First published in October 2016

I picked up my camera bag by the handgrip, found one of its shoulder straps and hung it on one of my trapezius. The bag of a typical TV reporter is not a heavy one, but when the Sun is at the zenith, the heat wave is brushing through your body and when you are fighting your way out from the typical Indian crowd at the Delhi bus station, that’s when you start feeling the load on your shoulders. It certainly takes a lot of toil, not only on your body, but on your mind too. I was supposed to reach Kanpur by noon to cover a story of a man who eats tube lights! That was my job. However horrendous it seemed I had to cover it.

I boarded the bus and all I saw was every seat being occupied by elderly gentlemen. I rambled back and forth in the aisle only to find an empty seat right at the back. The whole upholstery was covered with bird droppings, and loose springs that came out from the end of the seat, and all that covered in dust as if no one had ever sat on it for ages. I gave it a nice once over with my handkerchief and made it viable to sit.

“Hello, are you a reporter sir?” The deep voice struck to my ears from the back while I was finding a way to recover from those bird feces. I wonder whether he saw the press pass or the identity card I carried on my neck. Perhaps the bulky bag of mine. I don’t know. I looked back and nodded with a smile. It was quite unusual. The voice was full of weariness but those eyes reflected pride. It appeared to me as if he wanted to say more. The question was just the ice breaker and I think he spoke on behalf of all those other old men who accompanied us in the bus. It was strange to see people of a certain age group wearing almost the same coloured attire. I was running out of thoughts and my curiosity had reached the top of a cliff.

“Are you with this group sir?” I asked, twirling my lips. He nodded with a big grin on his face. “Yes, I’m proud to say that I’m a part of this group, the revolution of which I was once a part, the blood we shed and the sacrifices we did.” I thought I had offended him. I tried to calm the situation and let him forget what happened in last few seconds. I asked, but this time in a tone of a curious child, “Sir, don’t mind me asking, but who are you all exactly?” He relaxed back and his expression spoke as if I was going to get disdained by his reply. But he still said with supreme nobility, “Freedom fighters sir, we are freedom fighters.” And the old man began.

when a reporter meets a freedom fighter

“It was 26th April 1944. The anger was boiling down. The kettle was already whistling to thrust the pressure out through the nozzle and the flag of freedom was raring to unfurl. The Quit India Movement hadn’t worked for our own good. We left our jobs from the community college during the movement. We didn’t think about our families. We had to feed our young ones and wives. The only thing that kept us going was the dream about the coming future we had. We would return back to our respective homes once the freedom was granted. We would feed our young ones the fruit of freedom, the seeds from our very own land which we would plough, ripen and cook without hosting our expensive labor for cheap sale. We loved the idea at that point of time and by god’s grace even now we do. It’s just that we didn’t know that after the freedom we would be forced to prove our patriotic association towards the nation. A long time ago we fought for independence and now as we have got it, the Government of India needs proof of that. They don’t believe us. Did you notice the old man with a turban when you entered? He has five sons who are now all grown up but they couldn’t get a job because the organization demands the certificate. They call it Freedom Fighter Certificate. No one remembers Kanpuria Kavi Sangh. For many of them we are now a laughing stock as they don’t believe how a group of poets could contribute to the struggle of independence. Had they been born before independence, they would have understood the value of freedom.

I still remember that day. Colonel Rupert McQueen used to occupy the chair. A gutsy and tempestuous man, but we were no less than a group of valiant soldiers. We knew that as poets we had the supreme power to influence people’s thought process. We used to publish poetry, short stories and other kind of literary works that would propel all bloods to join the freedom struggle. We used to write and they used to arrest us. They would beat us and when they felt tired they would let us go. It was a familiar routine for us and also for them. There was a situation when one of us asked them, “Try changing the wooden pole sir, it seems you got some cracks there. They are useless now.” Then suddenly the other one would say, “No, the poles are fine. I see cracks in the British Empire.” Then everyone would break into laughter. And that’s how we set the tone for beating and torture the whole night.

One day the Colonel himself paid a visit. He entered my cell, casually looked around and murmured, “What a waste of life and talent, you have a wife and dying father to look after.” I didn’t say a word. He came close to me and tried to look me eye to eye, but couldn’t keep the pace. “I’ll say this again and for the last time. Stop writing and stop testing our patience. What good does it do to you?” I smiled and said, “You should read what we write and you will get your answer.” He left in disgust and never returned. And we kept going on our rendezvous.

The old man stopped suddenly as if he was lost in the sands of time. I casually looked at his palms. They were cold and full of wrinkles. That made me wonder how much pain those hands must have gone through. Those were the hands of one of India’s greatest freedom fighter. It was history in front of me. I realized that for me he was a message from God. I suddenly asked him, “What happened to the Colonel?” He said, “Oh he, I don’t exactly know but some say he read one of my books and took his wife and daughters back to England. I wonder if he discovered our love for our motherland. He saw what others like him could not see. I realized only then what power a pen can possess and how dangerous a man with a pen is rather than a man with a sword in hand. A pen can not only influence but can convert thoughts of the reader if used wisely. I believe that’s why you became a journalist. You have a power that none possess. I want to make a request to you if you don’t mind.” I looked at the old man for quite a while and abruptly said to him, “Yeah, yeah it’s fine. Go right ahead.” He said in a soft voice, “Please use it wisely. If at all you feel compassion for us do write about us because the nation needs to know how even after getting independence there are some people like me who are still struggling.”

I said nothing to him. I turned back to where I was. I was then lost in my own thoughts and several questions popped up in my mind. At this moment I’d no answer to them. I stood up and told the conductor to stop the bus. The old man was surprised. I bid him good bye.

I didn’t go to Kanpur that day. I saw a whole lot of people waiting to hear the story to be told. A story about a group of obstinate people who with their true patriotic colours once painted the portrait of independence, but with time it got faded away and now it needs some coloration. They deserve respect. We’re in huge debt to them.

Word meanings:

  • Trapezius: either of two flat triangular muscles of the shoulder and upper back that are involved in moving the shoulders and arms
  • Aisle: passageway between seating areas as in an auditorium or passenger vehicle.
  • Tempestuous: characterized by violent emotions or behaviour.
When a reporter meets a freedom fighter
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