The Anthem and the Flag

This is the 11th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through. It has its genesis in this post.

It was a hot April afternoon in Delhi. The Rashtrapati Bhavan Barista was empty. A waiter lounged by the counter, patriotically indulging in the national pastime (see 94th amendment) of doing nothing much. Then two customers walked in: National Anthem and National Flag.

“Sit,” said Flag to Anthem. “It looks like it’s been a tough month for you.”

Anthem sat. “Damn right it’s been tough,” he said. “You have no idea. I’ve constantly been insulted of late. Do they not know that I am synonymous with the Nation, and by insulting me, they’re insulting the Nation?”

The waiter walked up to the table. “What can I serve you, gentlemen?”

“Lassi,” barked the Anthem. “You think I’ll order Romanov? Huh? Those days are gone!”

“Calm down, Anthem,” said Flag. He turned to the waiter: “One chhaas for me.” Then he said to Anthem. “Tell me, what’s the problem?”

“Listen, I’m the Anthem of India, ok,” said the Anthem. “I am the very reason this country is proud, and one of the few repositories of its honour. Everyone is supposed to respect me, otherwise no one respects India. That is common sense! Well, what happened the other day was that this fellow Narayana Murthy, he did not allow me to be sung when our president visited his office. Can you believe that?”

The drinks arrived. “Shocking,” said Flag. “Here, drink up.” Anthem downed his peg of lassi with immense indignation, and asked for another. Flag nursed his chhaas.

“What has that fellow done for the country anyway?” said Anthem. “Created billions of dollars of wealth? Enabled tens of thousands of jobs? Allowed India to thrive in the services sector? Pah! Who needs wealth? Who needs jobs? Those things are not the stuff of which a nation is made, which make a country proud. Symbols are!”

“I couldn’t agree more,” said Flag. “Symbols make a nation rich. Symbols make its people happy.”

“You know what the government should decree,” said Anthem. “They should make it compulsory for me to be the default ringtone all across the country. That way, every time a phone rings, everybody in the vicinity will have to stand. As telephony grows in India, so will respect. Tring tring, stand, respect your country. Tring tring…”

“Yeah, and I should be the telephone wallpaper,” said Flag. “That way, every time a call is made, a proud Indian stands up and salutes me.”

Anthem leaned forward and touched Flag’s hand. “You’re my friend, you know. And I’ve been rattling on and on about myself, but now let’s talk about you. How have things been for you?”

Flag sighed. “Well, when we met last month I told you about that religious woman who stepped on a mat on which I’d been placed. Well, people stepping on me might seem tough, but what about being cut with a knife, huh? This month, I’ve been cut with a knife.”

“You’re kidding me,” said Anthem. “I’m sure the pain must have felt across the country, and the scars must run from Gujarat to the northeast.”

“And from Karol Bagh to Nungambakkam,” said Flag. “I was cut from top to bottom as well, and proud Indians everywhere have protested. You see, some chaps at a function made a cake with my design, and Sachin Tendulkar, he came and cut me up. Cut me up! And then I was eaten! Oh, the indignity!” Flag’s colour drained out of him as he remembered the harm inflicted on India.

“Listen,” said Anthem, “it could be worse: people could be burning you across the country. Do you know that burning the national flag is legal in the US? People routinely burn the flag there! No wonder they’re such a weak nation, and we’re so strong!”

Flag sighed. “I know, that would be terrible,” he said. “Fluttering on top of the Rashtrapati Bhavan in April and May isn’t very different in terms of temperature, actually, but I’m a survivor.”

“So far,” said Anthem. “Things are getting worse for us, my friend. In Mumbai, it is compulsory to play me in cinema theatres before a film, and everyone is supposed to stand. But recently I have noticed that some people don’t. This columnist, Amit Varma, he doesn’t stand as a matter of principle! He says he’s objecting to coercion! He says that the values of his nation worth standing up for are things like individual freedom and other such rubbish.”

“I have heard,” said Flag, “that he is even planning to write a column in which he will write flippantly about you and me, and everything we stand for. Does he not realize that by doing so, he will rip apart the fabric of the nation? What will they make me out of then, paper?”

Anthem sighed. And fell silent.