Patriotism is a multi-hued emotion that never fails to evoke in us that red-hot feeling while talking about our country. But, what defines patriotism today? What are its boundaries? Is it burnt into our DNA, or does it have to be learnt? Shreekumar Varma attempts to find answers.

In my early schooldays, my father took me to see a rousing black and white film called Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani. He was that sort of man. He had grown up heady with nationalism and patriotic fervour. He’d almost named me Subhash Chandra Bose, and then Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. Stunned, my mother quickly gave me my present name. He learnt and taught Hindi, flaunting ‘our national language’ like a proud flag-bearer.

Speaking it like another dialect of Malayalam, he forcefully pronounced all the silent dots of the Hindi script till he achieved a merry marriage of languages. As a schoolboy, during my grandmother’s reign in Travancore, he took down her official portrait from the wall and replaced it with one of Bose (little knowing he’d end up as her son-in-law). It was an influence hard to ignore. His strong, almost overbearing, advocacy of national pride lasted well beyond my student days.

On the one side was a tradition encompassed by the glory of ‘golden’ Travancore, the beauty and literature of Kerala, the goose-bumps brought on by the Travancore national anthem, Vanchi bhoomi pathe!; on the other, the pride of being Indian. Manoj ‘Bharat’ Kumar was a harbinger. Bharathi, Pradeep, (Shyamlal Gupt) Parshad and Iqbal unfurled our spirit like a flag and made it soar like a bird. Poetry, in Malayalam, Hindi and Tamil, was a timely reminder, a repository of the meaning of the ideal life. Music roused. Cinema triggered. Life was one big salute to the motherland.

So what defined patriotism? Was it the marching boots that kept our country secure? Was it the man on the street who faced all odds to fight injustice? Was it a blanket irritation with anything ‘foreign’? Was it homage to dead leaders? Or, was it simply that red-hot feeling while talking about your country, like the proprietary blush of a true lover?

Anyway, Dr Kotnis went to China and helped to heal victims of the Japanese invasion — a true doctor, a true humanist. The film was based on the real-life story of five medical men sent to China in the late 30s. Four returned to India, the fifth stayed on, married a Chinese nurse, had a son, contracted the plague, and then died of epilepsy. V Shantaram not only made the film, he also acted in it along with his wife Jayshree (made-up to look Chinese). I saw this film again recently, a curtailed version that still touched me. New questions sprouted, and most of them had to do with patriotism. Dr Kotnis (the real one) obeyed Subhash Chandra Bose’s appeal and travelled to China to treat wounded soldiers and civilians. He stayed on, his humanism expanding beyond the call of duty. Love and marriage rooted him further. He was only 32 when he died in China, routed by disease and exhaustion.

Was Dr Kotnis a patriot? He obeyed an Indian nationalist’s call, right. He was doing everything for the glory of his motherland, at least in the film. (The real Dr Kotnis also joined the Chinese Communist Party.) But, patriotism and all, he laid down his life for the Chinese!

The reach

Is patriotism a stand-alone emotion? Or is it just an ingredient of a greater love? Was a doctor’s care (in this case) translated into the love of humanity? Or vice-versa? Does patriotism confine your passion to a geographical space? In which case, if you are an Indian working in New Zealand, who do you cheer for? Or if you are an American-born Indian, which place touches you more? Is patriotism burnt into your DNA, or does it have to be learnt?

And then: How confined is patriotism? Within how many concentric circles does the patriot stand? My home, my village, my district, my state, my quarter of India (south/north/east/west), my India, my Asia, my world, my universe — my language, my tradition, my culture, my people, my ancestral people, my archetypal people.

Which is why Dr Kotnis illustrates my questions. Patriotism on foreign soil! The heart can melt any which way?

There’s been a season of patriotism.

January always is. After Republic Day, we had Beating The Retreat. Can you think of any two events more impressive than these to give you that red-hot feeling we spoke about? The creative precision, the dignified pageantry, the focused magic of co-ordination! It isn’t rare to find all that audio-visual grandeur doing something to a special chamber of the heart that triggers patriotism.

