15th August 1974
The decorations, the colours, the sounds, the crowds and above all, the euphoria of this historic day in Bombay come alive 68 years on with a total recall by Kersi Rustomji when he was a ten-year old boy from a small town in Tanzania, as told to Kul Bhushan
The morning of 15th August 1947, saw an eleven year old Parsi boy from Mwanza in the then Tanganyika, now Tanzania, living in Bombay, now Mumbai, at Khalakdina Terrace, at Gowalia Tank. Originally a large water tank, it had been filled long time back, and made into a large maidan, ground. The maidan was always full of great crowds and children, and it was one of my haunts too.
The air was astir and buzzed. At home, in every street, and at even the tiniest shop or street stall, the word was of independence. Patriotic slogans daubed any available space, buntings and flags covered shop fronts, and even the tiniest kiosks, and speakers from every shop, blasted songs proclaiming the forthcoming, historical event that India would soon usher in. A lad who vended roasted peanuts, chickpeas, near the tram stop, had small Indian flags inserted on the rim of his big rattan basket, his white Nehru cap, at a jaunty slant on his head. There was for me that morning an extra thimbleful, as he smiled broadly and handed me the newspaper cone of one-anna peanuts.
A week before 15th August, a great deal of activity was started by a very large group of people on the Gowalia Tank maidan. Decorated colourfully, it had a dais festooned with the colours of the Indian flag, orange, white, and green, and photographs of Gandhi and Nehru. The perimeter of the maidan had poles with flags as well as other decorations of coloured paper chains, balloons, and lights. Every shop front and shop window in the street also bore decorations and the pictures of the two leaders.
Buses, trams, and all public transport vehicles, private cars, taxis, and the horse drawn victoria carriages carried the Indian flags, attached to the forehead of the horse, or had coloured decorations as did the front of the commuter trains. Many private transport vehicles, mostly trucks of varying types, colourfully decorated, carried national slogans in English and Hindi. Taxis at a rank near the tram terminus were similarly bedecked, and the dashboards displayed Nehru and Gandhi, together with the favourite deities of the drivers.
Buntings, flags, and photographs of the leaders, covered the building fronts, of every trading place from large stores, to hundreds of tiny stalls, which lined the footpath. Night brought a blaze of lights as buildings lit up and prominent places were floodlit. Bharat, India, was preparing for a momentous period in its history, as it awaited the departure of the British, and the end of the Raj.
The central business district of the city blazoned similarly with commercial and government buildings covered in flags, pennants, and lights. The Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal hotel, Raja Bai Tower, Metro Cinema, and V.T., the Victoria Terminus building, stood out grandly under the floodlights. Above all as I accompanied my cousins on these sightseeing jaunts, I felt both bewildered and a little frightened by the enormous throngs that came out. I clung to my cousin, from fear of being separated. At times, we could only go in the direction the mass of people moved.
All of this was most awe inspiring and amazing, as it was a complete contrast in size and scale from the tiny town of Mwanza. Our marches and gatherings in Mwanza, in support of India’s freedom, were like a village affair, but here I was in the throes of vast demonstrations. While I too had marched for this in Mwanza, but unlike my unlucky peers, I was here during the great moment. What a tale will I have to tell them all?
On the eve of the great day, it seemed like nobody was very keen on work, or doing anything but crowd the roads and streets in enormous throngs. Truckloads of colourfully dressed people chanting, singing, playing music, beating drums, cymbals, shenais and brass bands playing, with songs blaring from loud speakers mounted on truck cabs, flowed through the day. In the evening, the crowd grew to an enormous size and the Gowalia Tank oval filled beyond its bound. Even the tram service came to a halt, as these could not move through the overflowing throng.
The dais bathed in floodlight and another beam spotlighted a flagpole overhead. Speeches interspersed with music blared from the speakers. Amid the crowd, groups chanted, sang, and played a variety of music. All the sounds blended into a loud and unclear cacophony and the speeches were barely comprehensible. At midnight, the Indian flag on a floodlit pole was unfurled and an massive roar broke forth amid ear-splitting fireworks. My cousins and I returned home well past midnight but we could barely sleep, for the noise from the oval and the street did not cease, as the carousing continued through the night, and firecrackers burst in the street.
On the morning of 15th August 1947, we made our way for another official flag raising ceremony in the city centre near the Raja Bai Tower. Here too the crowd was vast as it surrounded the Oval. Tanks, other military vehicles, field artillery, forces’ bands, and contingents from defence forces, all very resplendent in their parade uniforms, filled the Oval. Groups of white -clad men, women, boys and girls, bearing Indian flags and large posters of Gandhi and Nehru, filled the ground. I was most impressed by the mounted lancers as they rode by four abreast and by the field guns towed behind army vehicles. A minister in the new Indian government arrived and after a speech broke the Indian flag as a formation flew past overhead. The roar was deafening, and my excitement was so heightened, I was shaking, as I clung to my cousin.
Then the loudest explosion I had ever heard blasted the air. It shook the ground and I could feel the air thud my chest. Startled I jumped and grabbed my cousin, who laughingly explained that it was only the field guns firing a salute. When it finished I was still trembling from the excitement of it all. It took us almost three hours to return home through the teeming multitude. All this was the greatest experience, of such great mass of people, and a grand spectacle for a ten-year small town boy from Mwanza, in the then Tanganyika, now Tanzania.
Even as I recount this, every moment of that day of 15 August for India remains with me.
Kul Bhushan worked as a newspaper Editor in Nairobi for over three decades and now lives in New Delhi
* Published in print edition on 14 August 2014