Two days ago, India celebrated her 73rd Republic Day-a day when the constitution came into force in the seventh largest in the world, second largest if one were to consider the population (or is it the largest, one can never ascertain owing the many misses in the survey), and a country that boasts of being the largest democracy! Republic Day celebration is momentous and all over the country one can witness the tricolour being unfurled, men, women, children, attired in colours of saffron, white and green, singing and shouting slogans and glorifying the nation while the beautiful flotilla of tableaux from several Indian states and display of military strength by the President’s residence is a sight to behold. However, if you were to ask any person who grew up in the north-eastern part of the country during the 90s and early 2000s, Republic Day (as well as Independence Day) meant the glory of empty main streets, frenzy of the evening before when parents would hurriedly gather all that they possibly could from the market, enveloping eerie silence across the several small towns dotting the hills and valleys of North-East India and muffled fears.
While the country would celebrate the grandeur in vivid hues and earthshattering display of pomp, we, joyous children and worried elders from the remote North-East India, would sit at home barred from stepping out owing the curfew that used to be declared each Republic and Independence Day!
As mindboggling as curfew sounds, we were quite content with the arrangement, were I to share from the experiences of children from that era. Confined at home (partially), we would watch the Republic Day parade on Doordarshan and mainlanders (as we uncannily refer to the rest of the populace outside the North-East) cheering and smiling. The afternoons then, and surprisingly even now, would play the same movies on patriotism year after year. Often our parents would lament that we were missing out on the celebration which they would witness when they were younger, smiling at the cherished recollection of distribution of sweetmeats after the celebration.
In all honesty, and much to your dismay, we considered ourselves lucky to not go to school on Independence Day, unlike mainland Indian children, having celebrated it a day before (preposterous given the narrative that we hear these days), and Republic Day would be in the middle of a two-and-a-half-month-long winter vacation! Praise be to God! Perhaps our elders, I suspect, surreptitiously, enjoyed the curfew too-it allowed them to return home earlier the previous evening and, God-forbid, if some untoward militant activity, quite customary then, were to occur, the holidays would extend for days.
Something that fascinated me, and a fact a school friend and I were recently reminiscing about, was the fanatic obsession with buying bread and milk before the curfew. The elders would hasten to the grocers’ and frantically bought bread and milk which, they mysteriously presumed, would see the family through the unknown! I merrily remember how the older children would make any flat stretch of road their cricket or football ground. Manna from heaven for them! That our locality was the most peaceful in the town with an added advantage of just one entry and exit preventing the miscreants from playing havoc was a true blessing. Curfew days were also filled with happy visits from neighbours-an act of bravado, a defiance, boredom, I have never been able to fathom. Be that as it may, it got people together otherwise busy in their busyness and were there to occur some untoward incident, gunshots that I remember from August 2000, the family and neighbours would huddle together to watch the evening local news, ‘City Scan’. Sighing, exclaiming, dependent upon the local news, we’d animatedly discuss all possible outcomes and patiently (perhaps) wait for the curfew to end. August 2000 was also a time when schools remained shut for more than fifteen days around Independence Day, and when life was limping back to normalcy curfews, customary for the next weeks, began at noon the first week, 1 pm the next. Not lamenting the disruption I secretly celebrated missing some lessons at school taken by a teacher, strict as hell could be!
Those were the days.
Now, older and wiser, I do know that bandhs and curfews are not largely associated with camaraderie and amazement but being sheltered at home in a peaceful neighbourhood during the era of no-worries we had little to no qualms. It was only after leaving home for mainland India that I witnessed the Republic and Independence Day celebrations, amazed at the opulence, and simultaneously amazing my fellow mainlanders with tales of complete closure back home! The North-East is full of surprises, they exclaim, and I, not disagreeing, add an enrichingly pleasant in my head, fondly remembering the carefree curfew days.