On this day many moons ago, I was fast asleep trying to catch a few extra Z’s when the bed began to shake violently…
Lying in bed at 9am was a special privilege: usually, the day began shortly after dawn with the usual rise-bathe-dress-eat routine before racing off to school for endless hours of maths, English-Hindi-Marathi, and existential arguments with the nuns who ran our school on whether god was male or female.
On national holidays, we were often expected to attend organised attempts to inspire a sense of nationalism and pride in one’s country, raising the flag, singing the national anthem, Jai Hind. I love my motherland and am grateful every day for Lokmanya Tilak’s legacy, but I love my sleep a whole lot more. Normally, being in bed was pure peace, but on this 26th January, the bed and every piece of furniture was shaking, creating a lot of noise.
When the shaking wouldn’t stop, I hopped out of bed and padded out into our small family apartment. During that short walk from bed to living room, the tremors began to subside, but 800km north, the trauma was only just beginning.
There, on our TV, filmed for a million eyeballs around the world, lay the first features of the pillage and destruction of the infamous Gujarat earthquake.
Over the days and weeks and months that followed, words like ‘Richter’ and ‘magnitude’ and ‘Kutch‘ became daily vocabulary for households across the world’s largest democracy. We discussed it at the dinner table with sabzi and dal. We rehashed it on the weekend with bottles of Kingfisher. We read about it in the newspaper, with coffee and toast.
But it didn’t really touch our lives, which went on in peace, 800km south of the India-Pakistan border (where most of the destruction took place).
Of course, we raised money for the earthquake victims. We prayed for them in our churches, temples, and mosques. We watched politicians promise safer structures and more restitution. And then we went about our days, safe in our seaside city.
Eventually, time softened our memories, and the damage in Gujarat blended together with other disasters, natural and man-made.
Living outside India, often in countries where capitalism seems to matter more than the perennial values of justice, equality and liberty espoused in our national tome, it’s easy to forget about the rights and principles defined in the Constitution of India, signed into law on this day in 1950. As with the earthquake in Gujarat, we ceased to think about the details on a day-to-day basis, preferring to get lost in the repetitive but familiar comforts of work, school, family, and prayer.
There is, however, one thing I never forget: the safety of home.
The safety and security that I took for granted that 26th morning, inscribed in law in our 70-year-old constitution, became sacred gifts I came to cherish after cycling from Alaska to Argentina, with many nights camping outdoors in the deserts of Mexico, where carrying a gun is as common as chewing gum, and the tundra of northern Canada, where brown bears prowl in search of lunch.
Home – and feeling safe in it – is a privilege not always accorded to everyone, and understanding this took me 24,000 km and many nights sleepless nights lying awake in my tent, paranoid about getting eaten alive by a hungry bear, or shot at by a cowboy amidst cacti in the Wild, Wild West.
I now have a newfound appreciation for the safety and security of my bed and my home, happily removed from bears and cowboys.
Every year, when the 26th rolls around, whether I am cycling atop a mountain the Andes or shivering through a chilly winter day in Paris, I remember lying in my bed as it trembled in the cool air of a Janaury morning in Bombay.
And though I am not nearly as patriotic as those childhood ceremonies tried to make me be, I am always grateful, to have grown up in the world’s largest democracy.
Grateful for the safety and security promised to posterity by the late great Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, who gave up the sleep I so cherish so we’d have a constitution fit for centuries.
Grateful today, 26th January, and every day, for Mother India, ever my country, always my home.
Happy Republic Day !