1. Republic Day Parade in India
Actually, it was the full dress rehearsal for the Republic Day parade, but it was difficult to imagine the real thing to be much grander or more ceremoniously conducted. Security was fierce -- it was, after all, only a few months after a terrorist attack in Mumbai that in which hundreds died, but the supervision seemed ill-organized and full of holes. All observers, and there were tens of thousands, were to have tickets. Countless security forces, army, police, who knows what, shepherded people around. A great variety of tickets separated those with higher status who were allowed into grandstands while common observers took up street-level positions along Delhi’s grand boulevard, the Rajpath. A complex system of color codes indicated not only status but location along the route. We, of course, had no tickets of any sort, having only just heard about this celebration. One gracious officer told us we could go ahead though we lacked tickets. The next said we had to be gone, yet, that said, he ignored us as we proceeded. After some time, during what may have been our sixth or seventh conversation with the authorities, a friendly stranger offered us tickets that permitted us legitimate standing room among the crowds.
First came the regular military display: flyovers, tanks, and marching bands galore, including grandly mustachioed Rajasthani troops, drummers dressed in faux leopard skins, and others in flamboyant costumes such as massive bright turbans topped with even brighter starched fans, others with outsize batons to toss high in the air. One unit played band instruments from the backs of resentful-looking camels; others proceeded on grave elephants. There were several units of tartaned bagpipers. I recalled Malcolm Muggeridge’s line: “The last Englishman will be an Indian,” and wondered if he would be wearing kilts.
Then came floats from each of India’s provinces representing regional culture and economy. One group of tribal dancers succeeded another, each impossibly exotic even, I take it, to the Delhi-wallahs. From this outsider’s perspective, it was more Mardi Gras than Fourth of July. There were huge leering faces, the divinities difficult to distinguish from the heroes of history, tableaux in which half the figures were living, half were dummies. Even what one might reasonably have expected to be tiresome, the floats from bureaucratic government agencies, had their charm. On the float of the rural electrification commission, for instance, there were power lines ending in delighted couples in front of computer screens as though the first effect of peasants’ receiving electric power would be their purchase, not of an electric light, but of a Dell computer. There were no beauty queens but there were cars carrying the winners of the National Children’s Award for Bravery. The viewer could only imagine what they had done, but I have no doubt it was truly heroic.
2. Fiesta for San Juan Bautista
I hadn’t been sure we would make it to Puno, at 12,500 feet on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Demonstrations by farmers wishing to stop large-scale mining which they felt endangered their water supply had closed the roads and cut off the town in the previous week. But a short-term agreement to cease action until after the election had quieted the scene. One evening I followed the sound of pipes and drums to a small church outside of which the band played to a small group dressed some in suits and some in local costume. They tossed multi-colored confetti in the air and set off fireworks. As I stood outside the fence watching an elder man gestured to me to enter. It was the feast-day of John the Baptist. I had seen the church with his name across town on the other side of the square. Someone appeared from inside the church with a basket of ritual bread – I was given a piece. Fortunately no one asked me if I were a Catholic or even a Christian. Youths in tee-shirts and jeans played a dozen pipes while seven drums made up the rest of the band. Next thing I knew a religious image was thrown about my neck by a member of the local St. Anthony of Padua club. Then six men lifted the large wooden frame, and, holding the saint’s image, they set out for his church, music playing all the way, punctuated by occasional fireworks. We walked through the square, past the shattered windows of the Justice Department and the banks. Marching in the middle of the musicians, with the insistent pipes of all sizes, with the drums sounding somehow anxious for all their emphatic punch, one felt that the hearts of the devotees of St. John were beating in unison, even the heart of the interloper who just happened by.