Echoes from far and near on Independence Day

Echoes from far and near on Independence Day
Adopting adventure as a lifestyle does not only give you the ability to confront life’s hurdles with a positive and ingenious approach, treating everything with a spirited, problem-solving ent­hus­iam and, equally important, equanimity; it also brings you face to face with culture and history as much as with nature in all its forms. (My current obsession is a trek in Arunachal Pradesh that offers a fabulous brush with history — wreckage of World War II aircraft amid the jungle — though it is organised by a UK adventure tour operator and is prohibitively expensive in Indian currency.)

Over the years, because climbing trips happen during the summer, especially the post-monsoon period, I have found myself in corners of India very far from home on August 15. Personally, the day is of sentimental value to me because it happens to be my father’s birth anniversary. And it has an additional link with independence for me because he, belonging to the generation that fought for India’s freedom, joined the freedom movement at the age of seven. In tribute, I have never worked at my job on Independence Day, seeking leave on those rare occasions when the newspaper I happened to be working for kept its offices open on the day.

Watching Independence Day celebrations in Himalayan settlements, large and small, can be nostalgic and I will always cherish the memories. The cultural differences can be astounding. There was the time in Kargil town, where the national flag was hoisted in a weedy field next to a district official’s residence. There were no women in the gathering —though a couple were scything hay in a field across the road. The flag-pole was surrounded by a small crowd of mostly bearded men wearing dark grey pherans. There was no ceremonial air, no pomp and nothing, apart from the pole and flag, to mark the occasion.

Another Independence Day was spent in Joshimath and, in a small ground off the main road, a dais had been built. There were speeches by some local officials with a rustic brass band in attendance and, when that was done with, the most beautiful part of the programme that had obviously been planned and rehearsed. Children from village schools in the area, dressed in traditional Garhwali clothes and wearing make-up (with beauty spots for the girls and moustaches for the little boys), performed group folk dances.

I still have a photograph of one of those performances, with kneeling dancers on the dais in the foreground while sun-dappled green hills form the backdrop, far above the shining black heads of the audience.

Perhaps the most mem­orable marking of the day I have seen was in Leh, in the famous polo ground. Of course, there had to be security but the policemen — a mix of Ladakhis and plainsmen — were courteous and efficient. The flag-hoisting and speeches apart, there were quality brass bands and some gymnastics and motorcycle shows by police, army and paramilitary personnel, if I recall correctly. And then the cultural songs and dances — of Ladakh, Spiti, Kargil and the Kashmir valley.

The spectators included Ladakhis, Kash­miris, Indian and foreign tourists, and families of civil and military officials. There were hip youngsters and wizened mountain people. Beyond, ringing us in, were the brown, barren cold desert ranges reaching till the sky.

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