Reminiscences of a Bygone Era: My Mom & Her Republic Day Memories
It is a familiar drill reprised every year on January 26. Post-breakfast, the household turns quiet and remains so until nearly noon. Not even a tinker is to be heard once Mother dear turns on the television to participate in the Republic Day parade.
Come what may, she has to be comfortably settled on the sofa by the time the dignitaries step out of the car to pay homage at Amar Jawan.
Such is her enthusiasm that many years ago – along with her parents and siblings – the family braved the Delhi winters, or sometimes a cold wave, to step out from their living quarters in Irwin Road (now Baba Kharak Singh Marg) to excitedly make their way towards the lawns of India Gate, huddled together in a tonga. Or a taxi, during the later years.
After alighting at the barricade point, there would be a quick scramble towards the seating area in order to occupy the front row for the best view. Children by default occupied the carpets laid on the grass; gallery seating was only for adults.
Those were not the times of trendy fashion and in an egalitarian scheme of things children mostly turned up in their winter school uniforms and blazers.
Lunch was kept simple and involved what could be prepared within the shortest possible time, since they would return home only by the meal time. There was no time to fuss over breakfast either, but they did carry lightly toasted bread with butter and a thermos filled with coffee.
When the parade began, the chill and hunger took a backseat. The cavalcade consisting of military personnel on foot, camel and horsebacks, colourful tableau, and folk dancers regaled the spectators. All eyes would turn skyward hearing the distant roars that signalled the arrival of the air force fleet. Their formations and somersaults left everyone awestruck even after they disappeared into the skies, leaving behind a trail of the tricolour!
Food was, therefore, never spread out in the open – and partaken with outmost caution, lest the crows and other birds came swooping down. It was a discipline everyone observed to keep the skies clear.
Many a times while returning home, it was possible to catch a closer glimpse of these pageants and military folks at Connaught Circus, a vantage point that they passed before proceeding to the final destination.
By the 1970s my mother and her family had started to enjoy the parade in the luxury of their homes.
Until they owned a set, a friend of grandpa’s who ran a TV repair shop generously lent a spare TV set for the day and also helped set it up. The antenna on the rooftop was a clever sign that beckoned neighbours, small-time hawkers and even urchins to throng their house. It was quite a task keeping them at bay – doors were kept locked and the access through the verandah was blocked by bamboo chics secured from inside.
One might perhaps attribute this to the lure of the television, but the fact is, this ceremonial parade was never an elitist affair. Every denizen worth their salt took interest in it. With the advent of the TV, trips to Rajpath petered out – but not cut off completely. It was a near sacrilege to squander away the complimentary passes. A family friend or a visiting relative would always be a willing accompli.
The parade of 1972 was a scaled-down version, but worth witnessing on the grounds. The majority of the forces were still on the front but the victory had to be celebrated and the nation had to pay tribute to the martyrs. This was the year that the Amar Jyot was installed under the canopy of India Gate.
Fortunately, we didn’t just grow up hearing these anecdotes or watching them on the small screen.
I was about four years old when I was taken to the parade for the first time. Father’s frequent posting to the capital also ensured that we witnessed the spectacle live and up-close. By now, Mother had graduated to the gallery seating. It was a double bonanza when we got to see the pageants during the full dress rehearsal (on Jan. 23) and then watching a televised rehash on the officially designated day.
When the celebrations completely moved indoors, moving to and living in different cities meant the celebrations too moved indoors completely – but this in no way diminished the fervour of the ritual.
The stay-at home version had also made lunch a cozy and special affair. Mother often dished out one of her winter specials on this day. All the chopping, blanching and spice mix was done the previous day to keep the morning free of heavy chores.
The gazetted holiday brought with it extra homework from school or meant preparing for a test the next day. I multitasked between the books and the TV so that I didn’t miss what had come to be my favourite parts – ones that mostly involved school children. Mother, however, followed everything from start to finish. Each bit of the routine – from the ceremonial hoisting of the flag and the distribution of the gallantry awards, to the display of tableau and colourful dances to the fly-past – is carefully apprised.
Mother will notice which regiment will “fly past” with their jets, the destination it takes off from and at what speed it arrives. She notices which states or government boards made it to the tableau section and then eagerly waits to judge which were the most creative and realistically designed ones.
After a good one hour into the programme, she will remark that the commentary could have been better – just like they were during the heydays when Melville de Mello, the iconic broadcast commentator, would hold fort with his deep baritone. “…It lent a certain charm,” she will add in a nonchalant voice.
We will sit with bated breath when the men in motorcades perform their stunts. When the tableaus start arriving, an animated discussion will break out and we’ll go into the little details of each presentation. She will shush us when the President’s bodyguard seeks permission for closure. For, that’s when something special will happen – the cavalry of horses will nod and gently sway to the rhythm of the national anthem!
Last year, the cameras missed capturing this endearing moment. That’s when I began to think how much things have changed. Not everyone is perceptive enough to capture the mood – the revelry on a child’s face when she sees those tricoloured helium balloons soaring high; the feeling of awe when the planes zoom past; or the loud cheers that greet the squad riding on elephants.
However, one thing that has been constant is the way our home transforms on this day, right from the chores to the special lunch and the discussions that go on till the evening.
The mood continues into the Beating Retreat on the 29th, where she eagerly awaits her favourite pieces – as also marvelling at the new bands and performances and the glittering fireworks at the end.
Over the years, I learnt that Abide with Me is Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite and if I’m not working that day, I will wait for the band to play this number. It was only years later that I looked up the complete lyrics.
For a long time, it was not uncommon to drive down to Vijay Chowk, just towards the end, to witness the spectacle in the sky whilst seated in the car. Traffic snarls and road diversions were the least of our concerns, as we waited to catch a good glimpse of the fireworks.
Today, as flights get cancelled or rescheduled on the occasion, we panic and don’t understand what the fuss is all about. Back then, I was trained not to ask for food during the parade, lest it attract the birds and disrupt the flight path. Keeping the skies clear for the occasion also lent it the sanctity it deserves. And when those very skies reverberate with colour and sounds during the closing ceremony, they echo a million sentiments!
A few years ago, I was at the Niagara Falls on the Fourth of July. As the sky erupted into pyrotechnics, a young lady standing beside turned to exclaim, “Have you ever seen something like this?” I just returned a smile. My yes would have perplexed her and a no would have been a lie. And there was no way I could explain this to a stranger.
(Sailaja RL is a learning consultant by profession and likes to write on books, travel, wellness and slice-of-life aspects. Also a traveller at heart, she combines this with her writing interests to weave stories and narratives that exude wit, warmth and wonder. She can be reached @SailajaRL)