Since I immigrated to the United States with my family back in 1970, forty Fourths of July have come and gone, and the forty-first is almost upon us, with its attendant parades, barbecues, watermelons, and fireworks. We are making the usual preparations for a family get-together, and as I think back on other Fourths I wonder if I will ever be able to muster up the requisite emotions. Now that I am finally a U.S. citizen—and it was 39 years before I took the leap—perhaps feelings of patriotism will arise spontaneously, but I will have to keep you posted on that.
As someone who was already almost an adult by the time I arrived in this country, I had already celebrated national independence many times—Indian Independence. India finally won its freedom from British colonial rule on August 15th, 1947, and so the anniversary had been marked only six times by the time I was born. To be honest, I don’t remember much about Independence Day celebrations in India in the 1950’s and 1960’s, but I do remember feeling pride in our country and genuine respect for the achievements of our freedom fighters. August 15th was a national holiday, of course, and we must have marked it with the hoisting of the flag and the singing of the national anthem. There was probably a program at IIT, perhaps at one of the student hostels, with lots of garland-giving and speeches before the meal and entertainment started. As the umpteenth speaker took the podium to lavish sycophantic praise on the guest of honor, invariably prefacing his remarks with platitudes such as, “Far be it from me to waste your time with long introductions” or “The Honorable so-and-so needs no introduction,” Dad would mutter loudly that in that case he should shut up and sit down. The entertainment was also predictable, consisting of a classical vocalist, a folk dance or bharatanatyam performance, a comedy sketch (if we were lucky), and, since we were in West Bengal, the mandatory intonement of numerous Rabindra sangeet (during which it was my mother’s turn to express her impatience). For me the high point was always the feast, which consisted of the most delicious chicken curry (at a time when chicken was still an expensive delicacy in India), followed by super-sweet, spongy rosogullas.
At school I remember practicing for a march past, when we would march in formation round the playing field and halt in front of the invited VIP, swiveling our heads toward him and saluting in unison. Being left-handed, or perhaps just clumsy, as our PE teacher drilled us for the big day (with his sergeant-major barks of “Forward, March! A-Lech, a-Right, a-Lecha-Right-a-Lecha; About Turn! A-Lech, a-Right, a-Lecha-Right-a-Lecha,” and so on, ad nauseum), I always managed to fall out of step.
After arriving in the U.S., it used to gall me that August 15th would come and go without mention in the news. I must have felt strongly about this because I remember being out camping in Canada with Andrew on one August 15th, and plastering the side of our milk truck with a Happy Independence Day sign decorated in the colors of the Indian flag. That must have bemused the Canadians. Back in Boston, I attended Independence Day functions organized by the Indian Association of Greater Boston (IAGB) at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, with their programs almost identical to those back in India, long-winded introductions and all. Despite sharing the impatience and boredom that my parents had felt back at these functions back in India, I still made a point of attending them year after year, as boredom gave way to a certain nostalgia, and, perhaps, the pleasure of simply being around a large group of Indians, with the mothers all dressed up in their best silk saris, the babies crying throughout the performances, and the older children looking uncomfortable in their Indian outfits, stiff from lack of use and creased from long months mothballed in a drawer or trunk.
For the 50th anniversary of Independence in 1997 we went down to New York City to attend the annual India Day Parade, and cheered for the Indian film stars, U.S. politicians, and exuberant youth marching in it, as well as for members of the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association (SALGA), who were denied the right to participate for many years and held placards on the sidelines.
But back to July 4th: I remember standing on the sidelines of the Fourth of July parade in Winchendon, Massachusetts when Nikhil was about five and covering his ears as deafening bombers performed a low flyover. As the drum-and-bugle corps and baton twirlers marched past, I felt myself automatically tearing up as I invariably do when I hear martial music at patriotic events or at weddings, no matter what my intellectual response is. But little Hannah, who must have been no more than four years old, stepped out to the very edge of the sidewalk all on her own and in her small, clear voice resisted the military drumbeat with the Shaker hymn, ’Tis the Gift to be Simple.
We have always celebrated July 4th because it is my parents’ wedding anniversary. Marrying in London, they knew nothing of its significance as America’s Independence Day. During our earliest years in the U.S., my sister Sally and I would cook a meal for Mum and Dad and watch television as the Boston Pops performed their Independence Day concert at the Hatch Shell, with Arthur Fiedler conducting. We’d sing along to their patriotic medley (I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy, It’s a Grand Old Flag, America the Beautiful) before their performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, culminating in the Boston fireworks display. As Sally grew older, she and her friends would take the T down to the banks of the Charles River and brave the crowds in person. Then she had the bright idea of marrying the two celebrations with an annual cookout where she would make a large American flag cake decorated with white icing, blueberries for the stars and strawberries for the stripes. With cake and gulab jamuns, hamburgers and pakodas, conversation with our closest family friends and (American) football on the beach, we fashioned a July 4th that holds meaning and memories for our family. My parents celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary in this country, and on that golden anniversary friends and family, including their daughters, sons-in-law, grandsons, and several Indian American family members, gathered in Amherst to salute them, with email greetings read aloud to the cheering throng from family members in England and India who couldn’t be there in person.
As yet another Fourth of July approaches, everybody seems to have plans. People are wrapping up their shopping and I feel the hush as they busy themselves at home, preparing to host or travel to a family gathering. The paper has no events listed for this weekend except for the annual Fourth celebrations and, sitting alone and quiet out on the front porch last night, I heard the usual stray firecrackers going off early, as excited teenagers couldn’t contain their anticipation. I don’t expect I’ll ever feel an unalloyed patriotism on this day, but it does hold meaning for me, meaning imparted to it by my intertwined national, personal, and family histories.