My primary school building was an old-fashioned one. Classrooms on the first and second floors opened into an open balcony protected by a sloping tile roof. Three classrooms opened into these. The ground floor classrooms were connected and opened into a gravelly playground, the school church, the ‘grotto’ with a statue of Mother Mary and the main school gate. Across from the gate, still stands a BEST bus stop, the terminal point of the 103 and 123 routes—the RC Church stop. In our day, in the early 1970s, there were just two sections per class and so eight classrooms amply accommodated the entire primary school.
In 1972, when India celebrated 25 years of independence, I was in Standard IV. Our class celebration was a day-long ‘exhibition’ on India’s unity in diversity. The exhibits were Standard IV children—all girls in our batch. We were paired up (a terrible trauma when you are eight) and assigned our own ethnicities. Of course, the taller girl was the man and so I was saddled with being a Tamilian man. My classmate was a Tamilian woman. We could not be just two random people so we had to be husband and wife—can you feel with me how terribly embarrassing this memory still is?
Long benches and tables were placed outside for us to eat our lunch, and there, the ‘couples’ were seated standing up to recite a set script about our ‘culture’ that I have since forgotten. Parents streamed past us, listening to each couple. They must have thought, “How cute!” (I now would!) and I am sure we were. But cute is not the same as happy to be there.
Coming from a family that has adapted over multiple generations of displacement and relocation, I had no idea what ‘tradition’ meant nor what ‘traditional’ Tamilian men wore. My father, my main reference point for this topic, wore pants and shirts to work—smartly tucked with carefully chosen belts, I might add. But on his off-days, he wore tasteful checked lungis and T-shirts or on festival days, crisp white veshtis with a shirt or at a wedding, a kurta (jubba). I had never seen anything else. So I thought, at least this dress business is easy. I decided to wear my white school-shirt and I am not sure what passed for a lungi—a folded sheet? a folded lungi? a tucked petticoat? Quite frankly, I really did not care for this event I had been coerced to participate in, and I expressed by resistance by making zero effort.
And yes, I left at lunch-time and refused to return for the rest of the day, abandoning the class-mate who had dressed up as the Tamilian woman in nine yards and full Bharata Natyam jewellery.
I want you to know that almost five decades later, this is one of my most cringe-worthy school memories. Yucky, yucky, yucky, my inner 8-year old wants to shout, and stamp my foot too!
But I also now remember this Independence Day celebration for something that has largely disappeared from our public sphere—the routine, everyday visual celebration of our diversity.
On Vasanth TV, every evening, they play a short video clip called ‘India Song.’ I will not comment on the tune and lyrics but the visuals are singularly tacky…except their sincere depiction of all our faces, places, dances, faiths and even, activities is really endearing. The only other place I can remember seeing that now is in the entrance art in Delhi Airport’s T3 toilets.
To be Indian is to inherit so many diverse cultures and ways of being—and this is a massive understatement. Somewhere along the way, we took it for granted, stopped celebrating and paying attention, and those who wanted to flatten us into one format, one mould have begun to win. We are forgetting who we are—who ALL we really are.
Republic Day is around the corner; how will you celebrate this year? And what will you celebrate? I hope it will be the endless wealth of our cultural diversity and the Constitution that protects this treasure. Can we please go back to the innocent celebrations of other times?
- Can we have a food festival of snacks from different places—how many varieties of vadai are made in this subcontinent?
- Can we have an afternoon of folk dances and music?
- Or come in the dress of your native place, without the embarrassment and coercion that accompanied our event and the enforced gender roles and stereotypes?
- Can we discover wall and floor decoration forms (kolam, rangoli, shekhawati, madhubani) and try and copy them on blackboards around the school creating a pop-up museum?
- Can we make massive collages from old papers and magazines that we would otherwise throw or sell?
Every school and every group of students and teachers will gravitate towards one form of expression. It does not matter which one, as long as the process is exploration and discovery and the outcome is celebration and acceptance. Do share with us the ideas that you and your students came up with!
And no, please don’t force your students to do something they really, really, really do not want to do. You can always find other ways for them to participate—drawing charts or guiding visitors or singing! Accommodating a variety of temperaments and aptitudes in a classroom activity is a secondary celebration of diversity and one they will remember with joy and gratitude.