Performing 15th August

Activists are arrested. Bloodlust runs unchecked. Dissent is branded anti-national.

Our horror is quelled when glorious 75% off sales trick us into believing, yes, we are free. Freedom is disguised as independence day chocolate hampers and laptops left over in the warehouse and tacky tricolor Sarees that just won’t get sold.

Meanwhile, the activists continue to be jailed and the lawyers retreat and the poets have their tongues sliced out by the powers that be.

***

It seems like they have asked themselves how best to make money off of our insecurities. Our anxieties about proving our patriotism are erased by loud proclamations of “Freedom Sale” “Celebrate 72 Years of Independence with 72% OFF”.

So we acquiesce. We buy unquestioningly.

What bites is the way our anger has been blanched and neutered by their commodities.

I don’t see internet ads lining up to advertise the 14 million people displaced by partition. I don’t see them dabbling in the complexity of our social fabric. But we get beefy, empowertising ads that dress up patriotism in jingoistic anthemizing and force us to buy their brand of ketchup to feel Indian.

I’m often made roundly aware that I am too cynical. That I just like to play devil’s advocate. “Why would advertisers quote partition statistics while trying to sell their product?” “Why should they care about who they are exploiting?”

Why indeed?

But why also, is a biscuit brand drawing analogies between Indian soldiers and its biscuits? Why is a clothing brand invoking secularism through a chance pun on its name? Why do they get to profit off an identity that is painful and complex and filled with ambiguity without engaging with all its messiness and turbulence?

Everything is oblique. Everything has been co opted. If brands do nothing to participate in liberating the oppressed, do they really get to douse themselves in glory through the performance of solidarity a week before 15th August?

I’m not trying to be provocative or deliberately incendiary. But it is a struggle not to be incensed when everyone around you is in cahoots, big business with legs wrapped tauntingly around the torso of a government that does not cringe at the drawing of blood.

It is all a conspiracy of epic proportions.

***

Our history is hidden in dusty books. Pages and pages of archives are sidelined in deep pockets of the internet. They exist, but are seemingly unlocatable.

“Does it matter what independence meant? Are we still hung up on recreating some pure state of Nehruvian idealism?”

This is not about essentializing. Nehru was Nehru and this is 2018. We do not need nostalgia to live better lives. We need pointed, persistent reminders of the labour we must perform to prevent our freedom from being trapped in narratives of consumerism. Yet to glance over the first page of a search, one would believe that freedom equates grabbing products with both arms full.

Perhaps it does. Who, a generation ago, would have thought buying four types of bread off an app on one’s phone would ever be possible? Perhaps we are so vigorously invigorated by the capitalist exploitation of our postcolonial identity precisely because this, this is what, half a century ago, the deprived, the hankering, imagined freedom to be.

Freedom from lack of choice. Freedom from want. Freedom from the sinking feeling that life would remain stagnant forever.

This is how they describe the socialist state now: oozing unfulfilled desire and listless youths with no outlet for their needs. I feel it deeply. There is a great deal of satisfaction to idly perusing through commodities accessible through one-click delivery. It feels like a contemporary form of wealth acquisition.

It feels that way because this is how they want us to feel. The perennial chicken-egg story of desire. How many times have you thought to yourself, “I have to have this 900 Watt centrifugal juicer because without it I will be neither independent nor free”? How cleverly they place the thought in our minds, nascent, gnawing, bursting forth at the “ONE HOUR TO GO” mark. Independence has become so inextricably wrapped up in performance that its cheapening to Rs 1290/- only headphones wafts along inconspicuously, tempering collective trauma, collective pride and any nascent desire to embed oneself in mending a tattered social fabric.

***

On the death of Vajpayee says Pratap Reddy, founder of Apollo Hospitals: “I have lost a dear friend who shared my belief in the role that access to quality healthcare can play in a nation’s development. The entire Apollo Family is grieved that this great leader is no longer with us. We will always remember him for his kindness, affection and admiration for us. He will be deeply missed.”

Indeed, Vajpayee’s greatest concern was providing exploitative healthcare at exorbitant rates to vulnerable populations… The Apollo Model feeds off its relationship to the likes of Vajpayee, extolling the virtues of private healthcare by linking it implicitly to some sort of pseudo-patriotism. In the meantime, grand fraud and vulture-like scamming are conveniently neutralized through Apollo’s clever branding as a “patriotic project”. How can we question the exploitation of hospitals that regularly trick patients into overspending and overdosing if they are doing it for the nation?

It is the same story everywhere. Our desires have been co opted. We cannot hold corporations responsible if they sanitize themselves every so often with trite patriotism and clever marketing.

Except we can. And we must.

Patriotism is blinding. It is easy and flashy and commoditizable. The more we buy into it, the less we resist. And we can’t afford not to. For while we are distracted by the rhetoric and the flash and independence sold to us in sanitized packages of aesthetic delight,

The activists continue to be jailed and the lawyers retreat and the poets have their tongues sliced out by the powers that be.

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