The national flag can be seen as a promise by a nation to its people that every story of striving for a dignified life has a place in its narrative – even a story from the margins.
It was a particularly cold and windy morning yesterday, the kind that leaves you feeling like an icicle. But there they were on a busy crossing on the outskirts of Gurugram, waving the Indian tricolor in the hope that some motorist might want to buy one, big or small. This is something one has noticed in the last couple of years, that as Republic Day approaches, major thoroughfares become brisk locations for the flag-vending business.
As I rolled down the car window to ask the price of the flags, the woman cheerfully rattled off the rates – chhota bees rupay ka, bada assi ka aur sabse bada dhai sau ka (the small one costs Rs 20, the big one Rs 80 and the biggest one costs Rs 250). It was a straight answer to a simple query but her demeanour seemed to suggest that she was open to some haggling.
I did not bargain. I did not even buy a flag, being more interested in making sense of the entire business of buying and selling flags on the roadside. The woman did not mind. I parked my car on the side and spent some time talking to the 20-odd members of her extended family making a living selling flags for the time being. They were aware they had just one more day to boost their sales. January 26 was the sell-by date for the flags.
I was curious to know where they got their merchandise from, what would happen to the unsold inventory and whether they would make a decent sum on the occasion of this Republic Day. They did not offer any reply to my question but showed no inclination to end our conversation either. Originally nomads from Rajasthan, they had spent some time in Faridabad and had now come to Gurgaon to try their luck at these kind of temporary jobs at the crossing. They had even built their hut nearby. Selling flags was their very first job in this new location.
What was clear was their deferential outlook towards the tricolor. One youngster politely requested me to not photograph a flag planted in such a way that a small part of it was touching the ground. He told me, the flag is like god. It should be held aloft; no part of it should be touching the ground.
The grandmother of the family, who was sitting by a small fire, attempting to mind a bunch of boisterous children and trying to sell flags, was eager to sing old patriotic film songs for me, songs from a bygone age.
When I asked them why they were selling flags, the grandfather unhesitatingly said it was to celebrate India’s independence which had been won many years ago by Jawaharlal Nehru. Another voice piped up from behind – ‘Jab tak suraj chand rahega Indira tera naam rahega’. A passer-by who had stopped to warm his hands before the fire, commented that “for ‘these people’, Congress is forever associated with Indira Gandhi”. With an assurance that I would come back in the evening with some hot chai, I left. The kids raced after me – “get some toys too”. Not one of them had made me feel as if I owed it to them to buy a flag.
I walked around the immediate vicinity of the crossing taking pictures and musing about the basis on which the price of the flags must have been calculated. The people running the business would have taken into account the cost of material (synthetic), printing, stitching, the pole, assembling and distribution as well as the profit margin. The possible levels to which the price could be allowed to drop during bargaining would also have been factored in. Hidden somewhere in these calculations would have been their desired price – the price of a flag on January 25.
It seems straightforward enough, but that is not the only thought that comes to mind when we think of the national flag. The flag being sold is also a symbol of the nation. For more than 70 years, the tricolour has been the national flag of independent India. It has had its share of controversies but like most national flags, it is a symbol of the nation’s honour and self-respect.
There is still another way to look at it – the people who fought for the independence of our country paid a price to ensure that we breathe the air of freedom and live a life of dignity. In that sense, the national flag can also be seen as a promise by a nation to its people that every story of striving for a dignified life has a place in its narrative – even a story from the margins.
In the evening, I went back to meet the family armed with a packet of tea for them. Tea was made, after which one of the young women started preparing dinner. They were going to have chicken for dinner – that is, a broth made of the skin that is discarded when chickens are skinned. Some family members were still trying their luck at selling a flag or two to some car owner who might just stop. An entire family, ranging from kids to grandparents had dashed, or walked, in and out of traffic the entire day and yet their lives seemed to be nothing short of precarious.
I stood there on the crossing watching people drive up in motorcycles, pick-up trucks and luxury cars, all of them invariably negotiating a price for the flag, small or large, mounting it on their vehicle and driving away.
As I left, I wondered that although I had witnessed a simple transaction where passersby paid money and got a flag in return, the question is – who is really paying the price?