Even to those born decades after August 15, 1947, the day is of significant importance. The gravity of the events preceding and following the day of Independence might have faded in relevance with years, yet the memories of the British Raj are replicated and related anew by every generation.

Many of us Indians have grown up revering the greats of the freedom movement – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Abdul Ghaffar Khan – and feeling an unexplained hostility towards Mohammed Ali Jinnah. National holidays celebrate the births and mourn the deaths of these great men and in addition to them, many of us are also aware of regional heroes who fought just as bravely for self rule. The pride for the nation seems to be further solidified by deep suspicions of our neighbour, Pakistan – forgetting that we share blood, history, and memories.

What I mean to say is, that for most of us, the quest for Independence and the indignities of colonial rule is a homogenous experience. We have convinced ourselves that the white man would roam the town terrifying the brown natives and when the day of freedom finally came, everyone tuned in to Nehru’s iconic “Tryst with Destiny” speech, enraptured, hopeful, and misty-eyed with the promises of democracy and independent rule.

But what did the day mean for those who had witnessed the country being declared independent? In her book Independence Day: A People’s History, journalist and author Veena Venugopal asks this question to those who were actually around on August 15, 1947. The book brings us stories from various corners of the country to illustrate the wide and varied reactions to the day.

One day, different realities

This might be difficult for us to believe, but it is indeed true that not all Indians were similarly affected by the events leading up to the day of independence. Fifteen-year-old Sahib Singh Virdi, who lived in a remote village of Punjab, did not know even on August 14 that the country would be declared independent the next day. After all, how could he, since newspapers reached this remote corner of India only three or four days later.

Similarly, S Vedapuri of Tamil Nadu remembers that he had not even seen a white person until the age of 16, when he moved to Madras for higher education. He recalls, quite remarkably, “They weren’t in the streets or going to offices. They weren’t visible to us. They were just a concept.”

Yet, the freedom movement remains the most decisive one for contemporary Indian history. The long years of struggle have had an irreversible impact on our collective consciousness. Still, there were people who did not (could not) partake in the festivities of August 15, 1947 – and there were some who spent many years of their lives without ever encountering the dreaded white man.

Seventy-five years make for a young nation, but it is a very long time in a person’s life. In these seven decades, Indians have elected various political combinations to power, witnessed the suspension of democracy, successfully eradicated life-threatening diseases, implemented several fundamental individual rights, seen the economy being transformed, and even watched a lunar mission.

The years since Independence have not been without their share of ups and down. Now, 75 years after that momentous day, in her new book Independence Day: A People’s History, journalist Veena Venugopal invites fifteen Indians – all of them young back then – to recall the inaugural Independence Day as they remember it.

Loving one’s country is a painful affair. Our allegiance to it is often lifelong and when it inevitably fails to live up to our expectations, we are faced with profound sorrow and betrayal. In the Introduction, Venugopal writes, “...We are beginning to forget what it took to get here.” These words ring especially true in a time when the failures of successive governments are glaring. With the very idea of democracy as we knew it now looking insecure, perhaps this is the time to turn to the elders – for stories of resilience, perseverance, and hope.

A time of jubilation and misery

Tarun Kumar Roy of Kolkata, now over 90, recalls that socialist ideals and democratic conduct were hardly the prime concerns of the common man during the year of Independence. The times were such that all a person wanted was to live with dignity. Freedom did not guarantee that all Indians were equal – amid growing mistrust between Hindus and Muslims, scuffles could easily turn into riots.

Even while the matters of life and death lay heavy on Indians, young Tarun was extremely anxious about the forthcoming independence. Why? Colleges had put admissions on hold until it was known whether Krishnanagar (the town where the college he wanted to go to was located) would remain in India or be transferred to Pakistan. The Partition would eventually result in one of the biggest and bloodiest mass displacements in modern history, yet many like Tarun were (understandably) occupied by the common concerns of the youth – education and employment.

While some Indians had never seen a white man in the flesh, Ambika Menon, born in 1936, fondly remembers her school days at the Doon School where she was the first female student on a campus populated equally by Indian and British students and teachers. She recalls her school years, “...I made a distinction between the British who I interacted with on a daily basis – people who were warm, concerned, and caring – and the British who ruled the country and who the Congress was fighting.” Not exactly an unusual feeling for a nine-year-old.

However, while remembering the August of 1947, Menon says that the school was so removed from the happenings of the mainland that she confused the emptying of the campus because of riots for Christmas holidays. As the violence appeared on her family’s doorstep, she remarks, “ Our overwhelming emotion was not elation. It was grief.” A hocking response to hard-won freedom that makes us question if the violence towards our very own was the price that had to be paid.

