Whenever someone asks me "Are you patriotic?" I fumble. I am yet to find a definite answer, a definition for patriotism.
A patriot, but a dad
A handsome boy of 18 with Elvis sideburns, long hair, and bellbottom trousers, my father's framed black-and-white photograph adorns my grandmother's room.
He had always wanted to become a doctor, until he read the fateful billboard outside the medical college where he was to attend his interview. He forgot his dreams when he saw the photograph of an army officer with a large caption, 'What have you done for your motherland?'
Adrenaline rushing, patriotism blinding, he rushed to join the army the very same day. He wore military boots, shaved off his sideburns, cut his hair, and practiced to kill.
Today as an ex-army officer, he struggles with his elder son's decision to join the Indian Air Force. "Don't you have any common sense? The MiGs are falling from the sky like leaves," he pleads almost daily with my brother and everyone else around. "God forbid! You might not even complete your training before they wrap you in tricolour."
"That is exactly what I want, dad. To die for my country." Adrenaline rushing, patriotism blinding -- my brother, just like his father.
"Get real! You will be just another corpse for some politicians to celebrate."
My vibrant ex-colleague is a lovable guy except for an occasional freaky streak. From the rising electricity bills to the pollution in Bangalore city, he always finds some crude path to connect it all to the money we gave Pakistan during Partition.
"Poison their water," is his strategy. He even wrote to the Naval headquarters, with detailed suggestions, on how to go about it during the last war.
When we play Pakistan, he wages a proxy war in his living room in front of the TV. He is a self-proclaimed son of the soil since he refused to go abroad when the opportunity arose.
He dutifully signs all the e-petitions against Pakistan and promptly sends me the links. He even checks to see whether I complied, and complains if I did not.
A non-resident patriot
"Five hundred dollars is now much lesser, shucks!" a close pal of mine emailed me last month, complaining in bold letters.
For the past year or so, Indian rupee is standing up against the menacing, overpowering, seductive dollar. "But that would have been okay if we were in India you see. A few more years here "
He is a true-blue NRI, whose heart is in India and mind and body in the US. He loathes Indian products, the traffic jams, and the nasty bureaucracy. But he misses his mother's food, late-night movie adventures with friends, his laidback hometown, pretty faces at the bus stop.
He finds patriotic solace in claiming he is 'exploiting' the US.
A patriot with a different passport
Two decades ago, one of my maternal aunts discarded her Indian passport for another. She let go of the piece of sky where she watched the stars as a little girl.
"It is easy to talk than walk it," she said. "I have two daughters. I do not want my children to undergo what I had to go through for something as basic as education. It is a survival strategy."
Passports for survival. She tried hard to make up for her unwarranted guilty conscience. Her children speak and write fluently in her mother tongue and they are incredibly proud of their Indian-ness. Yes, they are erudite and wealthy, too.
What If I was born in a different country in a different time?
What if tomorrow strangers in black suites and ties scoop out smaller nations and define newer boundaries?
What if there is a day when bus rides and handshakes, smiles and photo clicks, candles and garlands wash away the bloodshed and break down the walls?
It was not easy for me to reach here. My blood has boiled, my clamped fists have smashed through the air, my snickering fallen on the ears of the candleholders, my harsh words ridiculed the idealists endlessly... But the world slowly teaches you its lessons, exposes the elite hypocrites, shocks you with the avertable misery, opens your eyes slowly one eyelash at a time.
These days I am at a crossroad, trying to balance on that thin line where patriotism fades into selfishness, hatred, insecurity, and nostalgia.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh