Flag hoisting in Chinnoor

Print edition : October 28, 2016

WHEN Narasimman got up in the morning, he remembered that they had to go for the flag-hoisting ceremony at seven o’clock. He hastily brushed his teeth and drank his coffee in one gulp and came to the hall. His father, Ramanjulu Naidu, was waiting there, all ready. “Come, let us go,” he said and walked towards the gate.

Ramanjulu Naidu was an old Congressman. Now he ran a small grocery store, and he was a homeopath on the side. He had some land, which included a tiny bit given to freedom fighters. Having participated in anti-toddy agitations and been beaten up soundly, he had spent a year in jail in those times. After Independence, he had slowly withdrawn from politics. The reason could be that he was dejected that his party hadn’t given him a ticket in the first general election after Independence. Or it could have been that he magnanimously thought that “now that Independence has been achieved, my role is over”. Whether he stepped aside or was asked to step aside, in any case he wasn’t in politics. That is, till recently.

When Narasimman came to Chinnoor on his annual vacation, he was taken aback to see that his father had been appointed as the head of the Town Congress Committee.

“What, Naina, why all this headache in this old age?” Narasimman advised. Because Narasimman was an idealist—first a follower of Gandhi, Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, then a Communist sympathiser, and then after 1956, a follower of Nehru, but not of the Congress party. In the end, he concluded that political affiliations weren’t for idealists like him. He didn’t like his father being chosen for a party post by the ruling party, much less six months before the elections. He not only thought that the wily politicians would use and throw away his father but was also of the opinion that after sixty-five, there was no need to indulge in politics.

But Ramanjulu didn’t quite agree. “If honest people always shy away from politics, then this country will only go to the dogs,” he argued. Narasimman couldn’t refute this logic.

The previous day itself Ramanjulu had informed his son, “At seven tomorrow morning, the flag should be hoisted. It’s our Independence Day, you see.”

Narasimman readied himself to start the car. Why did his father have to walk when Narasimman had brought his car to Chinnoor? Besides, he also wanted to see his father hoisting the national flag in the heart of the town as the head of the local Congress committee.

Just before starting, Krishnaveniammal asked Ramanjulu if she too could come along. She was Ramanjulu’s younger sister. She was his father’s second wife’s daughter. Years earlier she had lost her husband to cholera and come back to live here. Ever since, she had become Ramanjulu’s right hand. When Ramanjulu had gone to jail in 1932, it was she who had brought up the motherless Narasimman. Today she too yearned to see her brother hoisting the flag like in earlier times.

Narasimman brought the two of them to the heart of the town. Since the road had been muddied in the previous day’s downpour, his car tyres left a trail of “mud kolam”, much like an aircraft leaving a jet trail in the sky.

In the town’s centre, there were four or five flag posts with the flags of the different political parties hanging red, white, green and black. In the middle was a bust of Gandhiji, imported from Italy for five hundred rupees. It was fixed on a high stone platform. Along with Gandhiji, the ones who unveiled the bust twelve years ago—district collector, AP Venkateswaran ICS, municipal chairman, the honourable Rao Sahib Sundara Murthy Mudaliar, municipal commissioner Mr David Paul BA—too had attained eternity, consigning their names to the slab below the bust. Circling the bust, an iron-grilled fence. Perhaps to prevent Gandhiji from running away from Chinnoor if ever he came to life.

When they reached, it was sharp seven. Parking the car in the corner of “Rangaraj Building—1945”, they got down.

“No one has arrived,” complained Narasimman.

“They will come, they will come,” said Ramanjulu, adjusting his old handloom towel which doubled as an angavastram over his shoulder.

Both of them looked around. Rajagopal Mudaliar emerged from a small lane nearby.

“Welcome, welcome. What is this, seven means you’ve arrived exactly at seven,” he said, unloading the chewed-up betel remains from the mouth on to the street.

“Who is this, saar?”

“My elder son, Narasimman.”

“Oho, the one in the city? Vanakkam, saar. I’m so glad.”

“Where are the rest?”

“They’ve gone for tiffin to the hotel. They should be back now. Come into the shade.” Courteously uttering these words, he went to a nearby shop and opened the door. Only after it was opened, did Narasimman realise that it wasn’t a shop but the Town Congress Committee’s warehouse for flags.

At that moment Kanniappan and idli-shop Venkatramayyar (earlier he was in the idli business, but now he was the checking inspector in buses) came. A few others too joined them. There was a babel of voices. “Come on, take out the flags. We need seventeen—Chinna Kadai Street, Ranga Pillai Street, Dharmaraja Koil Street, Kosavar Street…” Narasimman listened with interest to all the flag hoistings that were to take place after this main event.

He was suddenly startled by a sound. It took him a while to figure out what the noise was and where it came from.

Near the Gandhi statue an English band with a traditional Tamil drum accompaniment was playing with gusto. A crowd had gathered around.

