A REPUBLIC DAY SMILE
Returning home in my staff car, after having presided over the Republic Day activities of my formation, I was in a kind of reflective mood. Well, this was my fortieth year in uniform and the day had not been any different from the previous versions. The flag hoisting, the parade, the gathering, high tea with the guests, ‘badakhana’ with my men and now looking forward to Golf in the afternoon.
I could not help a momentary flashback of more than half a century back, when my father had woken me up at 4 am on a chilly winter Delhi morning. We were going to witness the Republic Day parade and there was no question of reaching late. Sleep eyed, I reached the venue firmly tugging at my father’s finger lest I got lost in the crowd. Frankly speaking, I was not prepared for the event. Spellbound and overawed, I could never erase the memory of that amazing morning. The seed had been sown. So, when the crossroads in my life came regarding choice of a career, I chucked up my prized engineering seat and chose to join the Air Force, a decision I never regretted.
As the car moved forward, the words of the junior officer who was the commentator for the function also echoed faintly in my mind-Independence, Freedom,Justice, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Dignity of the individual, Unity of the nation etc. Lofty ideals indeed! I wondered, had we as a nation come anywhere come close to achieving them. Had we done justice to our hard-fought freedom?
Recent disturbing TV footages had made me think deeply whether we had really attained freedom especially from poverty, communalism, religious bigotry and racism? Will gender bias, casteism, corruption and discrimination ever go away? Will we ever be able to rid ourselves of our multi-fold prejudices? Was the annual parade just a PR exercise and nothing beyond?
More than anything I wondered whether I as a soldier had contributed sufficiently towards holding up the ideals embodied in our constitution? I had been trained and equipped to handle external threats and known enemies, but today the graver danger to our country appeared to be from internal inimical forces and our numerous fault lines.
Frankly, my mood at that moment was more somber than celebratory. That is till the time we stopped at a red light close to a nearby slum. Aged 7-8, a little boy in torn clothes, disheveled hair and running nose came close to my window. Initially I thought he was about to approach me for alms. How wrong and presumptive I was, as I saw him stopping short of the car by a couple of feet. Standing in rapt attention, he gave me a smart salute. By instinct and decades of training, I returned his salutation without a thought.
Continuing to hold his hand up in salute, his face lit up and his million-dollar smile warmed the cockles of my heart. I smiled back and could see that he trusted me and believed in me in some inexplicable way. Eyes filled with gleam and hope, he somehow felt secure in my presence. As the traffic light turned green and my car moved away, I was still basking in the warmth of our fleeting interaction. I could not but help read the ad of a cloud computing company in the background- ‘I am the future’. My own clouds dissipating, suddenly, I felt cheerful, energized and relevant. Duty beckoned, once again!