A smartly dressed senior steward at Gaylord’s, one of South Mumbai’s oldest (64 years) and most iconic restaurants, walked up to me as I was enjoying a bowl of fresh Mahabaleshwar strawberries with whipped cream, and introduced himself as Comrade Absar Ahmad Abbasi. I gave him a clumsy version of the ‘lal salaam’ and we got talking. He told me he was a trade unionist who had worked closely with Mrinaltai (Mrinal Gore) and George Fernandes. After a brief exchange of pleasantries and general comments about how bad things were in the country, Comrade Abbasi decided to recite Urdu poetry written by him and gallantly offered to translate each line. The first poem was a passionate plea to the government in power, urging authorities to listen closely to the voices of the people of India. It was moving and full of vigour. “You are a fighter,” he said to me, adding, “ So am I.” He pulled out a small notebook from his inner pocket and proudly showed me several poems he has written and promised to email his best ones — “English translation ke saath.” With that, he was gone — attending to a noisy group of Italian tourists enjoying what we in India charmingly describe as continental cuisine.
The Comrade’s inspiring words keep coming back to me, as I read reports about our forthcoming Republic Day celebrations on January 26. This year will be extra special — it marks 70 years of the Constitution which came into force on this day in 1950. It had taken the makers of our nation two years, 11 months and 18 days to craft this magnificent tome which laid down in clear and specific terms exactly who we are, and which specific criteria define our identity as Indians. The date was chosen with thought and care. It was on the January 26, 1930 that the declaration of Independence (Purna Swaraj) was proclaimed by the Indian National Congress. More the irony then that seven decades later, citizens are struggling to better understand their own status and asking themselves if they qualify as Indians at all. What if they are asked for proof to make the cut as Bharatvaasis? What if their Indianness itself is challenged? And if they find they are suddenly considered ‘non-Indian’, what happens then? Where do they go? These are no longer naïve questions asked by the ignorant. If thousands of our own people are labelled ‘outsiders’ and told they are ‘not Indians’, then who and what are they? Aliens from another galaxy?
When a person says simply, “Yeh meri mitti hai,” that says it all. ‘Mitti’ is belonging. Mitti goes well beyond its literal translation (‘soil’). When people return to their motherland after years of being away, and reverentially kiss the earth, they are literally connecting to their mitti in a deep, deep way. The gesture symbolises multiple things. It conveys an important message: “This is where we belong. This is our home. This is where our ancestors lived.” In today’s peculiar political and cultural climate, why is it that so very many people have been denied their ‘mitti? Is this the reason for a sudden outpouring of poetry and painting? India is witnessing a new creative awakening — it is not just protest poetry that is being created. It is a new language itself. Young people across the country are charged up and enthusiastic, instinctively sensing they are part of something tumultuous and powerful — change! Wherever one goes, strangers are connecting and sharing thoughts — not always political in content, but yes, wholeheartedly felt.
No matter how hard certain political forces try to wipe out Gandhiji from our consciousness, it simply will not happen. With all his flaws and failings, Mahatma Gandhi remains a towering world figure who does not require the tallest statue in the land, nor the highest memorial to establish his greatness. Like ‘mitti’, Gandhiji is an emotion. Nobody on earth has the power to argue with emotion. We feel what we feel. And that feeling fills our hearts with joy. It makes us believe in all our freedoms — the ones guaranteed to us in the pages of India’s Constitution. Any attempt to snatch our rights and clumsily ‘cancel culture’, will be strenuously resisted. Civil disobedience as propagated by Gandhiji was but one tool of resistance against oppressive forces. As was non-cooperation. We are seeing both in action across the length and breadth of India. It is time to reclaim our ‘mitti’. And hope that the stirring words of poets like Absar Ahmad Abbasi continue to be heard. The fight must go on. Our Republic is safe so long as the Constitution of India remains untouched and sacred.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.