Everyone, including Krishnaveniammal, made their way towards the Gandhi statue. Narasimman and Krishnaveniammal stood a little aside, while the others stood around the flag post.

“Quick, let the job get done quickly,” hurried Ramanjulu.

Deaf Kannaiyan removed the party flag from the Congress pole and tied the national flag and readied it for hoisting. Then he ran to the shop opposite. The English band was playing a line of a song—Narasimman couldn’t make out what it was—over and over again. About ten-fifteen urchins gathered around. There were a few people standing in front of the tobacco shop. By now VG Krishnasami Mudaliar (secretary of the Town Congress Committee) and Rangayya Bhagavathar had joined the crowd. Also squeaky-clean Sundaram Chettiar.

“How he used to look, Rangayya Bhagavathar! Look how he has gone down now!” whispered Krishnaveniammal into Narasimman’s ears.

“That’s how all the men from the weaver community become,” answered Narasimman listlessly. He considered the weaver community as the lowest of the low among all humans, but he held nothing personal against Rangayya Bhagavathar.

Kannaiyan stood on the fence and placed kumkumam on Gandhi’s forehead.

“Wretched fellow! Can he not use his right hand to place the kumkumam?” openly scolded Krishnaveniammal. Neither Deaf Kannaiyan nor any of the others paid much heed to this stricture.

After smearing the kumkumam Kannaiyan jumped inside the fence. He lit some camphor in front of the statue. He took the coconut handed to him over the fence by VG Krishnasami Mudaliar, broke it at the edge of the pedestal, waved his palms over the camphor flame and reverently touched his eyes. He climbed over the fence. He looked so happy, as if he had returned from the jail once again.

“Hurry up, ’ pa,” said Ramanjulu. Kanniappan and Rajagopal gestured to the band to stop playing. The English band came to a halt. At that moment, the Chenganoor bus, which until then was speeding along, inched its way on seeing the crowd, as if caught in a funeral procession.

Just as Venkatramayyar cautioned, “Be careful, the mud will splash,” someone from the bus blew his nose loudly.

VG Krishnasami Mudaliar spoke in a voice that seemed as if his head was trapped inside a lead vessel: “I hereby invite the great nationalist and freedom fighter and our town’s Congress chief Ramanjulu Naidu to hoist the first flag in our town on this Independence Day.”

Ramanjulu turned towards Narasimman and said, “Did you see, only the old hands have come.” He then went to the flag post and hoisted the flag. Even if there was a hitch at first, the flag went up smoothly. Narasimman was disappointed that the flag didn’t flutter as there was no breeze, but all the same he was happy that it shone brightly in the morning sun.

Just as Ramanjulu started his speech “The esteemed people of Chinnoor,” the English band played the same refrain and the bearded Subramanya Achari started distributing the sweets. Kannaiyan shouted at the band and asked them to stop. Ramanjulu resumed his speech.

“The esteemed people of Chinnoor, the reason we fought the British under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi was to hoist this flag. For the last nineteen years we have earned the right to do it. Even so, our struggle for freedom should never stop. We are now threatened by other countries. We are also facing many problems within the country. Prices rise like poison….” At that moment there was a commotion in the crowd.

Since Subramanya Achari was distributing tricoloured sweets, people, young and old, jostled around him, stretching out their hands and yelling, “ Saar, saar.” No one heard Ramanjulu’s speech.

Only when Rajagopal growled around twenty times, “Go further and distribute, Achari,” did the crowd move away along with Achari.

Engrossed in this melee, Narasimman missed his father’s speech. By the time the commotion died down, he had finished his speech.

The band resumed again, circumambulating the fenced Gandhi statue.

“So now you all take care. I’m leaving,” said Ramanjulu, wiping his neck with the towel, and walked towards the car. Narasimman and Krishnaveniammal followed him.

“We will take care of everything. You don’t worry. Okay, saar, vanakkam, saar,” said Kanniappan, VG Krishnasami Mudaliar, Kannaiyan and others. They walked towards the bus stand. Perhaps the next hoisting was there.

As Narasimman started the car, Krishnaveniammal exclaimed, “They were simply playing ‘ pee…pee…’ Can’t they play our national anthem?”

Narasimman peeped out of the car.

The English band was still circling the statue, playing the same line. At the far end, Subramanya Achari, a plate on his head, was dancing around distributing the tricoloured sweets. Twenty feet ahead, VG and others walked briskly, their veshtis folded up. The clock at “Rangaraj Building—1945” showed quarter to eight. Narasimhalu was opening his petty shop. Narasimman remembered with a flash what the band was playing. “It’s a long, long way to Tipperary…”, the first line of an Irish song.

“Start the car. I’m hungry,” said Ramanjulu Naidu.

This story is taken from The Tamil Short Story: Through the Times, Through the Tides (Ed. Dilip Kumar; translated by Subashree Krishnaswamy) , an anthology, in translation, of 88 short stories written between 1913 and 2000.

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