‘Hello, this is Vande Mataram’

Those of you who follow current affairs in India will doubtless have heard that a recent pronouncement by the big nobs in the Maharashtra Government has declared that, henceforth all telephone calls to government offices or officials will be greeted by a cheery Vande Mataram, presumably spoken and not sung. In other words, it’s goodbye to hello. Or as The Beatles so presciently and harmoniously put it all those years ago, Hello, Goodbye. This edict will need to be strictly followed by all government and quasi-government officials. In due course, it is hoped the habit will spread to all sections of the society in that state. While I have yet to read the small print in the form of an official circular, if there be one, presumably it would have been written in Marathi for starters, a language I am not familiar with, then translated into Hindi, thence to English, by which time the trial run of greeting all and sundry in the corridors of Government establishments in Maharashtra with a Vande Mataram, will have run its course. Or run out of gas, with any luck. This is not unlike forcibly thrusting the National Anthem down our throats in cinema halls at the start or at the end of watching three hours of Ben-Hur or Gone with the Wind. Doesn’t quite gel, if you get my meaning. Thankfully, wiser counsel prevailed, the courts took a dim view of it and we are now spared the ignominy of watching people rushing to the exits to get to the loos first, while the anthem is just about gathering up a nice head of steam.

Loosely translated, Vande Mataram means ‘salutations to the motherland.’ Written by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay in 1875, it is officially designated the national song of India, not to be confused with India’s national anthem which, of course, is Rabindranath Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana. One should be mindful of how one employs those two terms – anthem and song. Why we need to have a national anthem as well as a national song is beyond all understanding. There was much heated debate in our media on the subject, but as with so many such controversies, it all came to nought and we are back to the comfortable status quo. What is more, Vande Mataram has so many musical variants that its real personality gets obfuscated. From the 1952 Anand Math film version, based on Bankim Chandra’s story of the same name, down to A.R.Rahman’s latter-day, much-loved rendition (Maa tujhe salaam), the song has gone through several gears – lyrically and musically. What is more, in south India over the decades, Carnatic musicians have rendered in a garland of ragas (ragamalika), the Devi shloka ‘Vande Mataram Ambikaam Bhagavatim,’ an essential part of a Carnatic music concert repertoire.

That said, the thought of tinkering around with two anthems is not without precedent. When the great British mystic poet, William Blake wrote his rousingly patriotic poem Jerusalem in 1804, little did he know that it would be set to music a century later and dubbed Britain’s national song, as opposed to their anthem God Save the Queen / King. Musically, Jerusalem is more melodic and rousing than the preferred anthem, but these are matters for the denizens of Great Britain to mull over. Even now, Britishers constantly debate if Jerusalem would make for a better choice as their anthem. As we in India usually tend to follow our erstwhile masters in many respects, it was refreshing to see the present dispensation in Delhi take the road less travelled and replace the hymn Abide with Me with Kavi Pradeep’s seminal poem, Aye mere watan ke logon (immortalised by Lata Mangeshkar) at our Republic Day parade. This has not gone down very well with the many who go misty-eyed and nostalgic for all things past. That Mahatma Gandhi too was reportedly extremely fond of Abide with me only added to the contentious confusion.

For myself, I love the movingly composed Biblical hymn. We sang it often during chapel service in school, but I can see where the government is coming from. We are making moves, whenever an opportunity presents itself, to divest ourselves of long-time symbols of colonial subjugation. Thankfully, this patriotic logic has not been extended to great monuments and the like (Ye Gods!), though replacing British royalty with Indian stalwarts on existing plinths and canopies is perfectly acceptable. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in place of King George V at India Gate was widely welcomed, and the current political masters in New Delhi milked it for all it’s worth. However, being a contrarian fellow, I would hate to see the magnificent statue of Queen Victoria sitting on the throne at the entrance to the grand Victoria Memorial Hall in Calcutta, being replaced by someone like, say, Ashoka the Great. Not that I have anything against the great Mauryan Emperor. It is simply an artistic genuflection, nothing to do with patriotism. Meanwhile, cities and street names all over the country are constantly renamed such that the Post Master General is tearing his hair out trying to keep abreast.

