It is going to be almost two decades, 16 years to be precise for me and my eight friends having completed our schooling in Kalimpong. Marriage and work driven commitments have dispersed us in different parts of the country at present. Scattered in north, east, southern India and some few oceans away in a foreign land, social media has managed to bridge the existing distance. From sharing life’s updates to the food we hog on, we are tethered to our WhatsApp group so as to not miss out on each other’s mundane life. A few days back, amidst all the random conversations that flooded the group, an incessant discussion on “Pandra August” (15 August) in Kalimpong ensued, eventually replacing texts with voice notes. In doing so, we were all taking a trip down memory lane.
A whole series of distant memories rose as each of us reminisced and shared our favourite tales. The anecdotes were not just memories, but there were topics of discussion about “rules, freedom, the society” and many more. But each of them I know for sure were remembered fondly without a hint of remorse. It was then when it struck chords on how special the day was for us and for all who grew up in Kalimpong. A Testimony—one day was and is still never enough to celebrate the day in this small hamlet. The day when our country broke free from the manacles of colonialism.
It was a day when even the darkest forces of nature could not stymie people from assembling at the Mela ground. Such was the vigour that many of them reached the venue even before the break of dawn. Never have we witnessed a dry pandra august as we are always showered with the uninvited guest, the rains! A motley of colourful umbrellas fills the otherwise empty bleachers. The vibrant image was disrupted as one went up-close. It then meant a constant struggle to hold the parasol to avoid getting drenched, watch the show while simultaneously ensuring that you don’t block the view for the person sitting behind you.
The only day when the otherwise congested Main Road was a traffic-free zone. People from Kalimpong as well as nearby areas thronged to the town in the best attire. For school students, wearing their uniform was a matter of pride and dignity. It was a day when students representing their respective schools put up the best march past performances, cultural programmes, drills and band displays. Dressed in crisp ironed white shirt, neat pleated skirt/pants and white socks it was a day that one could not let anything go amiss.
In between the exchanges, all of us recalled and laughed – “Why was wearing those white socks and polishing naughty boy shoes imperative?’’ As, by the time we reached the Mela Ground where the judges were seated, we were all smeared in layers of sludge! No one had a fitting reply because as luck had it, it always poured on independence day!
Such was the grandeur attached to the day, that practice sessions started months before the actual event date! It meant standing in the sun getting an overdose of Vitamin D and obviously getting tanned. A zero period used to be scheduled at the end of the day for students to perfect the art, trying to emulate the vigour and alacrity of the armed forces troop in the country. Besides the marching contingent, each school had its band playing the flute, percussions, and also the bagpiper led by a conductor. Shouting at the top of our lungs while marching to the beat of one’s own school band was a matter of utmost pride and no one shied away from it. During the practice sessions, many of us escaped from what we then thought was “torture”. But now when I see the old videos of 15th August in Kalimpong, my heart swells with pride.
Due to the significance of the celebration, umpteen photographers throng the town area, to capture the essence of what is considered to be the biggest annual celebration in the calendar.
However, back then we all were dependent on the sole local medium- the Hill Channel, which used to broadcast live episode. My grandmother, parents of participants who could not go to Mela Ground thanked Hill Channel for a live telecast.
My mama (maternal uncle) waited tirelessly and patiently, only to capture my cousin and I marching past the main road. In order to purchase photographs, we used to visit Bharat Studio and Kodak (even if it meant a minuscule image of ours marching). Then again, the wait for the exhaustion of entire camera negative films, and to be able to finally see the developed photographs were real, yet priceless!
Participating in the events and representing schools also meant emanating competition and favouritism within the family. That was the day when each developed profound feelings for their alma mater. In my family, mama supported SUMI, my female cousins and I rooted for St.Joseph’s Convent, the brothers St.Augustine’s School while my maiju (sister in law) and hajurama (grandmother) supported the deft and diligent performance put up by St. Philomena’s Girls School.
