My first day of school in India was a memorable one. It was November 2nd, 1990. Like hundreds of kids that had to flee Kuwait during the first Gulf War, I was quickly having to learn what being “Indian” meant. Let me rephrase. What being Indian in India meant. So far, things were proving to be difficult. People around me spoke Hindi. Which was good. They used a lot of slang though. Which was not. And since I had spent a lot of time talking with kids that were born to south Indian parents (my own mother hails from Kerala), it turned out that I had a “Madarasi” accent. Whatever the hell that was.  Still, English was not uncommon and so long as I remembered to pronounce tomato and potato right, i.e., the “Indian” way, things were cool. More importantly, school was familiar. And familiar was comforting.

As was and still is, common practice, students were lined up for morning assembly. Kids chatted with each other, jokes were shared, the guy in front of me was kind enough to say hi. So far so good. Or so I thought.

Drum beat. Chit chat dies. Everyone stands at attention. Eyes forward. Cue morning prayer.


“What language is this?”, I think to myself. “This isn’t Hindi.”

I steal a glance or two around around me. Everyone’s lips are in sync. I’m acutely aware of the fact that mine are fused shut.

Thankfully, my state of panic has barely registered before the prayer ends. I breath a sigh of relief and muster up enough courage to ask the kid in front what I just heard.

Pat came the reply, “Sanskrit”, along with a very weird look.

“Sanskrit?!”, I thought to myself, “Nobody told me people here speak Sanskrit. I’ve never heard a word of it. Well, maybe when Dad prays I suppose but no one ever said…”

Drum beat. Attention. Cue prayer two.

“Another prayer? Oh thank goodness. Its Hindi. I know Hindi.” I breathe a sigh of relief. I don’t know the words but try to mumble along. Turns out prayer two is actually a song. Why are we singing? Who cares? Its Hindi. I know Hindi.

Drum beat. Attention. “News of the day”

“What? News? Nobody ever read the news to us in Kuwait. Oh wait. Its in English! YAY!!” But even this celebration is short lived as a dreadful though occurs to my nine year old brain “That’s three languages in fifteen minutes along with the news. Kids in this school must be smarter than that annoying girl that always came first in class. I’m doomed.”

Drum beat. Attention. Principal shows up.

What follows next is a bunch of words that, in spite of being in English, mean absolutely nothing to me. For a moment I though there was talk of Nelson Mandela but I misheard. It was “Mandal” as in the “Mandal Commission”. It was all very confusing and impossible for me to follow. But the kicker was yet to come.

Drum beat. Attention. Music.

“Hey, I’ve heard this before. I think this…” Hundreds of mouths around me start belting out language number four. National Anthem time.

I wanted to crawl into a hole.

Some clarification here. The National Anthem was something we only recited on very special occasions in Kuwait. My memory might be a little spotty but as far as I can remember these were: Republic day, Independence day and Annual school celebrations. That’s it. Moreover, the only people singing were the ones that actually spoke Bengali and that too, only seniors. Everyone else had access to a translated version they could read at their leisure. Despite, the language barrier, we felt connected. And proud.

Pride wasn’t exactly the over-riding emotion I felt then, however. After the assembly to end all assemblies was finally over. I was wobbly kneed and a total wreck. It took me a week to figure out that nobody (save a dozen or so) actually spoke Bengali, much less Sanskrit. But I will never forget the looks I got when I finally mustered enough courage to ask some of my classmates, “Why is everyone singing in a language no one understands?”

I have no recollection what I got in terms of an answer, if any. But I will never forget the looks my innocent query elicited.

Fast forward to November 30th, 2016.

The Supreme Court has ordered all cinema halls that: “all the cinema halls in India shall play the national anthem before the feature film starts and all present in the hall are obliged to stand up to show respect to the national anthem” as a part of their “sacred obligation”. The intent of this ridiculous ruling? In the words of the bench of Justice Dipak Misra and Justice Amitav Roy:

“The directions are issued for love and respect for the motherland, (which) is reflected when one shows respect to the national anthem as well as to the national flag. That apart, it would instill the feeling within one, a sense (of) committed patriotism and nationalism”

Cue panic.

That’s right. Nationalism is now a virtue. Also, we will now be treated like children at assembly.  Regardless of age. Get in line. Stand at attention. Keep your mouths and more importantly, your minds shut tight. Unless you want to sing along of course. Not to worry, you needn’t know what the words mean. Just don’t do anything traitorous like, you know, question stuff. The India of 2016, the self acclaimed ascending super power that’s been ascending for the last 20 years, the “Modified” democracy that prides itself on everything from holy cows to the number zero. This land has no place for people who question anymore. And as for freedom? Of course you are free. Free to do exactly what the government tells, nay orders, you to do. Now be a good lad or lass and wave that flag. Don’t forget to sing for your freedom.  The Supreme Court won’t.

“I am not against one nation in particular, but against the general idea of all nations.”

Gasp! How dare someone spew such anarchist hate? Such temerity! The gall! Surely this cannot be tolerated in the land of patriots?  Well then, might want to tell that to Sir Rabindranath Tagore. Otherwise known as the man who wrote the Indian national anthem. Those are his words. From his 1917 essay, ‘On Nationalism In India

“instill the feeling within one, a sense (of) committed patriotism and nationalism”. I re-typed that and still can’t believe it.  What the hell is happening to this country?

There’s a phrase my American friends used to say quite often, one that disturbingly enough, I don’t hear much anymore, “America is an idea.” I loved that. I loved it because I got it. It also gave me the chance to reply with “Yes and it’s an idea that India shares”. I doubt either nation can rightly claim that anymore.

I’ve come to a point where even discussing this with my friends seems hopeless. “We can agree to disagree on this bro.”, they say. Can we? How do I disagree when I can’t question? Hell I’m not even allowed to leave the room am I? How does one disagree when literally the most non-violent way of protest, i.e., sitting the fuck down, in my own seat that I paid for, is against the law?

One would think the fact that the air we breathe is literally killing us would be a more pressing concern. But no. Mouthing words we don’t understand and vilifying people who refuse to do so is more important. It’s like explaining Picasso to a dog. “I love you Fido, but when your idea of the “finer things in life” is limited to sniffing butts, I’m out.”

This isn’t a country.

This is an abusive father, belt in hand, confusing in his sick mind, fear for love.

This is Hitler looking for his November criminals.

This is Tyson raving “Imma fuck you till you love me faggot.”

This is a joke. A goddamned twilight zone episode.

This is a lie. And one that I reject.

Here’s a more apt national anthem:

For it’s the end of history. It’s caged and frozen still.
There is no other pill to take. So swallow the one, that makes you ill.
– Rage against the machine (Sleep now in the fire)

2016. Twenty six years later and the looks still surround me.

(Image from flickr. Licence.)