Jawaharlal Nehru saluting the National Flag at the Red Fort in New Delhhi on August 15, 1947
August 15, 1947, was a Friday. The prospect of a long weekend was not the only factor that prompted me to travel from Thiruvananthapuram, where I was a college student, to Kollam and join the family the previous evening. I wanted to listen to the live broadcast of the midnight ceremony in Parliament House.
The booming voice of Melville de Mellow, All India Radio’s commentator, streamed into our living room through the 11-valve Westinghouse radio which my father had brought home when he returned from a visit to Bombay a few years earlier.
Jawaharlal Nehru making the famous Tryst with Destiny speech in Parliament House
After listening to Jawaharlal Nehru’s Tryst with Destiny speech we children climbed to the rooftop to hoist the new Tricolour which father had bought from the local khadi shop the previous day.
In that famous speech, Nehru had said, “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.”
Highly evocative as these words are, in later years I have wondered if they were not far removed from the reality. India was awaking to freedom but how many Indians were awake?
Not many peasants and workers could have heard the promise of freedom and opportunity that the Prime Minister held out to them, for few among them were within hearing distance of a radio, which was rare and expensive in those days. As India awoke to life and freedom, most Indians were in fact asleep in their modest settings, as on other nights.
The next day’s newspapers presented colourful accounts of the grand celebrations in New Delhi and other cities. It is not possible to glean from them how ordinary people, especially those living in myriad far-flung villages, greeted freedom that midnight.
The best picture I have come across is a fictional account of events in a Kerala village, provided by eminent Malayalam writer Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai in his mammoth novel “Kayar”. It runs like this:
All lights were out. All homes fell asleep. The Party should have celebrated this day.
The last Britisher boards the steamer to go home at midnight tonight. Isn’t that something? Isn’t the working class getting any rights tonight?
Surendran walked. He felt heavy inside. All working class homes were asleep. Did they not know that India was becoming free tonight?
He walked through the lanes. People were awake in some houses here and there. Maybe they habitually sleep late. Decoration was going on in two or three houses. Festoons were being put up in the village office.
Surendran thought of going up to the police station. In the darkness he saw a figure moving in the oppose direction. It was Manikantan. Surendran recognized Manikantan. And Manikantan recognized Surendran.
Manikantan said rather excitedly: ‘Large-scale decorations are going on at the police station’.
That was big news. Surendran said, ‘At 12 the Tricolour will go up there.’
‘Yes, yes, the cops will salute the flag at 12.’
Manikantan moved away, walking hurriedly as though there was urgent work to do. AndSurendran walked towards the police station. As the clock ticked towards freedom, two men were moving about in that village. They were full of enthusiasm. The freedom which generations had dreamed of was becoming a reality. Could those who lived a hundred years ago have known that after sunset on the night of August 14, 1947, at 12 o’ clock sharp, India’s flag will be fluttering in the sky? They might have inquisitively wondered when that day would come. This generation had waited impatiently for this day. It was we who had the good fortune to decide that moment.
Time was not moving. So Manikantan felt. There was still time left. Fat, unmoving moments.
From where should one watch the National Flag go up? The biggest preparations were at the police station. It would be fun to watch uniformed, gun-wielding policemen salute the flag. Might as well see how they salute the flag. Once they had ripped a Tricolour with bullets. It was from that flag that the present one had come.
Yes, that was the place. Some people had already gathered there. Shouldn’t the whole village be there -- men, women and children? Why aren’t they all there?