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Born Free

Outlook tracks down a group of Indians, who share their birthday with the nation

Born Free
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

WHENEVER the country's fortunes have been up, so have mine...whenever India's fortunes have been down, so have mine." Never before have fiftieth birthdays come with such a shared sense of destiny. Buoyed by such an accumulated force of macro-history. The story of a nation somehow always acquires a life beyond the millions of mundane biographies that make it up. And so, the real human stories always remain untold, submerged in the swathe of larger-than-life 'events'. Never glamorous enough, never newsworthy enough and, in an age that celebrates 'difference', almost always smothered by sameness. Yet...

Come to think of it, it was pure chance that they were born within 24 hours of that fateful midnight. But the sense of growing up with India, infected by the sunny optimism of the morning, took deep, mystic roots for some. As if their destiny is somehow interminably tied to that of India, through shared astro-charts or simply a twin sibling bonding. Reinforced by some parents who, overwhelmed by the moment, searched their mind for a befitting name and chose Azad, Swaraj, Bharathi, Subhas, Jawahar.

But growing up with the nation hasn't been easy in the least. Matured responses, as they cross the 50th milestone together, span the gamut. Disenchantment—"Our Independence has been polluted like our air and water." Cynicism—"What are we celebrating? 50 years of one of the world's most dishonest nations?" Disavowal of even the dimmest zodiacal link—"My personal history bears no similarities with that of the country. Our positions are completely different." Born in tumultuous times of riots, partition, despair, and a new dawn, some of these 50-year-olds are philosophical about the course the nation has taken—"Isn't change the only constant in a society?" Pulled apart by contradictions, here's a sampling of the lives of some of modern India's first free children.

Born into the madness of riots, the trio lived to tell the tale

THE exporter, the Lahore-born 'refugee', the industrialist. The earliest images Ajay Kumar Jain

has of his birthday, August 15, comes from a tale recounted by his parents—that when he arrived in this world at 10.30 am that historic day, there were no nurses or doctors at hand. "My grandfather lovingly called me Azad; it became my nickname for the rest of my life." 'Azad' was the itinerant soul always in search of new pastures—"I did four years of my schooling in Calcutta, my matriculation in Benaras, and college in Hyderabad. I first tried my hand at business in Hyderabad, but I soon shifted to Delhi where I opened St Michael Indian Wear, which exports ladies garments to Europe." Emotional about Independence, he says "when I export my products, I feel I'm doing something positive for my country. I love it when my buyers praise the quality of Indian products or when I see Indian goods being sold in good shops abroad".

Varsha Shukla, who was born in Lahore just hours after the Indian tricolour had been unfurled in Delhi, had to be shifted to safety immediately after because of the riots. The family fled to Jalandhar by train, en route to Bombay. But the Bombay climate didn't suit her mother, hence they shifted to Delhi. "I grew up in a very broadminded family which didn't mind girls studying. In fact, my mother wanted me to do English (Hons) but I was determined to do MA (Economics) which I did from Delhi School of Economics. The same broadmindedness is visible in my family by marriage. I tied the knot in 1971. We have two daughters, but I have never been under the usual pressure mothers are put under in India to produce a son."

"I don't know anyone else born on the same date, but it feels great to be born on August 15, 1947. I have been teaching at the Chinmaya Vidyalaya School for 20 years now, and one of the nice things about being born on such a day is that everybody remembers my birthday." So, how is the great day celebrated? "There is no pomp and show, but we prefer to eat out. I work and cook through the year; this is one day I want to put my feet up and relax."

As for Swaraj Jain, he was born in Charkhi Dadri, yes the very same, around 3.30 pm on August 15, 1947. Charkhi Dadri, then called Mahindergarh, was located in Pepsu state. "My father was a professional doctor who left the practice three years before I was born and moved to Delhi to start the family's steel tube business." Like Varsha, Swaraj had to be shifted to the basement of another house soon after his birth because of the rioting in the village. "The house I was born in was targeted because my grandfather had a retinue of Muslim servants. We couldn't send them out as a mark of gratitude for the amount of work they had put in. So, my grandfather shifted me out to a safe-house and, in the process, saved a number of Muslim lives." In 1964, his father and brother set up the first Indian steel plant with Indian machines in Ghaziabad on the outskirts of Delhi in UP. And he joined the plant. "I am proud of having been born on the same day as India. More so because I believe in horoscopes. I strongly believe that the horoscope of India that is Bharat and the horoscope of Swaraj Jain are connected."

