ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogging Competition Shortlisted Entry
The Freedom to Dream: India at 70
Vashi Negi, 20 years old, Roorkee
When I see ‘freedom’, ‘dream’, and ‘70’ in the same sentence I think about my grandfather. He came from a small village in the tribal region of Kinnaur and had a modest upbringing. My great grandfather was rich and could afford a better higher education for his son. He wanted him to study the law. It was in a society that had begun affirming the belief that social mobility was not to be confused with the loss of identity and that everything was possible for those who worked hard.
Being so distanced from the rest of the country, so much so that parts of Kinnaur were not included in the Indian map until the British surveyed the exact boundaries of the land, the people had a certain propensity to look for a greater meaning in their existence. I don’t remember them ever talking about the British Raj or the struggle for independence the way my history textbooks did. So it’s safe to say that though many of my forefathers were enlisted in the army, they did not share the same idea of self-identification as the others. They were still the apple-growing folk of the northern lands, even in uniform.
But a struggle to make a more appealing reality true persisted. In the midst of this change, my grandfather decided he had some soul-searching of his own to do. He ran away from home, still in his teens, to study carpentry. It wasn’t until he was a full-grown man that he returned home and built himself a magnificent wooden house. He had also mastered the art of architecture. He built the very first bridge in our village. Despite his accomplishments, his little escapade remained an object of mockery all his life.
He probably didn’t realize that when life gives us a chance to redefine our identity, that freedom is still defined in reaction to the concepts and categories of the times we live in. My father’s times were less orthodox and presented greater possibilities and dreams for those finding their calling. Ironically, my grandfather did not support my father when he wanted to give up a career in administrative services for a dream life of travelling the world.
Today, the line between what’s rebellious and what’s traditionally acceptable has blurred. I spend my time at an IIT campus with its state of the art library and superfast internet facility. I cross paths with people from numerous walks of life on Twitter, Reddit and Youtube everyday. I complacently continue with the courses I’m supposed to do to be eligible for placements, and I spend my vacations in front of a laptop, be it in my village home surrounded by apple orchards or at some internship program in a start-up. If there’s something I don’t know, I’m free to take online courses from the top universities of the world.
All this makes me wonder that I don’t and will never have a story like my father or grandfather did. Everything is so undefined that although what I do is the result of my choices, it’s the paradox of our times that those choices don’t reflect a specific story, with a beginning, middle and an end.
I’m not going to throw shade at our Prime Minister for initiating demonetization in a country where 60 crore people do not have a bank account. I won’t express my frustration at living in Roorkee, the place our government forgot while dispatching new denomination banknotes. The truth that I’m still better off than most people is not lost on me, and neither is the fact that with this comes the responsibility to make something great out of my life and to blame only myself if I fail.
What I wish to do here, instead, is insist that we may need to add some magic back into words like ‘freedom’ and ‘dream’. The upshot of these unprecedented times, where the few with a head-start get to hold the reins of change while the rest just follow behind, is that we try to satiate the endless human desire for adventure, novelty and meaning, with the illusion of being in control.
The greater thing to do would be to try to create and live by our own definitions of freedom. My grandfather was extraordinary to defy conventional ideas of freedom, but I think it’s even harder to achieve today, when so many dreams seem possible, yet meaning somehow eludes us at the same time.