Bangalore Talkies: Reflecting on the march past
In the days leading up to Republic Day or Independence Day, life in school was punctuated by the sound of the drum, the waving of the flag and the yelling of the teacher
Now that the pomp and pageantry of Republic Day is over, perhaps we should all look inwards and reflect on the thing that epitomises this national holiday. I speak of course of the humble “march past.” Think about it. If there is one thing that unifies the Indian childhood — beyond mother’s milk and the monsoon — it would be the march past. How many days and years have we spent in the school playground listening to the PT (Physical Training) Master or Miss yell, “Left, right, left-right-left.”
In the days leading up to Republic Day or Independence Day, life in school was punctuated by sound of the drum, waving of the flag and yelling of the teacher.
I always get a lump in my throat when I watch the Republic Day parade and so it was yesterday. There are critics of this show, of military strength, people who think that a Republic such as India shouldn’t depend so heavily on the military to epitomise its annual day, that we should make it more cultural. That may be so but I love the pageantry of our Republic Day displays, which is perhaps why I have decided to unpack the most rudimentary of performances on this particular national holiday: the march past.
Date: 6 months before Republic Day. Time: 0700 hours to use army parlance. Location: An army ground in the then Bangalore.
It is a bright sunny morning in Bangalore. I am standing on the sidelines of a large ground to witness some 100 teenage boys and girls audition for the march past. They are members of the NCC or National Cadet Corps — slim and eager — full of national spirit and ambition. Each of them wants to go to Delhi, to represent the state. Standing between them and Rajpath is Colonel Ajitabh. He is responsible for selecting and training the Karnataka contingent.
“Run five laps,” he shouts and the crowd sets off enthusiastically. He stares at the group with furrowed brows, wondering who will do the state proud and who will raise the wrong leg at the wrong beat and shame them forever.
I sidle up to the Colonel and clear my throat. “Hypothetically, can a middle-aged woman be part of the march past?” I ask. The Colonel looks me up and down. He is used to political pressure, entreaties from parents who want their “bacha” to be part of the national parade. But a plea from a middle-age woman and that too, for herself, not her child, is new, even for him.
“Madam, India is all about nari-shakti,” he pronounces. “Women power is nothing new. We have had all-women contingents marching in 2015, 2019 and so on. Assam Rifles contingent, etc. etc. But you are a civilian. Can you march?”
“Sir, yes, sir,” I shout, resisting the urge to salute. And then I proceed to demonstrate, swinging my arms mightily. The Colonel watches me through narrowed eyes.
“Good effort, Madam,” he says. A sea of striplings finish their laps, run up and stand panting before him like eager beavers.
Inspired by me, perhaps, the Colonel gives them a primer. “There are three things necessary for good marching,” he says. “What are they?”
“Swinging hands correctly, Sir,” shouts one enthu-cutlet from the back.
The Colonel demonstrates. “Your hands should rise up all the way to the shoulder level. They should be straight. Not swinging inwards, not swinging outwards. Your knees should not bend while walking.”
Immediately, in choreographed unison, 100 teenagers walk in exactly this fashion, sailing forth like murmurating starlings.
Unconsciously, I try to imitate them. By now, the Colonel is warming up to me. I can tell. Or maybe it is just pity. “Madam, do you have calcium deficiency?” he asks.
“No sir, why?” I reply. “Your knees look knobby and bent,” he says. “But you are following the beat quite well.”
I am breathless. Who knew that simply raising the hands to the shoulder-level would be like a cardiac workout?
“I can improve, Sir,” I say. “I can practice around my garden.”
“Madam, I have a suggestion,” says the Colonel. “Why don’t you watch the march past on TV? You can feel part of the ceremony, proud about India. But this...marching is for youngsters, you know…unless you want to start your own middle-aged contingent. Nobody can stop you because you see, the parade belongs to us all.”
For a minute, I consider whether I have it in me to not just march in the prescribed fashion but also form a contingent of marchers like me. A blowsy fantasy springs forth where a group of women — all civilians like me — practice the march past to perfection.
And there we are on Rajpath, beating the retreat to the sound of horns and drums, getting the gold medal from the President of India.
“Good effort, Madam, but maybe you should sit down.” The Colonel interrupts my dream.
It would be an affront to the army, navy and air force, I decide, to have a middle-aged civilian woman engage in the simple yet regal lifting of the hands and legs in synchronized precision to the sound of the reassuring drumbeat. Instead of aspiring to march,I decide to cheer on the marchers. And I do it in the manner that I know best.
“Kids, who wants Horlicks biscuits?” I shout as they all finish their practice. The group runs towards me. I may not be able to march as well as them but by golly, I can do the thing that all Indian Moms do exceptionally well: feed the children.
(Shoba Narayan is Bangalore-based award-winning author. She is also a freelance contributor who writes about art, food, fashion and travel for a number of publications)