Meena woke up Malathi at night and told her that they were going to Vitthal Kaka's house. What was happening?

In all her seven years Malati had never been allowed to stay up. It didn't matter if a neighbour dropped in to talk to Ai or Meena's friends sneaked in to giggle over some secret, Malati's routine never varied. As soon as they finished the evening meal Malati unrolled her bed and went to sleep.

When shaken awake one night, she knew something was wrong. She blinked her eyes sleepily. “Malati!” Meena hissed, “Wake up!”

“Why?” Malati asked, longing to go back to sleep.

“We are going out!” Meena said.

Now?” Malati asked, surprised.

“Yes,” Meena nodded, suppressed excitement in her voice. Malati meekly followed Meena into the hall where her parents and grandmother waited.

“Let's go,” Appa said and without a word of explanation they set off. They walked in silence, guided by the light of a few faint stars. “But…where are we going?” Malati asked, frightened by the strangeness of the whole thing. Ai heard the fear in her voice, for she grasped Malati's hand comfortingly and explained, “We are going to Vitthal Kaka's house,”

“At night?” Malati asked, amazed. Vitthal Kaka was Appa's friend and Malati often played with his daughters. But to visit them now, when everyone was asleep…that was when Malati became aware that the night was full of sounds, that shapes were materialising out of the dark, familiar voices calling softly.

Several people in the group that marched to Vitthal Kaka's house carried the Indian flag. Kaka's house blazed with lights and everyone crowded in, the women huddling together while the men spoke in low voices. Malati stayed with Ai, babyishly holding the end of her sari. She could feel the excitement in the room.

And when Vitthal Kaka said, “It's time!” a sigh went around and everyone stood up. Kaka put on the radio and suddenly the room was filled with a scratchy voice speaking English. Malati didn't understand a word. Neither did most of the others. But they listened attentively, heads cocked, eyes big with concentration, as if every word they heard was the password to a magic land.

The voice finally fell silent noise erupted in the room. People shouted and wept, hugged each other, almost as if they had gone mad. A chant rose — one that Malati had heard often, but never with this intensity. “Bharat Mata ki Jai!” they shouted, waving their flags, “Jai Hind!” Malati shouted too, till her voice felt as scratchy as the voice on the radio.

Malati went to bed as the sun was rising on Independent India. It had been a night of jubilation, but it had also been an awakening. Even at seven she understood that there had been magic in the events of the night. And that however many enchanting nights she enjoyed, this would stay in her memory, not merely because of her lost sleep, but for the awakening.