Can I Finally Sit Down for the National Anthem?


Can I Finally Sit Down for the National Anthem?

Illustration: Akshita Monga/Arré

Stand up, everybody! Stand up, for the school song!

In my head, Sister Gracias in her stern habit, coke-bottle glasses, and a hairy upper lip commands from high up the auditorium stage and 800 girls with carefully plaited hair and red ribbons stand like pins, terrified even of pulling up loose socks that may be slipping down their spindly calves.

“Stand” is strong Class-IV verb. Its etymology, I am told, is even stronger: Occupy a place, abide, be valid, exist, amount to. All of them words that Sister Gracias would have loved because none of them leave room for ambiguity. They demand you climb off your fence, shed your indolence, grip your sword, and take a stand.

Oh yes, stand up, everybody!

Twenty years later, that totemic instruction of power and authority, worthy of its exclamation mark, can still make me stand up in my sleep and look down at my non-existent socks. Sister Gracias and the King James Bible both tell me again and again, “Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man…” (Leviticus 19:32, for the non-convent educated.)

So I stand up, when a guest greets me, I stand up for animal rights, I stand up when the boss enters, I stand up, when I hear the national anthem no matter where I am. I stand up for gay marriage. I stand up when I’m angry. I even stand up for a standing ovation.

Can I just sit down for a minute?

There’s a lot of standing up going on in the world – either we’re doing so on two legs or by changing the colour of our Facebook profile picture. As the end of 2017 nears, we may look back and realise, we’ve had yet another year powered on sheer outrage. If you’d shut down the main power supply, we’d still have puffed along just fine. Earlier this month, a wheelchair-bound man who could not stand up for the anthem in a multiplex in Guwahati outraged us. Last year, Aamir Khan and a paraplegic outraged us. It did not matter that he was paralysed from the waist down or represented the country at the Wheelchair Tennis Tournament?

Stand up, everybody!

But is standing up really such big a deal?

The more corrupt the state, the less it connects with the people, the more it rattles its hollow chains of patriotism.

All movements of the body mean something, this much, the study of non-verbal communication assures us. In 1952, the anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell created a science known as kinesics, which is essentially an interpretation of body language. He said that all movement has purpose. Every steely gaze, flutter of the eyelash, stoop of the back. Standing up, then, in the world of kinesics, is a biological imperative, an intimidation tactic in the non-verbal communication of primates. In our world, it has taken up many shades – obedience, respect, resistance – all of them have been hammered into that straightening up of the spine. Standing up, is saying something.

So does that mean that when we’re sitting at home when the national anthem plays on TV, our arse snug in the seat of our chairs, we’re saying absolutely nothing? What if I hold my hand over my heart, as I sit on my seat? What if my heart swells with pride? What if I sing loudly, especially the “Jaya He, Jaya He, Jaya He” bit that fills my heart with something approaching ecstasy? If I’m driving, should I make the brakes screech, jump out, and stand at attention. Will you then be convinced that I’m a nationalist nut?

Is playing the national anthem in theatres about nationalism at all? Now even the Supreme Court thinks otherwise. Interestingly, when the mandate to play the anthem was introduced in Maharasthra, Kafila reported that this patriotic mandate coincided with frequent power cuts across the state, the Enron-backed Dabhol Power Company controversy, and the increasing dissatisfaction of the public with the ruling power. The more corrupt the state, the less it connects with the people, the more it rattles its hollow chains of patriotism.

So enforced patriotism now has India standing up in movie theatres, listening to the national anthem, their samosa and Pepsi precariously balanced on their seat, while waiting for Golmaal Again to start (or Golmaal in Your Pants, if you’re at Apsara Cinema in Lamington Road). As they do this standing, listening, and balancing, they are also watching – Stasi style – whether everyone else is standing up, really upright, not texting, not eating, not doing anything, but staring at the tricolour with profound, patriotic love? So while people fight wars, put together cleanliness drives, run citizen initiatives, take ownership for their country, we feel good about two minutes of patriotism by standing up, or better still, heckling someone who doesn’t, and then we take off on our Golmaal and samosa binge.

My ten-year-old son studies at a new-fangled school that doesn’t encourage the Sister Gracias-style intimidation. He won’t stand in his sleep and look down at his socks. In a movie theatre, I tell him to put down his popcorn and stand up for the national anthem. I will do it until he is 18. After that, he will decide if he wants to sit, stand, genuflect, or kneel when the anthem comes on. If I’ve done a good job, the idea of home and country will mean something to him and “Jaya He, Jaya He, Jaya He” will make him a little teary. I hope he then stands up because he feels something and not because some goon shames him into doing it.

And I really hope it’s not at Apsara Cinema.

This is an updated version of an earlier published essay.