Actually, the season of patriotism has been with us for some time now. Maybe not named as such, maybe not palpably as in earlier times. But it did begin a couple of years ago. A cry for emancipation, a fist up for justice. The wave of humanity that flooded the roads, shouting slogans of dissatisfaction and hope, clutching issues with dogged determination, ready to be punished...

Yes, the uprising began a couple of years ago. Of course, this isn’t the stuff of our freedom struggle. That was different.

That took centuries to build up. The slow dawn of realisation that things could be different, waking to a leader’s call and then marching towards a closure, ready to do or die. The enemy was alien, the leaders were full-hearted, the road to freedom was paved with martyrs. Today, we are 66 years older. And wiser. All-knowing. The process is probably the same. The spirit appears to be similar. The Lok Pal Bill, the Nirbhaya rising, the passion of the Delhi elections. Ordinary people fighting for change. Ordinary people expressing anger against a decadent system. Ordinary people repressed and fighting to break out.

But there’s a difference, the times are different. This is the age of communication and nakedness. Secrets are rare. Information reaches you in seconds, wherever you are. The wariest hero and his baggage of surprises can be dragged into your living room. Truth is truth and lies are lies, though at times you can never tell ’tween the twain. Leaders and history-makers are exposed, over-exposed. When I tell the story of a great leader, when I wish to inspire you with it, to instill that same patriotism in you, I need to make that leader larger than life. Like a god. Today, even iconic leaders from history books are dragged down from their pedestals and exposed for the human beings they were.

Today, there are so many sides to an argument, so many faces to the democratic common man, so many schools of a single thought (and many of them with tools of militant persuasion), that there isn’t one single truth. Patriotism is a splintered picture and people see what they want to see.

Gone are those goose-bump days.

Back to reality

If something touches you, there’s always someone around to reach out and pinch you awake! Children, schooled in the art of singing patriotic songs, soon develop a veneer of cynicism. They start young. Macho films spread the virus of scepticism. Along with social media and video games, they scorn the believer and instill the mantra that might is right. Look at the internet. Anyone can say anything! Nothing is sacred. But a moment of somber self-expression, and you could fetch yourself a hail of vicious comments. Self-expression can be self-defeating. Unless you’re armed with a pliable mob to force people to take you seriously. Naturally, that mob will be in someone else’s service tomorrow.In such a soil, how do you plant purity?

How can honest intent survive?

Whether it is journalism or the law, academics or literature, Truth comes with a price tag. ‘Truth will triumph’ is a hopeful slogan. Truth will triumph only if you pay for it. And that’s how cynicism is born. Truth, of course, is relative. It is relative to what you believe in.

Besides a few unshakeable pillars of moral and social conduct, perspective rules the truth. But if Truth is what you believe in, and you stand by what you believe in, you can safely build your world. If your spirit is strong and you can brook pain and insult, if your will is as strong as your truth, then it’s time you joined the army of believers, the young army of today’s patriots.

For, as I said, they’re already on the roads. People have shaken off their lethargy and looked around, they have marched and tasted success. The new leaders may change, they may descend into comic eccentricity, they may renege on their potential, but they have done their bit, they’ve played their role, and now it’s time for the baton to reach the right hands.

And that’s why this is the time.

The march has begun. Before the marchers start floundering like a rudderless vessel, we need that greatest rousing call, the song of patriotism. We need a conch-shell awakening to remind us of our recharged destiny. We need men like my father to march, icons like Dr Kotnis to inspire, and artists like V Shantaram to tell their story. It’s time to stop those close-ups of leaders, warts and all, and get a cinemascope sweep of their vision.

Only leadership can achieve that. Not someone who greases himself into a party position, buys votes and then lords it over his voters.  We need leadership that brings on the goose-bumps. Leadership that kindles heroism. Leadership that creates followers without paying for them. Leadership that’s as enthusiastic as it is mature. A young leadership with old eyes. We need the wisdom of humour, the patience of experience.

We need hands that can fashion today with the touch of tomorrow. A leadership rich with knowledge. That takes days to think, but is capable of acting on the spur of the moment. That can repose regally on a pedestal, at the same time mingle with the crowds, touching them, yet looking after them. Leadership has to be earned.

Our country has had a long and hoary history, it has earned its patriots. Now let our patriots earn their country.
Flying The Flag Of Patriotism