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Sumana Roy
Free Verse

The loneliness of the fifteenth of August

have to confess that I used to judge people who would tell me that they were born on the 15th of August. My immediate reaction was of disbelief. Conditioned to the ways of Indian corruption, I put it to 'false birth certificates'. Could it be true that my favourite aunt shared a birthday with the nation she criticised all the time? This reflux might have had to do with a childhood spent eating tricolour cakes and saffron and green pea pulao on 15th August, who can tell. This was, of course, much before Agastya became August (English, August, Upumanyu Chatterjee, 1988), and while I pitied a classmate who never got to celebrate her birthday in school, I was also angry about this unequal importance attached to birth dates. Everyone should have been born on the same day, I'd say to my mother. Yes, and all countries should celebrate Independence Day on the same day too, she'd reply.

'Fifteenth August' ('fifteen August' in common-speak) wasn't an English phrase at all – its vernacular energy was evident in the early morning loudspeakers, pigeons released into the sky by 'chief guests', the Ganga-Yamuna orange and green border sarees that women like my mother wore to work, but most of all in the food packets that were distributed after flag hoisting in schools, colleges, offices and street corners. Laddu, jalebi, boondiya – the saffron quotient in those packets was overwhelming, and it didn't strike me, until many years later, how this optic indulged the Hindu strain in the Indian flag and our sensibilities. The khurma, its stiff sugar whiteness, might have been the white of the flag, but there was no token 'secularism' of the Indian bureaucratic kind in them, not even a slice of cucumber.

August is bi-polar, its taut sunny skies giving way to cloudbursts. Sometimes, the wet flag would not unfurl and we would be happy. I suspect it was our way of getting back at adults: we became the flag, its indiscipline and disobedience our uncoiled selves. Reading Jayanta Mahapatra's poem, The Fifteenth of August (The Lie of Dawns, Authors Press), it was of those rains that I was reminded.

I stare into the distance of my country.
... Only the rain of August keeps falling,
a tear moistens another night's pillow.

This is a poem drenched with rain and tears, their relation made clear by Mahapatra in the line 'My pain comes from the rain'. What exactly is this pain?

The photograph of Gandhi in the new airport lounge
is more than fifty years old.
Every time I look into the old man's eyes,
he calmly hands my promise back to me.

This is a poem written by a lonely man, a man marginalised by his country and its pattern of rainfall. This is of the metaphorical kind: 'The rain of August won't wet the earth any more'. This loneliness of August is not new to Mahapatra – he recalls feeling it in an ancient August in 1942, during the Quit India movement: 'Yes, August is a time for renewal, especially for us in India. ... But I am speaking of a day when I was a mere boy of thirteen newly out from school ... Shouts of Inquilab Zindabad and Britishers, Quit India reverberated along the corridor. ... I heard the words, Mahatma Gandhi. He was a mere name to me ... A sudden uproar in the front row ... Two jeeps and a pick-up van had driven in meanwhile and were parked to one side. Without any reason, I began feeling lonely' (Mahapatra, An August Day in 1942, Door of Paper: Essays & Memoirs).

here are many of us who feel lonely like Mahapatra on the fifteenth of August. A friend, a long-distance Indian nationalist, smirks and calls it 'biraha', the sadness caused by separation from one's lover. Why this distance between us and the country? 'Land, our land,/there is so much land between us now'. This loneliness is not of the old and the middle-aged alone. The crowd and the noise, parades of men and congregations of flags, assembly of shoes and caps – everyone is everywhere, except that we are behind the bars of our loneliness, prisoners in this free country. The same sense of dissociation marks Chandini Santosh's poem, Lost Shoe:

I remember
The independence day carnival
At the Red Fort,
With new shoes on my nearly new feet
And independence on my mind.

... Amma watches the tricolour
Achan listens to the prime minister
I look at my shoes:

Gone was the one on my left

... With one foot independent,
The other dependent on shoes ...

Aruni Kashyap, an Assamese writer, calls August the 'cruellest month'.

August could be the bloodiest month –
in some summers, we have seen corpses carried away
on biers, like slaughtered mutton hung
in meat shops – how much per kg?
As if the army waits for a man carrying
a jute-bag to approach.
... On our way back, next day,
we saw footwear strewn on the roads,
burning busses, cracked cars, and a woman
crying, with a split skull – they pelted stones.

Trains stop running on the fifteenth of August, cinema halls close, we remain indoors. Bombs explode, people die, we lose footwear, all for the fifteenth of August. And 'far away from the capital, a village/decides to celebrate Independence Day/by unfurling black flags, just like/the days when the Union Jack fluttered/from police stations, courts, offices' (Assam, August).

 
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