One of the best memories I have from my school is how all of us celebrated the festivals and important holidays together. Whether it was Independence Day or Holi, Diwali or our School’s Founder’s Day, we always had a series of activities planned out and invariably executed them to perfection. My school was a boarding school in the truest sense and we would be packed together like sardines for 9 and half months without even a summer break. Naturally we had time, lots of it, to rehearse and re-rehearse our performances, and we got really good at it.
Gandhi Jayanti was one of those special holidays. In those days I was (like almost all school children) making an imaginary choice between the paths chosen by Gandhi and Subhash, Bhagat Singh and Tilak. I favoured the leaders opting for armed struggle, looking down at non-violence as a ‘weak’ option. I had not yet seen enough of the world to understand why non-violence was so potent a weapon, I could not yet comprehend why it really needed strength of the highest order. I did not yet know that all of these great leaders were on the same path, only taking slightly different detours. Anyway, today I am a staunch believer in Gandhiji’s ways but this post is not really about that, so I will pass.
On Gandhi Jayanti, we had a little bit of almost everything. The weather in early October was cold and the valley green after the lush monsoon season. The mist of August and September had yielded its place to the clear blue skies that I loved and the oaks still retained a largely green cover. The sweaters were in place but the mufflers and overcoats were still resting in the cupboards. Young love, apart from the duties of the function, would get us all – the boys and the girls from their respective hill-tops – to the valley on the 2nd morning, to sit on green durries that barely gave us any warmth, to gaze at and admire the objects of our affection as the performance went on.
There was the customary sports that we looked forward to. The mile race was the stuff of legends. To participate was prestigious enough, but to make a mark through it was really special. To win was beyond the dream of us mere mortals. There were those friends who made memorable dashes in front of the girls’ gallery, one of them (who shall not be named) falling down in dramatic fashion in a well-conceived attempt to win feminine sympathy (or whatever else he imagined). Ah, teenage years and adolescence! Coming back to the race itself, there were those who have remained fresh in our memories (even after three decades or so) by virtue of the style with which they dominated this premier race. The ladies had the 800 metres race, in which one of my classmates simply obliterated all competition every year. For the junior school children there were the usual quirky races like three-legged race, biscuit bobbing contest, sack race, and so on and so forth.
But what really stood out for me about Gandhi Jayanti were the bhajans that we sang. And the way we sang it… with gusto, passion, and simplicity. Junior school students sang ‘Hari tum Haro jan ki peer’ where (during our time) Mrs. Anuradha Sharma trained her wards every year perfectly. The Senior Girl’s school students sang Cardinal Newman’s evocative ‘Lead kindly light’ which I loved then, and love now.
“The night is dark, and I am far from home…Lead Thou me on… Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see…The distant scene; one step enough for me”.
I wish I had that kind of unwavering faith. Mrs. Joshi and later Mrs. Chandra (during our time) also led the team in singing ‘Vaishnav jana to’ which was one of Gandhiji’s favourite songs. The girl’s always sang unbelievably beautifully and the songs have remained with me after all the years.
Finally, the Senior Boy’s School sang two songs: ‘Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram’ and Tagore’s ‘Jodi Tor Daak shune keu na ashe’. Who can forget Mr. Bagchi playing the Tabla with the passion of an Ustad Zakir Hussain? He always led from the front, weeding out those of us who could not sing to save our lives and relegating them to the last rows. Raghupati Raghav was a boisterous affair and the valley swayed to its beat. Jodi Tor Daak shune was a song I grew to love as I learned to love Tagore and Gandhi in my later years.
Why this trip down the memory lane now? Well, we were singing the bhajans at home (my sister is a good singer and she still remembers the lyrics, as do I) and it took me back to those memorable cold October mornings. As I see the violence that greets me every day in the world I can’t help but remember Gandhiji and his message. There is so much hate that I see and I can’t quite reconcile this world with the one I loved growing up. And some of my old friends now speak in a tongue (only some, let me reiterate) that makes me wonder where they lost the sweetness that had so endeared them to me once. Maybe this will pass, and maybe they will unlearn this darkness that has found a place in their hearts. I really wish that they find the light again.
Closing with a vaakh by the great medieval mystic of Kashmir, Lal Ded (Lalleshwari):
“You are the sky, You are the earth,
The air, the hours, the sacrificial grain,
You are the water, the sandal paste and flowers:
You are already in everything.
What shall I worship you with?”
– Diptesh Ghosh (1992)
This poem was shared by Diptesh Ghosh on his Facebook wall on February 25, 2020.