The Flag-Bearer's Burden
The flag-bearer wears khadi. White khadi cap. Khadi kurta. Khadi pyjamas. And rubber slippers, stiff and arthritic with age. Slung across his shoulder is a bag containing booklets and pamphlets produced on cheap blot-ink paper. His plastic-framed spectacles are also dusted with the space grime of a few years. The sun has given him a light ebony coat.
Alone, the flag-bearer marches on in the glass and granite market-place. Silenced by the light and display of the new swaraj. Silenced by the hardsell of New India. Sometimes the flag-bearer shouts Inquilabi limericks, learnt long ago. But mostly he's silent. As if he's in a dream.
The flag-bearer must have been a child at the time of Independence. An impressionable child. A child brilliantly affected by the Freedom message. A child whose youth was spent living a philosophy. But he doesn't preach. 'I want my life to be my message,' he says. His life is mostly spent walking through the country. Talking about Gandhi, distributing Gandhian messages to those who care to listen to him.
His message is also his flag. A faded tri-colour the size of a bath-towel, which he props on his shoulder.
To what end is all this flag-waving, I ask him.
Do you think someone pays me to do this, he asks back.
I am stumped. It's a tough life, I can see. The walking. The walking the talk.
And facing the slur of generations, far removed from the Freedom Struggle. The generations that blame Gandhi for taking the easier route.
It's obvious that he has a few benefactors, Congress leaders eager for photo-ops and news stories who provide him bed and breakfast, and perhaps some travel expenses. But that is all. There is no income to talk of. He eats only if he's offered. He doesn't beg. Doesn't complain.
It's also obvious that the flag-bearer has been stopped from entering some expensive places because of his 'inappropriate dress'. He probably doesn't know that khadi has ceased to be a fabric of resistance. That it's just another piece of exotic ethno-merchandise, like the Banaras silk.
But the flag-bearer walks on. Unfazed. Carrying decades of freedom on his back.
Like a latter-day Atlas. A Gandhian Atlas.
PS: I had met the flag-bearer in Connaught Place (Delhi) in the winter of 1999-2000.