Every Republic Day brings back memories of another day, another time. I was entering my teens when I arrived in Delhi for the first time to participate in the 1978 Republic day parade as an NCC cadet. My memories are fading but still alive. I remember having to get up at 5 am every morning in the biting cold, get my shirt starched and buckles shining: parade practise was at 7 am sharp. We were staying in makeshift tents, often eight of us packed into a single tent. It wasn't easy: I think I skipped bathing for an entire month since we didn't have hot water facilities! And we got rajma chawal almost every night for dinner.
It was the year of the Janata party: Indira Gandhi had just been defeated in the historic 1977 elections a year earlier. Morarji Desai was prime minister and Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy the president who took the salute. The parade itself was a blur: I wasn't a great marcher, I had made it to the Maharashtra squad only because of my quizzing skills. General knowledge competitions were part of the R day training for us in the NCC air wing. And yet, it was a proud moment for all of us young boys and girls, a chance to join in the celebrations of one of the great occasions in this country.
I wouldn't say I enjoyed the month in Delhi: I was ragged by senior cadets, the early morning walk to an open toilet in the field haunted me, and the food just wasn't what a South Mumbai boy was used to. And yet, by the end, the spirit of the occasion stayed with me and the tough environment hardened the soft edges of my early metropolitan years. I guess I grew up a bit in that month, meeting fellow cadets from different corners of the country, even learning how to wash and dry my clothes. I came away with a sense of pride at being part of this uniquely diverse country and an event like no other.
Maybe at the time I cribbed a bit about the cold and having to endure hardships. But then, I visited Siachen once and realised just what being a soldier means: in sub-freezing temperatures, the men in uniform stand vigil every night. I spent a month in a Republic day camp, they spend long summers and winters in frighteningly difficult conditions. Today, is a good day to salute their spirit. They stay awake all night so we can sleep blissfully under our blankets. They are the sentinels of our Republic, we the people owe them a huge debt. Jai Hind!