While on the subject of British relics, there is an interesting, and somewhat saucy, footnote pertaining to the Queen’s recent funeral ceremonies. On television many Indian viewers were pleasantly taken aback when they were shown a group of British children reciting, most proficiently, a well-known Sanskrit vedic shloka from the Upanishads. It was wrongly assumed this was performed specially as part of the dedication obsequies for the late Queen Elizabeth II. Now here comes the twist. It turns out that the video, which dates back to 2009, showed the children reciting the shloka at the Commonwealth Games, The Queen’s Baton Relay 2010, which was held on 29 October 2009 at Buckingham Palace, London. Whether this was stated upfront by those responsible for the telecast or not is unclear. To give the organisers of the funeral telecast the benefit of the doubt, they probably meant well and most of us were impressed with the recitation.

Little wonder that some states in India like Karnataka have arranged to have their own state anthem in the local language, in this case Kannada. There has been much argy-bargy over this issue and I am not sure if a final decision on the matter has been taken. Depending on the length of these anthems, the start of an international cricket match, say between India and Sri Lanka in Bangalore could be a long-drawn affair. The Indian team will have to mouth the national anthem and keep their eyes closed during the Kannada anthem, since the players will not know the lyrics or the tune, followed by the Sri Lankan anthem which, I happen to know, goes on forever. The toss will, literally and metaphorically, go for a toss.

To get back to the raison d’etre of this piece, it would be fascinating to speculate on what prompted the Government of Maharashtra to come up with this knee-jerk decision to disband the familiar ‘hello’ salutation with part of the first line of our national song, not to be confused with the anthem. One assumes the Chief Minister and his colleagues have more pressing issues on their plate, including the vexed question of which of the two warring factions of the Shiv Sena has the right to take legal possession of their brand name and symbol. The courts are still chewing the cud over that matter.

There must be so many other everyday problems to be tackled by the ruling coalition in Maharashtra. The problematic question of which faction of the Shiv Sena can address their multitudes at the legendary Shivaji Park in Mumbai during the Dussehra celebrations has been settled by the courts, and they have many more issues to fight over. Yet with all these distractions, out of nowhere the Chief Minister walks into his morning meeting with his cabinet and declares, ‘From this moment on, we stop using anglicized words like “hello” to greet one another. It is going to be Vande Mataram. Got it? Please pass this message down the line to every single government servant. Thank you. Vande Mataram.’ Caused quite a shindig, did CM Shinde. All that would have, naturally, been said in Marathi. I take it that ‘thank you’ will pass muster for the time being till an acceptable vernacular alternative can be agreed upon. I shudder to think what would happen if this initiative from Mumbai’s Mantralaya becomes a national movement! Tamil Nadu’s Vanakkam some of us are already familiar with, though not enforced officially and Bengal could have the time of their lives and go the whole hog with Nomoshkar.

This naming and nomenclature sickness, not to speak of language politics, always on the boil, has reached endemic proportions in our country. It keeps happening in dribs and drabs but, like the proverbial canary in a coal mine, could presage a major linguistic fracas in the making – a Tower of Babel we can well do without in polyglot India.

Published by sureshsubrahmanyan

A long time advertising professional, now retired, and taken up writing as a hobby. Deeply interested in music of various genres, notably Carnatic and 60's and 70's pop/rock. An avid tennis and cricket fan. Voracious reader of British humour and satire. P.G. Wodehouse a perennial favourite.

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    1. I am not from India but I understand Namaste means ‘Greetings’ so I would agree it makes no sense.

      However, I have anagrammed ‘Namaste’ and get for example ‘Me Satan’. Perhaps some bureaucrat anagrammed the word and thought some people may get the wrong end of the stick.

      On the other hand ‘avatar madmen’ is an anagram of ‘Vande Mataram’ so I think they should have checked first before making such a rash decision.

      If the civil (or as I like to say, uncivil) servants are informed of this perhaps they might change their minds.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Our politicos are smart. They realize that they have no real solution to such problems as global warming, poverty, hunger, unemployment and the like. They need issues on the front burner which can be resolved within the time frame of the next elections coming up, thereby enbaling them to thump their chests and show some work. Of course, this is not to say that no work gets done. But the advertising blitz keeps showing us many times the real work. In addition, they have enough time on their hands to do PR and keep us engaged with non-issues such as the ones mentioned by you.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Globally, it beats me as to why denizens of so-called democracies keep voting for leaders with dictatorial ambitions and of a far right disposition. De-globalization appears to be the flavour of our times.


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