like never before as fake news and conspiracy theories, all forwarded as urgent doses of Vitamin P, drive us deeper into our rabbit holes. In the smog of fake news that followed Pulwama, I wondered sometimes if national security would be better served by shutting down Twitter instead of our airports. Or we could follow TV anchor Ravish Kumar’s advice and serve the nation by just turning off the television news.
Every 20 March, Doluma would host a memorial service for her late husband, Biresh Guha, one of the pioneers of Indian biochemistry. I have to confess, as a boy, that the only thing which had me sitting still for an evening-long session of rather lugubrious Rabindrasangeet was the promise of the samosas at the end and my mother’s stern “Sit still" look. But all the relatives, CPI, CPM, Forward Bloc, maybe even a Jan Sangh somewhere, attended uncomplainingly every year.
I don’t think it was the lure of the samosa.
I understand something now I didn’t quite grasp then. Mantrithakurma’s idea of patriotism was rooted in a sense of service. She spent her life rehabilitating destitute women. Widowed in 1962 and childless, she lived a spartan life but, didn’t impose it on anyone else. If I brought a fancy soap for her from America, she accepted it with a gap-toothed smile, without lectures about how she might have once burnt foreign goods. She didn’t tell me that my patriotic duty was to return to India and marry a nice Bengali girl. She just fed me a sweet malpua and said, “I will see you next year if I am still around."
Her patriotism was simply about the way she lived herself, not prescribing how others needed to live. I wonder what she would have made of these new hectoring patriots. I want to think she would have given them a real dressing down. But chances are, she would just have told our old maid, “Dress me a paan," stuffed it into her mouth, hopped into her jeep and gone about her business instead of wasting time on the tantrums of others. Doluma, the great-aunt who had famously “tasted" a lathi-charge, understood the blood, sweat and tears it took to be a real patriot. My generation would rather be the patriotism police because heck, you get to be on the other end of that lathi-charge.
I doubt I’ve inherited Doluma’s spirit or her mettle or her steely confidence in the worth of her own kind of patriotism. But as I remember how she hopped on and off that jeep, I am hoping I’ve at least inherited her knees.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues that we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.