His fortunes have traversed unusual ground, much like that of his country

HIS is a story that packs in more quaint twists than Bombay film-scripters can manage. Saviour out to sacrifice himself to science; sex educationist who spilled the secrets in a film; record holder for playing the maximum number of follicularly-challenged roles; sibling of Swami Mahamandaleshwar Gursananan; Bihari-turned Bam-baiya babu—he was the risk Rushdie took with his documentary

The Riddle of Midnight . Purshottam Narayan Mishra, rechristened Manmaujee, was born on August 15, 1947. Zealous siblings doctored his birth certificate to read July 9, '43. "It didn't deter Rush-die," says the actor. "He told me that if I was born on independence day, my birth was a greater truth than what certificates declared."

Truth: That key quality India has lost sight of. "The loss of truth has politicised everything in our world," he mourns. "That is why my personal history bears no similarities with that of the country. Our positions are completely different." But the undercurrents of Manmaujee's fortunes, like that of the country, have traversed unusual ground. Starting off at hometown Itawa in Bihar with a certificate from a Kanpur-based textile institute, it ended with a string of jobs in a multitude of mills in Mumbai. And then Chance moved him to cinema. His first film

Darinda cruelly cut him out in the final edit and then he made his debut in 1973 in "a sex education film called Gupt Gyan ," he admits sheepishly.

 "I hold the Limca Record for acting bald in a record number of films—200 to date. And when I willed my body to medical science after my death, that generated a lot of public interest too," smiles the Gandhi-lover. When he is not acting, Manmaujee throws himself into solving the problems of Baptistawadi, the sprawling suburban Andheri tenement where he lives with wife and two sons (One shares his birthday with Indira Gandhi, the other with America's Fourth of July.) For all this, his active interest does not extend to political quarters—Manmaujee looks up to a few Bollywood heroes. He is particularly fond of Dev Anand, who "is a great actor and a greater human being". "Politics

mein gandagi nazar aati hai . Today even the film industry has turned political, it's sad. Because nothing has spread the language of unity as much as films have."

Manmaujee stands firm by the knowledge that the promise of achievement holds as long as a nation and its people have life. "A renewal in this country is imminent. We have always had a history of overcoming troubles.

Is mitti, is hava mein itni taakat hai ," believes Manmaujee, even as he regrets the Indian shift from socialism. But then, change has been a way of life with the actor—whether it be his birthday or his radical choice of profession.

He wanted to rule the skies but when his dream crashed, he started believing in karma

SWAPAN Kumar Basu

borrowed Rs 75 from his parents and joined a flying club. He took his lessons diligently, doing solo runs and logging his hours for a licence. Till the money ran out and his dreams went kaput. The crashlanding of a dream for the son of a food department employee, who worked in Calcutta to keep home fires burning in his native Midnapore, didn't quite shatter him. Basu was, after all, the resilient midnight's child, wasn't he? During his salad days in Midnapore, Basu remembers his father was 'somewhat proud' of his son's birthday—"sometimes, he would call me Subhas after Netaji." But young Basu's earliest heroes were a village elder who had taught Khudiram, the boy revolutionary ("Imagine, he blessed me, a nobody!") and Mahatma Gandhi ("When I came to Calcutta, we stayed near the house he stayed.").

Life in the big bad city turned out to be an unending struggle. Today, the Food Corporation of India clerk exemplifies the spunky Indian middle class survivor: hefty loans have enabled him to marry off his daughter and settle down in a 600-sq-ft apartment. He says he survived the struggle because of his belief in karma.

"Our air is polluted, our water is polluted. Our Independence has also become polluted. Most of us aren't aware of our fundamental rights. We needed to become independent to overcome poverty, but has it been done? Money has become the only deciding factor in society. Even jobs are up for sale," says Basu. "But I'm not hopeless about the future. Isn't change the only constant in a society?"

Stoic about the future, this labour contractor feels no kinship with August 15

FOR a hard-boiled man who makes a living supplying labourers to factories in Bangalore and Mysore, questions about the country or it completing 50 years of existence deserve nothing more than monosyllabic answers. It has been years since R. Doraiswamy's father told him about being born on August 15. But ask him what it feels like to be born on that day and he shrugs, and then volunteers: "Nothing much, no feeling". Born in Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu and settled on the outskirts of Bangalore for 30 years now, all that Doraiswamy seems concerned about is the continuance of the middle-class life he has been leading with his wife and three children. And yes, the power shortage in Karnataka that has resulted in the closure of the steel factory in next door Whitefield to which he was supplying labourers till sometime ago. "I wanted to study, get a government job and do well in life. But pursuing education in those days wasn't easy," says the Class IX dropout. And he hopes his children are able to do what he couldn't: do a BA or B.Com and get jobs. But not being college-educated hasn't come in the way of his reaching a fairly well-off level. Doraiswamy lives in his own house, he's also rented out two shops in the same building. His is the story of a true survivor.

