Friday, August 6, 2010

Hero for a Day! from One World

To mark Independence Day, August 15, here is a story to stimulate discussions in classrooms and homes. Read it aloud, share it with friends, think about the questions below the text. Tell us what you think.

One World is the second book in the theme-based 'Think About' series from Tulika, after Sorry, Best Friend! This book provides thought-provoking perspectives on peace and belonging and is being widely used in schools as a supplementary reader.

Hero for a Day! is one of the stories in One World. It is written by Raghavendra Rao, a photographer and writer who enjoys the company of children.

Hero for a Day! 
Raghavendra Rao

I was ten. The year was 1942. The call for the British to "Quit India" was loud and clear. I did not really know what this call by Mahatma Gandhi meant. But I was burning with excitement. I wanted the British to go!

We were a large family and my father was an officer of the State of Mysore. We lived in Mandya, a small town in Mysore which was also a district headquarters. The town had grown prosperous with the building of the Krishnarajasagar dam by Sir M. Vishweshwarayya. Water canals crisscrossed the district. Farmers grew, in what was once barren land, a rich harvest of sugarcane and paddy.

That evening at home, Father, who was generally quiet, was raging with anger. There was a call for a strike at the local high school and my elder brother, Somu, was a participant. It wasn't much. He had raised a few slogans, shouted "Quit India" and come home.

"Don't you know I am a government servant? Your participation will leave a black mark on my status, my career!" Father shouted. Somu, scared, sat in the corner.

Mother glanced angrily at Father. "You can't chide the child like that. After all, he didn't go shouting slogans on the streets with the others. He came back home. And let's not forget that all of us are for a free India. Even you listen to Netaji's broadcasts from the jungles of Burma." Father became quiet. That day, it was not Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose who was my hero, but Somu.

I hugged Mother. She had not been to school but she read a lot. She had made us rich with stories of the land and its historic battles. I still don't know why but she always called me her "Little Napoleon"! I remember her once saying it had something to do with my horoscope!

Years rolled by. Thousands died during the Independence struggle, thousands went to jail. "Vande Mataram! Bharat Mata Ki Jai!" were heard everywhere.

1947. I was in high school. I was not a good student but I loved history. I felt I could do something in this struggle for Independence. Father, who sometimes overheard me talk, would caution me: "Look at you, Son, you have neither the frame nor the weight to fight a battle. You better do well in school." But in school that's exactly what I did not do! Talking with friends was more fun than school - talking about Gandhi, talking about Netaji, talk, talk, talk.

Some of the teachers were impressed but not the headmaster. I did not worry. I was 15 and my friends liked me so much they had elected me President of the Student's Union the previous year!

At last the much-awaited day came. The British were to go. Enough damage had been done, the country had been divided. Seeds of communal hate had been planted. But August 15th was August 15th. Every street, every home in Mandya was decorated ... people walked in their best ... people greeted each other with "Vande Mataram!" There were celebrations in my school. I requested the Headmaster to hoist the tricolour. We were so happy.

The happiness didn't last long. The State of Mysore was not joining the Indian Union! A few more States claimed independence and said, "No ties with Nehru's India." The people of Mysore were aghast. They had always loved their Maharaja, but why had he done this? From joy the wheel turned to gloom.

Late in the evening, we students held a meeting in the cricket maidan. What should we do? Sunder, Prabhu, Murthy, Pali and Krishna, my close friends, each had a different idea. Sunder suggested we set fire to buses! But I was emphatic: whatever we did had to be peaceful and meaningful. We had seen enough violence.

Our committee decided to start with a strike at school.

Time: 10 a.m. Day: the very next.

The school assembled as usual for prayer the next morning. As the students turned towards their classes, I ran to where the Headmaster was standing. I was shaking with fear, but somehow a strange courage filled me. "Stay back friends!" I shouted. The Headmaster was startled. "We are not going to class. We are going on strike from today till the day Mysore decides to join the Indian Union. I know this comes as a surprise, but we have to do our bit to realise our dream of one country, a free country. We will move out of school in a minute. Vande Mataram!"

There was an awkward silence. I shouted again: "Vande Mataram!" and pretty soon, the whole school echoed, "Vande Mataram! Bharat Mata Ki Jai!" Sunder rang the school bell loud and clear. Slowly, the students started leaving. The teachers disappeared. The Headmaster walked off in a huff.

