During growing up years, Republic Day was always confined to schools, local clubs or residents association meetings. There was nothing around to remind me of the significance of the day otherwise.
In Delhi, it was hard to miss the day approaching with tightened security and traffic diversions along with roadside vendors selling all kinds of paraphernalia in tricolor. This is the place where you can wear patriotism on your sleeves without being frowned upon.
It was only Doordarshan that took us to Rajpath on January 26 every year when I was home, in faraway Kerala. I wished to see it live and didn't want to miss the chance when I'm in Delhi. Armed with a pass issued through an Air Force officer, I headed for Rajpath at 7am.
Since Udyog Bhavan metro station was inaccessible, I decided to get down at Race Course station and walk to Rajpath. Didn't opt for cab because of traffic restrictions. I was worried if I would lose way but the crowd led me.
Security checkpoints all along ensured that we were guided right. After almost an hour-long walk, I reached somewhere near and could see a huge queue on a barricaded footpath near Vigyan Bhavan. People were trying to jump the barricade and security personnel were sweating it out. After some 10 minutes of jostling in the queue, we realized it wasn't moving for some reason no one knew.
By then, security men gave up and let people jump the barricade. People were pushing and elbowing me around while rushing to jump over or pass through under the barricade. I didn't want to do it but had to struggle hard to be on my feet amid the maddening crowd.
Finally when I made my way to the entry point, what welcomed me was a security barricade. Men in uniform told us the point has been closed and asked us to go via Akbar Road. We had no option. I saw those who jumped the barricades walk inside the area that was now prohibited for people who waited in the queue!
The Akbar Road entrance was too narrow (via controller of accounts office) to take the crowd. Metal detectors were almost pulled down and a near-stampede situation prevailed. I dreaded getting crippled under the feet of the crowd!
I went through the security check though I am clueless how the personnel on duty would have caught a terrorist among them! It was their luck too that none made his/her way inside with weapons. Room for a thorough check was nil though the advisories issued earlier warned against even carrying gadgets. People went in with whatever they carried!
There was a further tortuous walk before reaching 14, the enclosure number in my pass, which included wriggling through couple of barricades. The only other option was to get crushed by the hurrying crowd. By then it was almost 9am. I was relieved that my pass said "be at your seats by 9.15".
Finally the big board of 14 welcomed me. I rushed towards it to see a huge crowd shouting "Bharat Mata ki Jai", rather angrily. It took some moments for me to realize that the entrance was closed as it was "full" though my pass, issued by name, clearly said it was non-transferable.
I felt miserable. I thought of returning but didn't want to give up. I approached an IPS officer on duty who told me that number 14 was full and I could try any of the nearby enclosures that are open.
Along with a group turned away from 14, I approached the next enclosure that was open. I could see men and women in uniform from the armed forces, some with their family, being pushed around with us.
Seats were all occupied inside the enclosure but to climb on for a clearer view! After a considerable fight, I managed to find space to stand on a gallery. I was relieved that I could see the procession though from a distance.
The sky was heavily overcast and I was exhausted. I was wondering why I didn't choose to watch it on TV, as always. I also wondered what brought people from Jharkhand, West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Haryana, Manipur and Maharashtra in the few square meters of space around me. I heard them exchange pleasantries while helping each other to climb on to the chair or take a photo and exulting when their state was mentioned in the announcement.
Then the Prime Minister and chief guest went by, national anthem was played, cannon shots boomed, military and civilian floats went past, martyrs were remembered, men, women and children in uniform marched by, helicopters waving tricolor lit up the sky, Tejas thundered into hearts... All accompanied by patriotic slogans. I looked around and realized nothing else mattered to them but India.