A staunch supporter of the Congress ("I always vote for them"), Doraiswamy thinks the non-Congress parties are to blame for much of the country's woes. Says he: "There never were power shortages when the Congress ran the government at the Centre and in Karnataka." And the power shortages can be crippling in the state. Three steel plants have closed and 200 labourers were laid off. "If the Congress was in power in Karnataka, they would somehow manage to get some power from outside the state," he believes. But so what if there are shortages, "we have to celebrate 50 years of freedom, whatever the achievement." Spoken like a true Indian.

History bypassed his village, making him unaware of the significance

I was born in a poor family and no one in my family was aware of the significance of my birthday. Our village, Arnaguda, in

Andhra Pradesh's Karimnagar district did not have a newspaper or radio or electricity. In a sense, history bypassed us." When

N.R. Devanand was five, his family moved to a nearby coal town of Belampalli, where he trekked 20 km to school. "It was at the Church of South India's Mission High School that I discovered I was born on the same day as our nation," he says. "We were a family of four children and our father somehow steered us through school." Devanand soon left home for the steel city of Bhilai in search of a fortune—with twenty rupees. There he worked as a labourer for the electricity board. "I can proudly say that I did my tiny bit in getting electricity to some parts of India." In 1964, someone told him that the Indian Air Force was recruiting people—in faraway Shillong. His fortunes looked up after he joined the air force. "I was lucky to be inducted into the MiG squadron. I was trained by the Russians. During my stint with the Air Force, I also did a diploma course in aeronautical engineering. I was part of two battles—China and Pakistan. But these events, like my birth, does not make me any more patriotic than the average Indian." For Devanand the high point of Indian politics was the five-year rule of Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh, of course. Being a leather-goods exporter, his love for the authors of Indian liberalisation is understandable.

Chores leave her no time to ponder but the memory of a name makes her nostalgic

SHE couldn't have been named anything but Bharathi, or so her veterinarian dad thought. "I was made to realise the significance of August 15 around the time I was four. Everyone, including my parents and grandparents, were happy that I was born on that day." Like most communities from the enterprising coastal belt of Karnataka, Bharathi Kini

too was sent to study. But then she was married off while doing her BA in Bangalore's Mount Carmel College and ever since she has been busy being wife, mother and grandmother. Four years ago, her engineer husband working for the public sector HAL died after a heart attack. And with her engineer son away in Vijayawada and daughter married off in Mumbai, Kini lives with her college-going youngest son. Busy with housework, Kini says she does not find time to contemplate about the country. There are chores to be taken care of and then some TV to watch.

"Both me and my daughter are very patriotic and I would have been so even if I was not born on August 15," says Kini. "I would never leave this country for any other." She thinks Indians are doing well. Her reasons: India was "nothing" in 1947 and today things have changed for the better.

The car enthusiast and the rickshaw-puller are both resilient soldiers

HE was born in the Arabian archipelago of Bahrain. August 15, 1947 was also a Friday, so his friends called him Jumma after the weekday prayers there. "Growing up in a foreign country steeped in a distinctive culture of its own, I was rarely conscious of my roots and the significance of my birthday," says Gautam Banerjee.

For Rajendar Mukhia, who has been trudging the cobbled streets of Calcutta carrying passengers for a living, ruminating on his roots is a luxury he cannot afford. In fact, though he knows he is 50 years old and was born sometime in August, he doesn't remember the exact day. Bereft of land and a stable source of living Mukhia landed up in Dorjipara, a ghetto of out-of-towners in north Calcutta, 10 years ago. The gaunt and wiry man is now one of the last remaining handpulled rickshaw-wallahs of the city. "Migrating to Calcutta," says Mukhia, "makes sense. I make Rs 1,000 a month." Gautam Banerjee also migrated early in life. His father, a medical officer and a royal physician, decided to move his family to India in 1953 and take up a job as a medical officer with a public sector undertaking. "Only then I realised I was born on a special day. I used to see friends hoisting the national flag in the morning, and then flocking to my place in the evening for my birthday party. I was even given a special cake. There was so much of hope in the air," says Banerjee, sitting in his 2,600-sq-ft apartment in Calcutta.

Half-a-century later, those feel-good times are gone forever. After completing a diploma in automobile engineering, he opened a 40-car capacity maintenance workshop near his home, which ran for about 25 years. Three years ago, he shut shop, "totally fed up with the way things were running." In fact, Banerjee's tryst with a car workshop business mirrors his total disenchantment with the way things are run in this country today. "I'm not excited one bit that I'll be touching 50 this August along with independent India. It doesn't mean a bit to me," he says.

For Mukhia, life goes on—he is vaguely aware of the Great Independence Jamboree ahead. One thing that worries him is that his rickshaw-pulling days may be coming to an end as the government cleans up the city.

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