Ganpat Aiyar, who was a schoolboy in Bombay at the time of independence, associates the day with a completely new and novel experience of tasting Coca-Cola for the first time. It was not only his first time drinking a fizzy drink, but also using a plastic straw. What did he make of the drink? “It tasted like cough mixture. Delight and disappointment!”

Not very far away from Bombay, another schoolboy, S Narendra of Mysore, remembers with good humour about concluding school prayers with, “Oh George [King George of Britain] Prabhu, protect us!” Mysore, a princely state back then did not want to join the Indian Union – so, no schoolboys in the state unfurled the national flag on the inaugural Independence Day. While the celebrations of independence had introduced Ganpat to a wildly-popular drink of the West, Narendra continued to believe for years to come that the nation had not changed much.

This leads me to understand two things – one, that the day of August 15, 1947, was not one of total jubilation across the country, and two, that the fervour of festivities, in a way, also influenced how Indians went on to think about their own country. For some, it meant a new dawn as India stepped into the world and forged an independent global identity. But those who had to forego these festivities could not immediately connect with the idea of India as an independent nation.

Far away from the princely states of Mysore, Hyderabad, and Travancore, people in Punjab suddenly found themselves caught in the tangles of imaginary lines. Millions were uprooted from their homes, neighbours turned into enemies overnight, and people scurried along to their new “country”.

“Oh-ji, the English have gone”. This is how Sarabjit Singh remembers becoming aware of the fact. This would bring him no joy. Instead, he would be subjected to such misery and trauma that he would find it hard to forget even seventy years later. “We didn’t think in terms of being Indian, people thought of themselves as Punjabis or Bengalis or whatever. The concept of India was new; it barely existed. India that way was an artificial country,” Sarabjit thus explains the reluctance and unwillingness of the displaced communities to accept either of the nation-states.

Sahib Singh Virdi, who also witnessed the Partition up close, encapsulates his confusion and utter helplessness: “Where was the line going to be? Would this be in India or Pakistan? Would we be in India or Pakistan? No idea.” Clearly, Independence had proven to be an equal (if not greater) nuisance for some – the country had to be run in a fair and lawful manner, and in this regard, they had already been let down.

Nagpur’s Kumud Pawde had nothing to celebrate on August 15, 1947, either. Though still a schoolchild, she knew the challenges she faced because of her Dalit identity would not disappear magically. She would still not be allowed to drink from the community water glasses, and would be discouraged from studying Sanskrit in college. India had become a socialist republic, yet children like Kumud continued to be treated with hostility and disgust.

‘We, the people of India’

And yet the elders miss the plurality and decency that was once the norm in India. Despite some shameful failures, they fondly remember the time when Hindu priests would address Muharram processions and Kashmiri Pandits were scholars of Urdu literature, or how prayers would often simultaneously appeal to both Allah and Hindu deities. Author and journalist Saeed Naqvi remembers his grandmother’s favourite prayer for a pregnant woman: “Allah miyan, humre bhaiyya kar diyo Nandlal”. Oh Allah, give my brother a son like lord Krishna! Today he sadly wonders if we will ever return to our secular values.

Narendra Bhagat, who was in the Indian Administrative Service in the Bihar cadre, expresses disappointment at how the bureaucracy has become “spineless”. The erosion of checks and balances in the system have allowed governments to take the law in their own hands. He echoes our concerns when he says, “Digital media, social media, fake news, hate speech are also doing a lot of damage. Rule of law has become a casualty.”

Saeed Naqvi remarks that despite all the clamour, the chances of a Hindu Rashtra becoming a reality is very slim. The complexities are too many and the opposition quite substantial. Yet, that is not a cause of relief, but of a bigger worry. “The tragedy of the cow belt should not be superimposed on this nation. If we could become a Hindu Rashtra, then at least there would be peace at the end of it. But since we cannot, we are in for constant travails.”

Does this mean 75 years on, India has failed its citizens? The answer is both yes and no. The quality of life has improved, there are increased chances of social mobility, and India has become a powerhouse of talents. And yet all of this can come easily undone if we let bigotry and jingoism get the better of us.

A remarkable oral history that reminds us of where we come from and how passionately we fought for the nation, Independence Day pays tribute to the unrelenting courage and optimism that continues to keep our country afloat. These fifteen elderly Indians remain thoroughly hopeful about the future – we can learn a thing or two from them – and they part with this advice: “Be patient. And passionate. Neither is easy, but if anything is worth it, I daresay, it is this country.”

After the rebellion of 1857, it took India 90 years wrest independence. And it has been only 75 years since that momentous day. No rot is permanent, and it is our duty to cherish and nurture the country we have inherited, to make it more habitable and harmonious for younger generations. Power does not lie in the hands of the ruling few alone – it lies in yours hands and mine. That is why the Constitution begins “We, the people of India.” And Independence Day is a heartfelt reminder of this.

Independence Day: A People’s History, Veena Venugopal, Juggernaut.