ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogging Competition Shortlisted Entry
The Freedom to Dream: India at 70Â
By Pankhuri Shukla, 19 years old, Pune
I’ve been interning at a nonprofit lately. It’s a learning centre for underprivileged kids who attend a municipality school in the morning, and then attend the centre in the afternoon, for a more holistic learning coupled with other non-academic activities.
When you’re working with a nonprofit, especially when it involves children, little run-of-the-mill things take you by surprise. You might sound borderline pretentious when you talk about it in public, but somewhere in your heart you know the things that truly struck a chord with you.
During one of my scheduled interactions with 9-year-olds, I popped the question of “What is your dream?”
“I want to be a Painter and an Engineer,” chimed the 9-year-old, who lives in one of the thousand bustis — slum areas in India — that makeup the metropolis of Mumbai. My train of thoughts jumped from one junction to another: from “Oh how adorably ridiculous” to “But how exactly does she plan on doing that?” finally resting at “Wow, she can actually say that out loud!”
It was a thought I took back home, and shared with my family. Everybody marvelled and then forgot about it. But I didn’t. That little child’s sentence resonated deeply with me by virtue of being a student — just like her. That little girl has the freedom to dream as she pleases.
Now I’m young and chirpy with zero struggle on my resume so I’m not sure what Nehru meant by “India will awake to life and freedom.” but I’m assuming Independence felt like the beginning of a new era, when no unjust, foreign authority would be able to dictate our actions. The air must have had a dreamy, lilac tinge to it, signifying the freedom to think in terms of opportunities that til then had seemed so far-off. Hearts swelling with courage; despair flying out the window of imperialism.
Seeds were sown; harvest reaped in the form of education reforms, globalisation, industrial growth, technology influx and the personal power to create with unimaginable resources. We’ve pretty much reached the peak of these ‘unimaginable resources’, or we will soon.
But the question remains: has this ‘freedom’ that Nehru so ambitiously proclaimed evolved at a similar pace? Or somewhere along the way, did it just halt and started tumbling backwards? And if it has tumbled backwards, has that happened at the same pace for everyone?
In the light of the recent Demonitisation by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government, I — a direct beneficiary of the privilege handed down to me by my parents — am softly told that some must suffer in order for the greater good to prevail. That some must inhabit the bottom rung of every hierarchy for me to sit at the top. But that leaves almost no freedom for the lower strata of the society — afflicted by poverty, caste and creed — whose dreams have been siphoned off by the very advantages that hang like an albatross around my neck.
I enjoy the benefits of urban India, which are just as good as any developed country, and aid my aspirations for life. Yet I find myself unable to gather the courage to say something that even closely resembles the words of that little girl. And I’d probably be ridiculed for talking like a naive child who has yet to map her way around the real world, if I tried. I may have access to the internet and the liberty to use Google as a verb, but does that actually mean I have more freedom of thought, more freedom to dream that that little girl?
The idea that we have the freedom to dream after seventy years of independence, is an easier sell than the latest smartphone on the market, but when explored deeply, it is more complex, and contradictory than that.
Whilst one part of the population enjoys abundant resources but has lost the ability to dream an original dream, an even bigger part finds itself Dreaming Big but struggling to make ends meet. I may have the world on my side, but it’s a world that has no space for anything that doesn’t exist yet.