Independence Day, 2020

Even when I was five, it was a man that we celebrated on Independence Day. His name was Gandhi, we called him Bapu. He’s not so much in fashion anymore.

Independence Day, 2020

In this gloomy August, with the sun missing and the clouds reigning unchallenged, when we're in the grip of a chill wrapped around us by the wind, the Day has arrived. Spirits have perked up like they've been shot with the good stuff.

The five-year-old in our life, who has no sentiment for the occasion, only demonstrates resentment — brought on by unending isolation. Schools have reopened in an online format. Classes run five hours, and there's "homework" on top for the child who's been working five hours already, and at home. He has a nice setup anyway, quite like an office-goer's: laptop before him, a notepad next to it, the two flanked by pencil holders, and a large notebook. On a quarter-plate lies a sinking sandwich, and there're water and juice. The boy's mother lurks in his corner vision: he wants her close, but outside the field of his camera — he must appear independent before his K2 class.

On the eve of Independence Day, his class was light, focused on the upcoming event. Our boy and his other classmates echoed their parents' take on the matter. The highlight was the declaration by the friskiest boy in class, who said with all the zeal instilled in him, "Narendra Modi will protect us."

It's been seventy years. An Indian has been in space, Indians have left a mark on Mars and on the moon; some have won the Nobel Prize; a few wars have been won; we've been a green revolution, and a white one; and we've registered extraordinary entrepreneurial output. So much and more has happened, but what caps all the achievements gone by, it seems, is Narendra Modi's assumption as Prime Minister.

But then, even when I was five, it was a man that we celebrated on Independence Day. His name was Gandhi, but we used to call him Bapu. He is not so much in fashion these days.

About ten years ago, I was in the US at Long Island, enjoying the hospitality of a manufacturer of aerospace parts. We were at lunch, and we talked about their President who had announced he'd speak to American children on TV. Those were heady days for liberals everywhere, with Obama's breathtaking leap into the White House widely and wildly celebrated. The honeymoon was warm and pleasant, and it lingered a long time, and in that air, Obama had embarked on this thing for American children. It had seemed a good idea to me, and I said so. (Our own Gandhiji, foremost a reformer, was ever articulating on a wide range of issues — for children, the adults, the aged.)

"We voted him to be President. Not God to our children," my host said of Obama, his eyes flashing. Then he calmed down and fell to slicing with vigour the dark n' pink and oozy steak on his plate.

The line knocked me into silence, and I concentrated on managing my unwieldy salad with a slender silver fork. Afterward, I began to respect the attitudes in a grown-up democracy, of seeing leaders merely as folks granted the opportunity to serve.

But I must say our prime minister made a pretty good Independence Day speech. There's depth in his voice, and volume, and there's power in his delivery. Gandhiji, in contrast, spoke great truths softly, and it is said his message often went unheard by many in the crowd.

Photo: Pavel Sipachev