Taking part in the independence day celebrations also saw many students swooning as the speeches delivered by the chief guests seemed like an eternity. The final flourish to the long speeches came with the announcement of two more days of holiday. Indeed, a day did not suffice to get over the revelry.
Well, the pomp and splendour to the day and event was not only the performances at the Mela Ground but it was about how the town morphed into a colourful fair as we saw in Disney movies. Balloons flying high, the sound of the flutes, cotton candies, air bubbles and the festivity in the air is ineffable. The cars are adorned with festoons, the national flag fluttering outside shops and buildings and hordes of people literally brushing upon each other. It’s a day when the town witnesses the highest footfall with even stampede like situation. Be it young or old, visiting the town to just feel the fervour of the day was like a norm, not laid out anywhere. For the youth and school students, the day meant exercising freedom literally in the way they wanted to.
During our time, the supermarket used to be the go-to place, where there was no place to actually set one's foot. Queues outside restaurants were so long that just being able to grab an item on the menu meant having to wait for a few hours. For many, the waiting game played a spoiler to the elaborate plans made with friends over past several months.
However, in between our textual exchanges, we realized among the nine of us there was just a handful who got the permission to be part of the later revelry. So one of them shared, “March past sakera hami tah suru suru ghar” (After march past we straight went home).
In between this, one of my friends, Minakshi whose house was located on the Main Road right opposite the hub, added, “Imagine living in the main road and having to stay at home.” All of us had a hearty laugh. Her house was located strategically. From the front side, she caught the view of the frolics on the main road while from the hind performances in the mela ground was clearly visible. Minakshi, added, “I used to spend my entire day running back and forth between the two windows.”
Another friend, who resided in the town area said, “My mom, sister and I used to sit by the window and watch boys and girls in their finest attire heading to Deolo.”
Oh yes! We clearly remembered it as the day for young people to pursue their romantic quests, hopelessly hoping not to be discovered by the teachers from school or family members. I am told the tradition is still alive and Deolo today is just another option!
Those who went out after the march past had stories to share of being eve teased. When all us reflected—“I think the independence was more for boys and men.” Even for those girls who roamed around during the day, by evening, it meant reaching their respective dens within the deadline that was rendered. The evening used to be marked with recklessness as the biggest football matches were played.
As I remember, during the evenings (most of the years) the town used to be engulfed in fog, yet the football match went strong. One had to just assume which way the ball went around in the large ground, based on the shouts and cheers. Banging the school drums, to using coke bottles, waving the school flags and using varied technics of clapping, the cheers of the team supporters rent the air with music, unique to that day.
Bandana, who did not have any deadline imposed by her family, saw most parts of the celebration, quickly remarked with a voice note, “If SUMI won the football their song would be Dhambe Dhambee….”. Hearty laughter followed about the day.
Though there was no historic evidence to find out when this celebration became a gala, I am told this started since 1947. With every passing year, it has only gotten bigger and grander.
Parents of another friend also shared, “My mom said she and her friends used to go watch movie and return to Girls school hostel by 5. My dad shared that he and his friends used to stay back and watch football.” She also cheekily added, “They had more fun than we did”.
To each their own, it was a day in the year that we all looked forward to!
Also when we were young we used to keep on hearing how Delhi and Kalimpong were the two iconic places where 15th August was celebrated.
So when I started working as a trainee for one of leading newspapers in India, I was sent to cover 15th August celebration at the Red Fort in 2013, where our then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressed the gathering. There too, students and enthusiastic spectators were gathered for the celebrations, but you have to believe that the energy and fervour of 15th August in Kalimpong is truly unmatched!
Shradha Chettri is a journalist working for Times of India based in New Delhi. She was born and brought up in small village of Gitdabling, Kalimpong. She writes to make a living and tells stories about people, places, culture and all that matters.
Content Copyright ©Shradha Chettri / Photo Copyright © Praveen Chettri
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