Now that the pomp and pageantry of Republic Day is over, perhaps we should all look inwards and reflect on the thing that epitomizes 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 year have we spent in the school playground listening to the PT (Physical Training) Master or PT Miss yell out hoarsely, “Left, right, left-right-left.” 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.
It is a bright sunny morning in Bangalore. 0700 hours to use army parlance. I am at an army 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 next year, 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 national march past?” I ask.
The Colonel looks me up and down. He is used to political pressure, entreaties from parents who want their “bacchha” to be part of the national march past. 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 in the Republic Day. 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 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 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, in two days, there will be the beating of the retreat,” says the Colonel. “Why don’t you watch it on TV? You can feel part of the ceremony, proud about India. The march past is for youngsters, you know…unless you want to start your own middle-aged contingent of marchers. Nobody can stop you because you see, the march past belongs to all of us.”
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 well as them but by golly, I can do the thing that all Indian Moms do exceptionally well: feed the children.