An anthem is a means by which you’re obliged to publicly declare that you’re part of a group — of students, fighters, citizens, sports fans, music fans, employees, you name it

Living, as one does, in interesting times, when one could get killed for being a rationalist, it might be useful to explore which of one’s beliefs and behaviours could put one at risk of, if not death, at least a modicum of bodily harm. What would get one tortured, what, stoned, and what, merely roughed up — these are the questions that run idly through one’s brain as one sips green tea on a cloudy afternoon. If I announced that I was terribly fond of beef fry, would my tongue be skewered, or would I be forced to eat a raw salad of radish and bhendi? If I refused to sing my school anthem would I have to do 50 push-ups, or, arms raised and weapon (foot-rule or dividers) held aloft, run 50 times around the compound?

A flag was raised and an anthem sung in the courtyard of our apartment complex last week — but let me not speak of the nation as yet, let me begin small, with school. It was curiosity and not nostalgia that took me to a get-together this year, where I met classmates whom I hadn’t seen for 40 years and with whom, I soon realised, I had little in common. Nobody recognised me, I was the only one in the room with ‘untouched’ grey hair, and I couldn’t contribute anything useful to the sub-group sharing the tribulations of finding suitable boys for their daughters, but that’s neither here nor there. The point at which my exclusion was sealed was when they all started singing the school anthem. I kept my mouth firmly shut. Couldn’t “pledge true loyalty” to a banner, or beseech a patron saint to be a “beacon light in this wild and tempestuous night” without laughing outright.

That was a maiden reunion — they’re threatening to hold another, which I plan to not attend — but the flag-and-anthem ceremony in our courtyard is an annual affair that I’ve sedulously avoided so far. I find anthems an anathema (yes, yes, I know it’s too strong a word but I couldn’t resist alliterating). Reminds me of school: stand up, sit down, march, run, speak, sing, silence! “I wish I could relive my schooldays,” some say, “those golden years when I was innocent and carefree.” And I say “Bah!” Carefree my foot! School is where I obeyed commands under duress. School is where I last sang an anthem.

An anthem is a means by which you’re obliged to publicly declare that you’re part of a group — of students, fighters, citizens, sports fans, music fans, employees, you name it. For any gesture of allegiance or appreciation to be genuine it must be spontaneous, not staged or orchestrated. I remember taking a nephew to a concert by one of those boy-bands at Kanteerava Stadium years ago. In the middle of the show a man started selling pairs of green glow-sticks, a novelty back then. On cue, during the next song the band egged us on to wave both arms from side to side. I didn’t lift a finger, but an undulating sea of green neon swept through the arena, creating visuals that were captured by a video camera and would doubtless serve as publicity for the band. I’ve been wary of rock anthems since.

An anthem manipulates you into feeling — pride and euphoria, usually — heart swells, eyes well up, that sort of thing. The melody is simple, the mood, unrelentingly optimistic. If you ran a company you could hire someone to compose an anthem designed to instil loyalty in your employees. Take a handful of key words like ‘passion’ and ‘innovation’, pick a Celine Dion wannabe to croon it, and let the melody soar. Remember, it must soar. For best results, end in crescendo. Downsizing can take the zing out of the song, though. It’s hard to be zealous when you’re on the bench.

Whether you’re singing a hymn to a god or an anthem to a nation you are willingly surrendering your heart and your mind to a being or an idea. I don’t petition god, and as for my country, I don’t need to sing about it to know that I belong to it. One of my readers requested me to be chief guest at this year’s I-Day function in the school he taught at. He wanted me to “inspire” the “young citizens” with my “words and thoughts”. I would have given him the polite brush-off but I felt I owed him an explanation. I told him I had no idea what I would tell children on such occasions. Preach to them about patriotism? He sent a long and moving reply to my email, about his responsibility to the children, and the dreams of our nation’s founders that he carries in his heart. I’m sure that when he sings “Jana Gana Mana” he means every word of it.

If school was where I sweated and slaved, it was also where a few enlightened teachers earned my respect because they gave me room to think and question. As my dear principal told me when I met her a decade ago, what she remembers most about me in high school is my piping up constantly: “But why?” Maybe I should write an anthem with “But why?” as the refrain. Can you hear it soar?

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View thru’ eyes old and newOctober 8, 2013