Our young committee was happy. We had done it! Some of the students ran home, afraid. We were not worried, as there were fifty of us left.

"What next?" asked Murthy. My courage scaled a new high. I said, "Let's go to the Municipal High School and call out the students." Everybody agreed and we marched on. The student secretary, Gaviappa, was very enthusiastic; after all how could he allow the Government High School to take the lead!! Soon that school too was empty and we had more students shouting "Vande Mataram!" and "Bharat Mata Ki Jai!"

We were a hundred now. Gaviappa asked, "What now?" Someone shouted, "The two high schools are on strike, how about the Girls' High School?" There was silence. How could we go to the new convent school and get the girls there to strike? Who would lead? All the fingers pointed at me.

I knew there could be trouble ahead. A hundred boys screaming and shouting slogans at a girls' school?! It was sure to attract the police. "I will do this on one condition. Let's split into four groups and walk quietly. After we reach the school, we will shout our slogans. Okay?" I said. We split up and walked. When we reached the gates, we shouted "Vande Mataram!" a few times.

The Mother Superior came out. I gestured for silence, and said, "Will you please close the school? You see, all of us are on strike till Mysore joins the Indian Union. We request you to understand."

The Mother Superior played it cool. She said, "You think the girls would like to participate? I wonder. But let us test this. Your sister is a student here. Go to her class, talk to the students. If one of them, maybe your sister, walks out with you, I will myself ring the bell"

A challenge! I was terribly nervous. What if no one came out? Then I had a picture of Mother: after all, I was her Little Napoleon. I marched to my sister's class. There was deadly silence. Everyone was looking at me, anxious and scared. I stood there and blinked for a couple of seconds. Then, my heart pounding, I said: "Vande Mataram!" I gave the girls a brief history of the Independence movement and talked about the Maharaja's attitude. I don't remember the exact speech but they were listening to me. I remember my last words: "Sisters, in our own little way, let's make this dream of One Bharat come true ... Mysore cannot stay alone. Remember it is the blood of Bharat that is flowing in our veins. It does not speak of a separate State ... What it cries for is oneness ... one Bharat ... an independent Bharat."

The class was very very quiet. The next few seconds seemed like eternity. Nobody was moving. Then I saw Rama, my sister, almost in tears, pick up her books. She came running to me. It was a beautiful moment. I threw my arm around her and walked towards the Mother Superior. She gave us a look and walked away. But she kept her word. She rang the bell, again and again.

I could hear the cheering of my friends outside. I could see the girls marching quietly out of school. We allowed the girls to march ahead of us. We knew they would not join us, that they would go home. It did not matter. We had won!
After all the boys had dispersed, I went home jubilant and self-absorbed. But my joy was short-lived. Rama had told Mother the whole story and she was very angry with me! "Do you know this could cost Father his job?" she said. Suddenly I was cross with her and the whole world. How could she not understand? I refused to eat and ran to my room. I was tired and drifted off to sleep. When I awoke and tried to open the door, I found that it was locked.

My uncle opened the door and said, "Better have something to eat. We are going to Bangalore."

"But why?" I asked.

"Because, my dear boy, there is a rumour that you may be arrested!" Mother and Rama were crying as I was taken secretly to catch a night train to Bangalore. I was furious. What would my friends think of me?

As it happened, the schools did not re-open. The Join Bharat agitation spread all over the State. The Maharaja finally agreed to join the Union. A week of struggle and Mysore was part of India!

I rushed back to Mandya, happy and excited. Mother was the first to see me. She put her arms around me and asked, "Are you alright?" Father was in the garden tending a rose plant. He looked up. There was a glint in his eyes. "Hallo hero!" he said.

The next day, he took me to the bazaar and bought me a khadi jubba, khadi pyjamas and, of course, a Gandhi cap! I had become a hero, even though it was just for a day!

Think about:

1. What kinds of freedom do we have to fight for today?
2. It is clear that it is not easy to hold fast to what you believe in or to take a stand on some issue. Often, we don't even try to do so. But why is this so important?
3. Find out and share the stories of people who may have participated in India's freedom struggle or other struggles in other parts of the world. How is it that in times like this, age, gender, caste, religion, none of this seems to matter? Why do they seem to matter at other times?

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