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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Camels, Indians and Australians

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Image Source Indian & Aus flags
It's Australia Day, and, I've no doubt, will be celebrated in typical Australian style one way or the other, regardless of some dire weather forecasts for the day.

  What many in Oz may not realise is that it's also one of India's special days, a day which in many ways compares with Australia Day here.

  It's Indian Republic Day, though it's easy to get things confused, because Indian Independence Day is 15 August, the anniversary of independence for both India and Pakistan in 1947. But unlike the trauma of that event, Republic Day is a much more joyful occasion.

  So it was that on Friday, 26 January 1973, I was in New Delhi. I'd had a leisurely breakfast at Vishwa Yuvak Kendra, the International Youth Hostel in the suburb of Chanakyapuri.

  In those days, Delhi still retained some of the charms of a large village rather than the frantic urgency of a modern westernised city. In 1973, it still had the scent of the smoke at dusk from, and aroma of, countless domestic cooking fires outside the small dwellings scattered round the city.

  I noticed that there seemed more activity than usual that morning. A lot of people were headed in one direction, towards the centre of the city.

  'What's going on?' I asked the grey-haired gentlemanly waiter who always brought us breakfast.

  We always had a joke as he would rush fresh-cooked steaming chapatis to our table. Some mornings I would have a boiled egg for breakfast.

  'Ek egg?' he would ask, and we'd smile at the pun on the two words, because 'ek', meaning 'one' in Hindi, sounds almost identical with 'egg'.

  'Ache ache,' I'd respond, clutching my head.

  We'd laugh. It was a weak joke, but it was ours.

  He had a little hut just across the way from the hostel. I'd see him walking to it sometimes, after work, in his neat uniform; a tall, slim proud man, his back straight as a die. His wife and children would greet him, and he'd sometimes sit cross-legged on the charpoy beside the front door as a friend would drop by.

  'The parade,' he said. 'That's where all those people are going. They're walking to Janpath.'

  'Why not walk with the crowd?' I thought. Good exercise. It's a fair distance.

  It turned out to be an interesting walk at a smart pace, just tagging along with a group of men and women in traditional Punjabi dress. They were smiling, inclusive, happy.

  For one thing, we didn't necessarily go along roads; we went through wire fences, little alleys, private (in theory!) backyards, over low brick walls, down tiny lanes between dwellings... places you'd never go without people who had an idea where they wanted to end up.

  Janpath it was. People took up vantage points and the parade started.

  I wish I had pictures of it, but they are on slides, unscanned, and I don't have time or coordination to fiddle with them any more. You'll just have to take my word for the colour and spectacle, but I will mention just one thing.

  The Camel Corps. If you've never seen military or racing camels, then you won't truly appreciate what magnificent beasts they are, and the spectacle they added to the parade. Tall top-bred Dromedaries, they were as proud and fierce-looking as the men mounted on them. Clipped neatly and perfectly all over, they had the shape of sleek, elegant greyhounds with slightly pyramidal backs. They were trotting along at a perfectly uniform lively gait.

Source Camel Corps
  That was my enduring memory of the Republic Day parade of 1973, with all its pomp and splendour as it moved towards Rajgat.

  Expect the unexpected when you go to India. I've been reminded of that many times over the past forty years. Never imagine you've seen it all.

  We'll share our day, India. I won't even mention the cricket!


  1. Those camels look magnificent and it does seem ironic that we share not only the cricket with India. I enjoy such national holidays only if they enhance the business of people coming together not if they divide. They tend to do a bit of both.

    1. Sadly, yesterday's Oz Day was anything but about people coming together, in the positive sense. When events like the Cronulla 2005 incidents and yesterday's happen, I just want to shut it all out. In a country like this one, we have the best chance in the world to be all-inclusive. We should make the best of it.

  2. That looks and sounds amazing. I've had a fascination with India since forever, and in my travels I never got there... One day I would love to.
    This also makes me realise I've never seen a person riding a camel "live" - only on TV. I guess it is a pretty amazing sight.

    1. India is indeed fascinating - the whole subcontinent, in fact, including Bangladesh and Pakistan. My first university lecturing appointment was to teach Indian history, but people like Julie and Michael have travelled round its nooks and crannies far more than I have. I've yet to steal some of Julie's writing on their present trip for this blog.

      Jackie - the Indian Army Camel Corps as in the parade is now purely for show, and is a regular infantry battalion these days, but they are more than just men on camels when dressed up like this. Imagine how the Turks being routed by an Indian camel charge in 1915 at Suez would have felt! If you saw these guys in full dress clobber you couldn't but be impressed. I sure was.

  3. Apologies to India and any Indians who may be offended by my careless wording. If I thought any less about the nation I wouldn't be going there any chance I get!


    1. Hi Julie. I didn't mean for you to beat yourself up - right now you might have quite a few Indians agreeing with you! I just marvel sometimes at the way the tiniest of errors can lead either to victory or defeat. Andy Murray may look back at last night's Oz Open tennis match and say, 'There! One half inch higher for that shot and the match was mine....'

    2. I understand! And the headline in today's
      Times Sport' is "Shameful!" I think it was the fairly unrelenting adverse scores that have been the problem. Anyway, any excuse to beat myself up, as you well know:)

    3. Hah! No-one is quicker to decide to beat herself up with less reason than you, Julie! Anyway, I think the Englishmen have taken the heat off the Indians with their 72 runs against Pakistan yesterday. Schadenfreude from Oz after all those digs in the past couple of years about Pommie wins, but we have had a few spectacular failures as well, and not all that long ago!


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