On Independence Day this year, I was busy traveling to the farthest corners of the country. Ladakh and the Valley of Kashmir called out to me, and I could not resist. So, I packed my bags and I was off! Which is why you have not read a post from me on that crucial 70th birthday of our country. But here’s how I celebrated this milestone Independence Day.
In the village of Phey, there lives a family, like many others in the region. I had the good fortune of walking into their home as I trekked into their village. There, I was graciously greeted by a young editor of the Reach Ladakh Bulletin – Rinchen Angmo Chumikchan. Over cups of steaming tea and some delicious cookies, we talked. This young lady, dressed in modern day attire, still extols the values that have defined many corners of the country. Yet, in Ladakh, these values thrive. She lends a helping hand to her parents who toil in their farm. The mother made an appearance with a bowlful of luscious apricots – sweet as jaggery. Young Rinchen explained how it is not uncommon to find at least 3 or 4 cars in each home here in the average village. The economy, the tourists and a variety of other factors have helped. She also spoke passionately about the varied communities one can find in the far flung places like Turtuk where siblings have been separated and families broken due to the partition. I was beginning to get a real sense of independent India and its angst, right here in the wooden living room of the Chumikchan home.
I decided to probe. I asked Rinchen if she has any message for the rest of India. She did not hesitate as she laid bare her experiences while studying and working in Chandigarh and Delhi. Even after having spent 8 long years in these places, racism did not leave her side. She talked about how she would be referred to as “Chinky” because of the shape of her eyes, or how she would be constantly asked “what do you eat, how do you live, is Ladakh safe?” She laughed off her experiences, but her eyes betrayed her as she finally spoke about the fact that she is very much an Indian like anyone else. Yet, the acceptance is yet to come.
As we exchanged numbers and vowed to keep in touch, I had a feeling that she had echoed something that each of us has felt at some point or the other. In this diverse country of ours, acceptance is yet to set in. We still point and gawk at people who do not look exactly like us. We still call people from the South, Sambar eating species, or people from North, butter chicken eating communities. While all these may have served as metaphors and social media memes for a long time, isn’t it time to change things? Why don’t we see ourselves as Indians without boundaries? Why do we talk about a Muslim actor’s son being cast as Kanhaiya in his school play? Are we not old enough at 70 to see what our identity really is?
I guess a Happy Independence Day will be one where we call ourselves and our fellow citizens, Indian. Not Chinky, not South Indian, not North Indian – nothing in between. Our real freedom will come when we decide to remove the internal boundaries instead of merely paying homage to the ones drawn on the map.