We enjoyed a full day on Aug. 15, India’s 65th year of Independence from the British, including brunch and dinner with newfound friends. The celebrations are much more low-key and local compared to how the United States celebrates its independence anniversary.
On Independence Day here in Pune, there were no parades, fireworks or central celebration hosted by the local government or chamber of commerce. It’s mainly a day for school children, in the primary grades on up through the universities, to dutifully report in early and attend flag hoisting ceremonies. All throughout Pune, smaller flag hoisting ceremonies were held in neighborhoods, enclaves and societies.
We left at 7 a.m. with our newly hired driver, Xavier Joseph. Xavier has worked for many years for foreigners, and understood completely that we needed to get all three children across the city to Viman Nagar, a distance of only 10 miles but with crazy roads and traffic it takes 40 minutes to an hour. Traffic was relatively light compared to what I’ve seen; we actually got there on time. Usually crowded market and shopping areas were nearly deserted, with most shops shuttered. The few vendors I did see were primarily selling pinwheels and small orange, white and green Indian national flags.
Music rang out throughout Symbiosis International School. We walked up the stairs to the fourth floor outdoor courtyard, where each class was lined up by grade. Many students, including our own, are still waiting for pieces of their uniforms to come in from the vendor, but the students looked looked like a sea of maroon nonetheless. Our two kids whose blazers have come in refused to wear them, believing they’d be too hot. They were in the minority, as all the other children whose blazers had come in sported them gamely.
The kids were drilled numerous times: “Students!” a teacher shouted. “Attention! At ease. Attention! At ease. Salute!” I’m not sure what the purpose of this was, frankly, but the students seemed to follow the barking orders just fine.
Finally, the official program began with “principal sir,” Mr. Narendra Kumar Ojha, hoisting the flag. This was followed by everyone singing the Indian National Anthem.
Aug. 15 also happens to be Korea’s independence day. Since there’s a large contingent of Korean students at Symbiosis, they sang the Korean national anthem as well. A little girl gave a speech, noting that she hopes some day north and south Korea will be united.
The students then sang the official school song for Symbiosis, which Rachel has memorized and likes to practice at home loudly, much to the irritation of her older brothers.
Mr. Ojha gave a short speech about the importance of each person doing his or her part. He noted the freedom fighters for India, and mentioned names such as Gandhi. Independence for India took many years and involved many, many people, he said. This day happily came on Aug. 15, 1947. He kept his remarks brief, thankfully, as he’s apparently known for carrying on.
The teachers sang a few songs in Hindi. I posted one on my Facebook, just because the woman’s voice was so captivating.
The kids were dismissed by rows for chai and sweets, and parents were invited for chai and sweets with Mr. Ojha as well. We had to decline, as our society, Paradise Cooperative Housing Society on Baner Road, was having its own flag hoisting and celebration beginning at 10:15. The manager of our complex, Mr. Lowalekar, asked Rory to play a piece on his clarinet as part of the observance.
We made it back in time. With 50 units in our society, it seemed just about everyone attended out in the main courtyard area, where the monsoon kept itself to just a few sprinkles. The flag was hoisted, the national anthem sung solemnly (almost quietly), a young man sang two songs in Hindi, another young man played the national anthem on the violin and Rory played a Mozart piece on his clarinet (first introduced as a saxophone).
The Mozart was out of place, to be sure, but the inclusionary nature of Lowalekar’s request was very thoughtful. As an aspiring classical clarinetist, Rory can now say that he has performed internationally!
We all then enjoyed a brunch buffet with idli, sambhar, various chutneys and a chickpea dish. I was happy to again sample gulab jamun, a round ball of sticky sweet goodness that can best be described as a doughnut hole soaked in syrup, except that it’s not exactly that. It’s better, and absolutely delicious. I met a few more of our neighbors, with the promise of a get-together with one neighbor soon.
Our immediate next door neighbors, Anita and Hemant, invited us to their home late that afternoon for some “Indian snacks” along with some other neighbors, Paroma and Anupam. Both of these couples have been very friendly to us, helping with advice and household setup, translating with service people when the language barrier can’t be broken through. They have even taken me on errands and introduced us to people. Paroma and Anupam have children roughly the same age as Rachel, so we already have some common bonds. They also lived in the United States for 17 years.
Anita served an ample and tasty spread, including one of my favorites, samosa. Samosa are deep-fried pockets of dough, usually shaped in a little triangle, filled with spicy potato, nuts and sometimes raisins or other dried fruit. She also served a delicious steamed torte of some kind, which wasn’t sweet and was topped with fresh mint; plus a wonderful corn dish that I didn’t catch the name of either.
While the curiosity and interest in Alaska was very keen (our neighbors had just returned from an Alaska trip and Brian, as always, loves to talk about dog mushing) I personally was happier when we turned the conversation over to India, and our desire to travel around the country during various school holidays.
Hemant helped us with an itinerary for a trip north to Rajasthan, Agra and Varanasi, which he advised we should take during the longest break that we have available. That appears to be Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, which is celebrated this year in November over a 10-day break. The kids have a longer break for Diwali than they do Christmas, I believe. (Don’t ask me to explain Diwali at this point—it’s complicated.)
I’m trying not to get too excited about these in-country trips, as things don’t always turn out as you hope for, especially when you’re a foreigner in a developing nation. We also have to be mindful of costs, since we’re a one salary family during my year-long leave of absence from the university. While U.S. money admittedly goes a long way in India, plane tickets and hotels are still expensive for a family of five. If we can pull off this first trip, I’ll have a number of exciting things to share in this blog sometime in late November. Stay tuned!