Tuesday, January 27, 2009

India's 60th Republic Day

(Photo courtesy of the BBC)
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All of Delhi shuts down on national holidays. Few autorickshaws ply the roads, and most restaurants and shops lock their doors and take a break. In my neighborhood, even the laborers working on the new houses took the day off, the first break they have taken since I arrived in mid-December. No horns, no sabzi-wallahs yelling at us to "Come! Come!", no concrete being mixed, it was a wonderfully peaceful atmosphere to wake up in for a change.
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Claire arrived at my place a little later than our arranged time since she couldn't find an autorickshaw anywhere in GK-1. At the last moment, she was able to chase one down, so we set off together to the Republic Day Parade about ten minutes after eight o'clock. We had to skirt the entirety of south New Delhi because the roads were closed for parade security. We eventually hopped out of the autorickshaw somewhere along Purana Qila road, and joined the crowds heading toward the parade route on foot. When pedestrians take over the roads, with no cars honking behind your shoulder warning you of their approach, well, that is a special day in the city. So, we enjoyed walking the empty streets with the other celebrants, stopping at various checkpoints to ask directions, and just making morning conversation.
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I think we went through two metal dectectors, and a couple other lesser security checkpoints to make sure we hadn't carried with us any of the following: "any bag, briefcase, eatable, radio/transistor, mobile telephone and pager, tape recorder, camera, binocular, digital diary, palm-top computer, remote controlled car lock keys, arms and ammunition, thermos flask, water bottle, cigarette, bidi, match box, lighter, knife, razor, scissors, screwdriver, blade, etc.
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Our bodies were searched pretty thoroughly, but also pretty cheerfully, since we were the foreigners with good Hindi. Claire went through this whole explanation for one of the women at security as to why we wear sunscreen (not just to stay pale and pretty, but because the sun burns us and we don't like the pain), impressing me greatly.
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It took just over an hour to walk from Purana Qila road, pass through security, and find our seats. But what good seats! Our enclosure was almost at the intersection of Raj and Jan Paths, on the north side. So, not directly across from the President's enclosure, but within view of her seat. Even if we hadn't been able to see it, the parade announcer did a fantastic job of describing everything that happened throughout the day, and with such poetic language.
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After the President's arrival (accompanied by horse regiment), the ceremonies opened with a 21-gun salute, which startled me even though I knew it was coming. The birds also did not like it. After this came the very solemn occasion of the Ashok Chakra awards. This year, an unusually high number (11) of Ashok Chakra awards were delivered--this reflects the numerous deaths of military/police leaders in the Mumbai attacks two months ago. I like to build my Hindi vocabulary, but found it sobering to learn the Hindi word for "posthumous" because I heard it eleven times during the ceremony.
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The parade itself opened with a show of military might. Four helicopters flew overhead in formation, dropping rose and marigold petals. After this, precisely as scheduled, tanks, Bhramos missles, regiments in dress uniforms, floats displaying the strengths of each unit of the military, came down the parade route. In this part of the parade, our favorites were probably the camel cavalry (how do you make a camel walk in formation?), the Punjab regiments (good marchers, SHARP uniforms), and the bagpipers. There are a lot of bagpipers in India--who knew? There are also a lot of marching bands, the most impressive of which were the ones attached to a central military force (Army, Navy, Air, Central Police).
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Some individual states had sent floats to the parade. A helpful young man sitting behind us identified all the regiments and all the floats for us. Assam had a really sweet one with a huge rhinoceros and an elephant. Many featured local architecture styles, clothing and handicrafts. Since many of them were dedicated to demonstrating what makes the state economy work, many also had depictions of tourism, complete with mannekins of white people in ridiculous safari clothes, or Indians dressed in blonde wigs and floppy hats with cameras. Priceless.
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Some sectors of the national culture were also displayed on floats. For example, one float celebrated centuries of Indian astronomy as well as 2009 as the UNESCO Year of Astronomy.
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The parade concluded with several flyovers. First there were helicopters, then troop transporters, bombers and refuelers, and then the big guys--the fighting jets--came over in formation. They split into three different directions and spun off into the invisibility of high altitudes. Claire was so excited (it really was quite a spectacle) that she clubbed me in the head. ("Dude! Did you see that?!").
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Leaving the scene was much like arriving. Many, many people, all headed toward the main streets looking for transportation or just walking home. Finding an autorickshaw seemed impossible, so after wandering around aimlessly for awhile, we ducked into the one open restaurant we saw. I think it might have been the only restaurant open between Raj Path and CP, because when we came out after our meal, there were crowds of people waiting to eat. We took an expensive autorickshaw home, then crashed in my room to watch the most patriotic movie I own, Lakshya.
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The government has posted a two-hour video of the parade and celebration for your viewing pleasure. English language commentary begins at 5:22, and ends at 22:30; starts again at 55:30, ends at 1:04; begins again at 1:09. There's a long section on the Ashok Chakra awards that's completely in Hindi. However, just that minute from 5:30-6:30 in this video gives a good idea of the atmosphere of the day. The tone of the English-language narration perfectly echoes that of the parade announcers. Formal, poetic, sincere. We couldn't see the ceremony depicted in the first 30 minutes or so of this video, but we could hear the military calls and bugles while we waited for parade to start.

2 comments:

Beth said...

Again I say "WOW." How fitting there was an astronomy float!

Si said...

You must be catching up on your Google reader backlog....