Small acts of everyday freedom go a long way in establishing who we are as a people, and who we may want to become as a society and a nation. Ahead of Independence Day, we bring you stories of little acts of defiance, endless notes of possibilities
Moments when I feel liberated are not easily defined. Freedom isn’t just the quality and state of being free; it is an unfettered state of being where I am exempt from onerous and insidious thoughts and realities. I feel the scent, vibe, attitude, and empowerment of freedom when I am liberated from the shackles of others and the powers that control us through societal and geopolitical pacts and pressures.
I remember feeling free of the angst and misery that broke me daily when I was 14. I saw a stamp-sized portrait of a 20-something Rohit Bal in an advertisement in India Today. In his eyes, I found a collegial link to the vicissitudes of emotions I battled daily. In his confident stare, that seemed rehearsed, I found a connection to the fake smile and confidence I mustered to cope with the mundane tasks of a student, sibling, son and young citizen of a young nation. I looked up “Bal” in the telephone directory, and on my eight try reached this czar of Indian fashion. Once we connected, he opened Delhi for me. Through that I was mentored, educated, supported, indulged, nurtured, emancipated and inspired. Rohit and many others made me proud of myself, and even as I was hiding from my family and classmates, they were providing me with the haven they were grappling to find for themselves.
That unexpected meeting with an iconic designer that made me come of age as a gay man in my teens gave me the confidence and freedom to navigate college in Mumbai. The freedom to be myself, even when I wasn’t living out and proud, was challenged daily because I looked, dressed and spoke differently. There were fleeting moments when I relished deep satisfaction because a classmate showed empathy to another, and another towards me. There were moments when I saw tenderness on the street between two adults, and in this rare public display of affection in a nation very shy and squeamish about it, I felt free and tasted the exhilarating power of independence and an autonomy that released people to be themselves.
Twenty and full of dreams, I matriculated in Manhattan at School of Visual Arts. New York City was a planet unto itself. It packed in a second what many lifetimes in other cities couldn’t bring to my experience. The city that never sleeps opened doors, created opportunities and brought me love and fulfillment that made me soulfully resplendent and resplendently free from my inner demons and the boundaries created by my youthful imagination of the past.
Fifty and now back in India three lavishly lived decades later, I celebrate freedom daily and appreciate what it brings my way with greater hunger because I have lived, loved, gained, lost, and seen death come very close. As I think about August 15, and the pride and emotions that it brings, I find myself far from munificent in how I feel about the world at large, and so I am lost, wondering what if any meaning of celebrating a nation’s freedom contributes to the larger picture of life. I worry about a world that has majoritarian leaders who have nary a care about the citizens of their nations who do not fit neatly into those comforting boxes where vote-bank politicking is made easier and profitable with guarantees of future electability.
I am proud of Mother India, Maa Bharati, as it is the proud home to one of the richest and most diverse populations in the world. I take pride in calling myself Indian because I can live with a plurality of all kinds and with a democratic system that mostly works for the benefit of all. So, this August 15, I hope to find myself free of those thoughts that enrobe me with the fear of seeing India lose its shimmer as a nation that leads the world to deeply empathetic ways of living and loving, caring, and nurturing – where advancement and freedom for one is freedom and advancement for all. My most cherished moments of feeling free and proud have found shape and form either in India or because of India, and so I wish to always have India be that beacon of light that shines brightly amongst free nations and civil societies. I hope to be the flag of India myself and flutter freely as the world learns about Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, the Indian way, where we all are One Earth, One Family, One Future.