Recently, taking an Uber in Delhi, I tripped into a conversation with the driver. It started with me asking him to take Aurangzeb Road. He pointed out that it was now called A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Road. I laughed and suggested it didn’t matter how governments changed road names, some places will always be called by the original names. For example, I asked, who called the Connaught Place circles Indira Chowk or Rajiv Chowk? The man agreed and we were off.
“Yes, you can’t wipe out history, but people try,” he said. “Look at Chandrashekhar Azad. People remember his moustache but know nothing much about him. Azad and his brave comrades were key to our Independence, weren’t they? Why is that not taught in schools? They threw a bomb to show the British that we too have bomb-making capabilities.
“And Bhagat Singh! Look at how they’ve turned February 14, the date of his hanging, into Valentine’s Day! They created that Valentine’s Day to bury his memory!” At this point I interrupted. “I don’t think that’s correct.” I hit Google quickly. “Actually, Valentine’s Day has been celebrated since 496 A.D. And then sometime in the 19th century, it turned into a sort of ‘Lovers’ Day’ in England and America, so well before Bhagat Singh was born.”
The driver was silent for a while, then came back. “Well, why isn’t there a national holiday on that day for Bhagat Singh?” And after a beat, “And look how they’ve wiped out Subhas Chandra Bose!” I laughed. “Boss, I come from Calcutta. No one has wiped out Subhas Bose.” My new friend was unmoved. “The only reason we got Independence was because Bose told the Azad Hind Fauj, ‘Give me blood and I’ll give you freedom!’, which is when the British brought in Gandhi!”
“Uh, Gandhi was there a little before Bose actually…” I tried to interject but I was now fighting against a full spate. “Gandhi partitioned India, which he shouldn’t have done. And his first condition to the British was that Bose had to die. I’ve read this in a book.” Oh dear! Old Mohandas K.G. has been accused of many things but this was a new one. As for Bose, how could I, without sounding as though I was talking down to him, share what I knew about Netaji?
“Godse was respectful of Gandhi, even when he was bent upon killing him for what he had done to the nation. He first did pranaam and then pulled the trigger,” he went on. I pointed out that assassins liked to use things like a pranaam, a garland or a video camera to get close to their targets and perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into Godse’s folded palms except that they contained a small Beretta semi-automatic. I went on to add that a lot of factors went into why the British left in 1947 and that the movement led by Gandhi was one major force in uniting the country against imperial rule, possibly far more important than what people like Azad and Bhagat Singh had done with their isolated actions and far more effective than what Bose had attempted. Having said this, I readied myself for what I thought would be more fantastical Hindutva ‘history’. But then the driver took a different turn.
Changing the past“You’ve obviously read a lot about these things,” he said, having gone silent to think for a bit. “But, you know, the country should never have been divided in the first place.” I agreed that Partition had come about from a set of wrong assumptions and self-serving theories by some of the politicians of the time. The driver was still thoughtful when he replied, “Well, I’m telling you things based on what I’ve read, some of it even in Class III or Class IV. But if the books you’ve read are wrong then what is left?”
“If you change the schoolbooks, the past changes,” I said, trying to stay neutral.
“The only solution is education. A lot of people are now literate, but that’s not education, there’s a difference. Ab, ham sab darindey ban gaye hain (We’ve all become monsters). If my son returns from school and says he went to a Muslim boy’s house, I will ask him why he did that. Or the other boy’s parents might ask their son why he went to a Hindu house. That’s where the problem starts. The only solution is insaniyat, humanity.”
This was a good place to end the trip and I did. I don’t know whether my interlocutor worked out some things for himself as he was speaking to me or whether he was trying to humour me. All I know is that, for everything he proclaimed or professed, the counter arguments were there on the hard disk of his mind and his conscience.
The writer is a filmmaker and columnist.