Competition Entry #8 | Freedom to Dream: India at 70


ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogging Competition Shortlisted Entry


Freedom to Dream – India at 70 
By Jash Dholani, 19 years old, Haryana


To raise bare walls out of bare earth
was the utmost they could do.

Virginia Woolf

Midnight of 15th August, 1947. Jawaharlal Nehru addressed the nation with his Tryst with Destiny speech. Gandhiji stayed far away from the transition of power, trying to subdue the violence of partition in Calcutta. An era had ended. The clocks reset for a new day. Crackers were released into sky, and a nation into freedom.

The idea of midnight plays an important part in our culture myths.

Midnight is when Lord Rama returned to Ayodhya after 14 years of wilderness and war; midnight is when India was born after birth pangs that lasted 180 years; midnight is when dreams stir behind closed eyes. And writers, the professional dreamers of any society, have repeatedly brought forth the idea of midnight and placed it under spotlight.

Aravind Adiga, in his novel The White Tiger, paints a protagonist who writes letters to the premier of China at midnight, narrating tales from India’s dirty underbelly. In Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children, the protagonist was born at the same moment India was —— midnight of 15th August. He popped out of his mother’s womb much like India emerged from the primordial and blood-flavored geopolitical soup of 1940s —— unsure, unsteady, proud but confused about its identity, expectant but fearful for its future.

VS Naipul, in his novel A House of Mr. Biswas, plots the birth of his title character at midnight, a beginning that creates a string of misfortunes in its wake. Mr. Biswas spends almost his whole life wanting to own a house of his own. A sovereign space.

Can India be thought of in this way too? Now teetering close to 70, cursed at birth by alignments astral or political, a simpleton of a subcontinent making its way through perennially hostile waters? Like Mr Biswas, the Indian Independence movement had similar motivations: a desire to establish ownership over one’s own piece of earth.

One might ask, why this itch to own one’s own house? Why this existential need to be an independent nation? The answer could perhaps be found if one transports oneself to a wholly different place and a wholly different time. Virginia Woolf, in her 1929 book, A Room of One’s Own, puts forward a thesis: a woman must own a room of her own and have a steady income if she is to write fiction.

If we replace ‘woman’ with ‘person,’ and ‘writing fiction’ with ‘having a license to dream’ (isn’t that fundamentally what fiction is – a license to dream and imagine and create?), then we have our answer. In order to create, one must first become sovereign. In order to clear space for the act of dreaming and creating, one must have a room of one’s own. Or a house. Or – if three hundred million people are involved – an entire country.

In her first essay in the book, Woolf writes a line that has acquired the status of an idiom because of its endless reproductions in other works. This line has been muttered at birthday parties, invoked at dinner tables, cited in English literature papers, and turned into a staple source for text on wall posters. The line is:

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

The quote has become ubiquitous for two primary reasons: firstly, it captures a near-universal experience. Don’t we all have times when we are sapped of energies, tired of breathing itself, weary of all life, and then a good meal makes it all better? Secondly, the line provides a quick fix to the most pressing issues in life: thinking well, sleeping well, and loving well.

Now, if I were to add my own phrase in this line and tiptoe off before history notices, I would say: One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, or dream well, if one has not dined well. One cannot dream of a castle unless one is distracted, and distraction is a privilege granted only to those who don’t have to worry about the next meal.

In India, 44% of children are malnourished and close to 200 million people go hungry every day. These people don’t dine well, and it’s anybody’s guess if they dream at all. These people are free to vote, free to ask for more dole-outs from the government, free, even, to knock on the doors of judiciary if the system wrongs them, but do they have the freedom to dream? Can these people afford to stop worrying? Can they clear away the clutter of immediate survival concerns, establish a sovereign emptiness in their brains, and aspire?

Indian citizens were granted immediate political freedom with Independence, and slowly, social freedoms have been seeping into our society too, but the freedom to dream is the hardest freedom to grant. It’s many thousands of midnights away.




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