When I came home from graduate school for the first time after my grandfather’s death, my grandmother asked me to choose one of his possessions as a memento, something he owned that reminded me of him most fondly. I didn’t need a moment to think before asking for a giant (ok, 24 by 18 inches!) jute covered book with simple maroon lettering on its cover “India’s Struggle for Independence: Visuals and Documents”
I grew up with my grandfather’s stories about the independence movement. He was only a teenager when the British rule ended — 18, I think — but those were exciting times in which to have been a teenager. He was full of stories and passions, opinions and memories. I must have been 6 or 7 years old when he started taking me in his lap and opening out the giant (now you get why it feels giant!) book in front of us. The book contains some explanatory notes on various moments in the freedom struggle, but for the most part, it replicates newspaper articles, photographs, letters and maps. It is more scrapbook than textbook, more archive than commentary. In my grandfather’s lap and in the pages of that book, the independence movement wasn’t something that happened a long time ago; it was present, it was alive, it was playing out in front of my eyes.
As I grew a little older, he showed me another book. I forget the compiler and publishing house, and I gave up looking for it a long time ago, but this was a thick, hardbound light green book named “Martyrs of India.” There was a photo on the front cover, but I am no longer sure what the photograph depicted. A noose? Perhaps. I cannot remember. But I remember that book as my introduction to Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh (or Ram Mohammad Singh Azad, as he later called himself), the figures in Indian history who chose a different path from the Gandhis and Nehrus. It was my first introduction to how Chandra Shekhar Tiwari would only tell the magistrate that his last name was “Azad” (free) and thereby became Chandra Shekhar Azad. In years to come, I would read more, in school and out of school, about different parts of the Independence struggle, and I would learn to disagree with my grandfather about some of his idols. But early on, in his lap or in the chair by the window in his bedroom, I learned about the largeness of the struggle for independence, about the differences within it, about some of the complexities of representation and reportage.
As I graduated from school and went abroad to study at a college that prided itself on fostering “global citizens,” and as I created homes and families in different countries, I learned intuitively and academically to question the idea of “nationalism” on which so much of this Independence movement was based. Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, an early 20th century Japanese educator, whose writings form the foundation upon which my university was built, talks about 3 levels of citizenship — the local, the national, and the global. He stresses the importance of identifying with the local and the global in order to avoid being swept away by the national (as someone who was imprisoned and ultimately killed in prison during World War 2 for being a “thought criminal,” he clearly understood nationalism’s dangers). Back home, as India moves aggressively towards becoming a stronger nuclear power and lapses periodically into the anti-Pakistan war rhetoric, I have learned to step aside from nationalist rhetoric. As I began working for an organization that talks about nation-building and “working for India,” I learned to identify for myself that I don’t work for India; I work for ideals like peace, justice, community, dignity, and freedom from want. I will work for them in India or anywhere with the same degree of love and commitment. And when I feel that India doesn’t stand for them, I will criticize it with the same anger that I would criticize it anywhere else. Nationalism, to that extent, lost meaning for me.
But yesterday, I became aware that I may have lost something else in this process of critical understanding, that I may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. When this year’s 15th August came and went without any surge of nostalgia or passion, I felt a little empty. Not because I felt unpatriotic but because I felt the absence of a history that had once coursed passionately through me. I felt the absence of my grandfather’s stories. I felt afraid that, with his death, I was allowing myself to forget how recent colonialism was, how recently my family (like so many Delhi families) had been refugees of one of the bloodiest population transfers in history. I felt, in some ways, story-less.
I don’t have to be nationalist to be proud of, and grateful for, the legacies handed down to me and my generation. I can recognize that it is because so many people in the generations before mine worked so hard to build this nation that I can choose not to be “nationalist,” that I can choose ideals over geography. I want my children to inherit that understanding, to know that the Independence struggle wasn’t about anonymous individuals from a forgotten era, or just about the Gandhis and Nehrus — that the freedoms they can take for granted were hard-won by countless individuals with loves and hurts and beliefs and sacrifices, individuals like their great-grandfather. And for the moments when I forget that, I am grateful I can reopen that book full of visuals and documents, reread Marx’s letter to Engels about how 1857 would come to be seen not as a revolt but as the first uprising for independence, reread the newspaper from the day that India won independence, and remember everything that those moments in history continue to mean in this one.