They are around thirty people. Young and raring to go at anything.
All of them have different haircuts. Some are mushroomed. Some are puffed at the sides just above the ears. Some are taken off completely making a patchy curve starting from the right temple and reappearing at the left.
I could feel their breath around me. I think of snarling dogs in animation movies. They are just that. But they behave as if they were directly from the war movies, complete with armours and assault rifles. They have even camouflage lines all over their faces.
I am just imagining things. Am I frightened while standing right in the middle of this young crowd that exudes a sense of aggression, definitely not adulation?
One of them has a T-shirt on with camouflage pattern. Rs.150/- for anything, I think for I have seen them in the pavement. But he feels so confident in it. He is taller than me and I looked down as he talks about his country. Yes, ‘his country’. I see the seams of his trousers rolled up and pushed into the ankle boots.
He holds his mobile phone as if it were a grenade to be lobbed at me, if there is a provocation. I know anything could happen then. I have offended them.
You would be surprised to know the scenario. I have just finished a speech. A few minutes back I was on the stage there inside these huge door panels, where these young men now crowding me were my audience. Something I have said about the country seems to have understood differently.
Someone opens the door and walks out and with him a mild fragrance and a whiff of cool air come out and follow him to the foyer like a trusting dog.
I look around and see similar crowds in some parts of the foyer.
These young men have come from different colleges and they are there for an integrated workshop for the youth. Male and female experts from different walks of life have come to give them short speeches. Yes, short speeches but sooner than later I realise that each short speech could last for an hour.
My speech was short indeed. But the interactive session was a bit longer.
Now in this foyer what you see is the continuation of that interactive session.
‘How could you say that soldiers and primary school teachers are to be given the same respect?’ They insist asking. I feel a strange hiss in their voice and the rising aggression in their bodies.
Their fingers twirl. They could catch hold of my neck at anytime. Between those terrifying fingers and my logical neck there is a very small distance which could be measured by the satisfaction that my answer would give them.
I smile, first unto myself and then to them. I have faced such situations before. Facing hecklers is a part of my job.
“For me, primary teachers do a better job than the soldiers at the country’s borders,” I say taking special care of the smile on my lips.
‘Do you have anybody in the army?’ One of them asks.
“No, No relative of mine works in the army,” I say.
‘That’s why you don’t know the pain’.
“Is it necessary to have an army man at home to know the pain of a soldier?” I ask.
‘Because of them you could sleep without worries’, one of them pitches in.
“I am not sure about that. My sleep does not have anything to do with the soldiers. But I do lose sleep over what they do at some places not only in our country but elsewhere too,” I reason.
‘We are ready to sacrifice our lives for our country’, the guy in camouflage T-shirts moves in.
“What else does a primary teacher do?”
He does not sacrifice anything.
“So according to you, fighting in the army fatigue is the only way to serve the country? Or is it always necessary to make sacrifices to serve or love one’s country?”
‘What do you do with the enemies then?’
“This is exactly where I talk about the primary school teachers. If they teach you who is our enemy and who is our friend, and also tell us ultimately there are no enemies or friends, then this overt love for the country wouldn’t arise at all.”
‘But we have enemies.’
“What do you do if I say having enemies is a sort of illusion spread by the state? If we understand history and economics, we will understand this whole idea of war is just a game played periodically by vested interests not by the soldiers. And soldiers in fact should be peace keepers not war mongers.”
The boys go silent for a moment. I find a gap to insert another argument.
“A bus conductor, an engineer, a nurse, a doctor, a carpenter, a cobbler, a vegetable seller or anyone who pursues any job diligently does serve and love his country, if really has one. It all depends whether the country wants his love and service or not.”
The boys look confused. But at the next moment they regain the density of their blindness.
‘We are patriots. You are a traitor. You fail to see the enemy. It is as good as colluding with them.’
“I don’t have enemies from across the border. They don’t make my life hell. But my fellow citizens do it. They beat up my brothers and sisters for sitting on a chair, riding a horse in a wedding procession, for sporting a moustache, for taking a cow to the market, for passing an examination with good marks, for washing themselves in a public pond, for dressing up well, for just being free and proud. What do I do with those tormentors? Will the soldiers of this country save my brothers and sisters from such insults?” I shiver while I say this.
‘Sir, you are a guest here. Otherwise.....the answer would have been different.’ Someone gnashes his teeth.
“This is what exactly I say when I say primary school teachers are important when it comes to the shaping up of a country and its psyche. I think your teachers too have lost the plot and they have taught you something else,” I tell them politely and try to move out.
‘Hail thee Mother Country’, they call out behind me, obviously to jeer at me.
I hold my head high and walk out of the foyer as their exhortations grow high, wild and frenzied.
Still I could feel the loud slogan ‘Hail thee Mother Country’ stalking me with a bare dagger clenched in its fist.