Red…..the colour of hope and history

You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” — Mae West.

Gurgaon Journal, May 2021: Living a landlocked existence, no windows opening out to beaches, hills, waters, our life oscillates to the beat of Covid waves and lockdowns. The Second Covid wave, beginning March, was more intense, making us take shelter under the safety net of Vaccines and home-stays. Colour and change was added by varied presentations (blogs and Facebook) of nature’s bounty in all its freshness, reminders of beauty around often bypassed for material gains.

Flowers from my Friend’s garden in Bengaluru, Karnataka, India 

Colours are not possessions; they are the intimate revelations of an energy field… They are light waves with mathematically precise lengths, and they are deep, resonant mysteries with boundless subjectivity.

In the melange of the exotic and common the colour Red, in all its permutations and combinations, dominated the palette as the colour of courage, boldness, passion, danger, fury. The month of May has been its illimitable playing field with the ‘Red’ Covid ball staining the country in shades of flame and blood. Amongst this havoc the Red Rose shone bright as a symbol of love, gentleness reminding me of our family garden with its profusion of wild red roses amidst the delicate pastel English roses. The garden was my mother’s pride (1970s) till her health failed her.

May 27 was the 75th death anniversary of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. Pandit Nehru always had a Red rose pinned to the lapel of his Nehru jacket in memory of his wife, Kamala Nehru, who had died earlier in 1938.

Nehru, the distinguished, dapper statesman was one of the chief players in achieving our independence from British rule in 1947. His speech delivered in the Constituent Assembly on August 14 1947,on eve of India’s independence on August 15, resonated in our collective hearts: “Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny; and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom”

For me this speech had a special meaning as Jawaharlal Nehru shared the same hometown, Allahabad, now Prayagraj. Decades later I selected this speech for my school elocution competition, representing my class Red House and remember emotions transuding my recital. I was awarded the second prize. 

Jawaharlal Nehru was born on 14 November 1889 in Allahabad and the Nehru ancestral home, Anand Bhawan, was a pilgrimage site along with the Sangam, (confluence of India’s holy rivers, Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati). Later Indira Gandhi, his daughter and India’s Prime Minister, donated the home to the country and it was converted into a museum.

Whenever Nehru was in town people would line up the streets, all the way from Bamrauli Airfield to Anand Bhawan, waving India flags and Roses. The day his ashes were brought to Allahabad, to be submerged in the holy Sangam, the city was in gloom. We, cousins, friends, joined the crowds with red roses. The teen female cousins were looking forward to seeing the handsome grandsons, children of Indra Gandhi, Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi drive past in an open cortege. We stood in anticipation and suddenly there were shrieks from the elder girls; Rajiv and Sanjay were as dashing in real as in their photographs. The William and Harry of our time.

Post independence anecdotes cling to memory: My father named me ‘Indira’ hoping to transfer some of the iron resolve of my namesake, Indira Gandhi ( Nehru’s daughter) but somewhere along the line the Indira in me rebelled and I changed my name to Indra

Years later as I started my journalism journey the News Editor of an out of town newspaper assigned me to write about Anand Bhawan ‘Since you belong to the same city”. I tried to ferret interesting unknown tidbits from the retainers and people incharge but love and loyalty stumped my poking around. All I heard were stories that were already legends in our hometown. There were detractors outside but home pride made me stick to hero worship. India is still rich with the sacrifices of Gandhi, Nehru and leaders of the independence movement. It is a different story that the News Editor played hookey and published the article under his by-line. I was a newbie, early 1980s, and first assignment. A lesson learnt.

Read of the Month. Allahabad and Colour Red continued to dominate the May scene. I borrowed William Darlymple’s THE ANARCHY ( 576 pages) and till date am on Page 293. It is a modern Indian history lesson in simplistic presentation and quotes from historians. ‘ANARCHY’ deals with the biggest corporate takeover in modern history by a trading company, the British East India Company, which bulldozed the mighty Mughal Empire to lay the foundation stone for Colonial rule in India. Darlymple tells us how the genesis of a mighty rollover was laid, the transfer of riches, ship loads to line the coffers of first the private employees of the Company (East India Company) and later that of England. “India’s transition to colonialism took place under a for-profit corporation, which existed entirely for the purpose of enriching its investors.” Another quote…“in 1770–71, at the height of the Bengal famine, an astounding £1,086,255 was transferred to London by Company executives – perhaps £100 million in modern currency.27” The Kohinoor is still the crowning glory.

As I go through the pages I search for answers as to how the once mighty but by then decrepit Mughal empire, rulers of much of the subcontinent before the British, lost to a handful of men from across the seas. It was not only a corporate take over but also cultural, the ‘superiority’ feeling that fueled the corporate adventure aided by military prowess. The Company’s measures to strengthen themselves and their rule by assimilating the weaknesses, the strengths, of both adversaries and vassals was their core competence. The Mughals, the Marathas, the father-son due of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, the Sikhs, Afghans… brave men in their own right but victims of insecurity and distrust that led to this ‘Anarchy’. Shah Alam’s (1728-1806.. the 17th Mughal Emperor), military misadventures made him sign treaties with East India Company giving the Company rights to taxes as the Imperial tax collector in the Mughal provinces of Bengal, Bihar and regions around Allahabad. Shah Alam was interned in the Fort of Allahabad for 6 years and finally managed to escape or return to the seat of his power, Delhi, with the help of the Marathas. But by then his kingdom was limited to Delhi and its environs.

I have read this far….trying to comprehend, to compare with the present that sounds familiar. Instead of fighting the intruder, the divider, we are fighting within ourselves. Maybe the book has its own biases, of laying the blame at INDIA’S feet. During the course of power wars if the British lost their commanders were incompetent and if the Indians lost it was due to their addiction to loot, pleasure, debauchery and sycophancy. I am waiting to finish, to understand,

George Orwell, “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”

Allahabad was in the forefront of the First War of Independence in 1857 and thereafter in the freedom struggle leading to Independence in 1947. .

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