Daybreak was several hours away when Vihaan Chandy entered this world on October 2, 2000. It was 1.30 am to be precise, but his mother wanted his name to be a Sanskrit word for ‘dawn’. The father, however, was keen on Mohandas — which would have established a firm link between his firstborn and the Father of the Nation. This didn’t go down well with the mother, who stood her ground on Vihaan. The father relented and Mohandas was relegated to the trivia section of the Gurugram-based Chandy family.
Two decades later, Mohandas still hasn’t left Vihaan completely. He resurfaces every time the Chandys discuss the doctor at the hospital who delayed Vihaan’s birth from October 1 to October 2. He swings by each time someone asks the parents if political leanings played a role in “planning” the “arrival” of the baby on “the auspicious day”.
“Some of my father’s friends still call me Mohandas,” Vihaan, a second-year student of Bhubaneswar’s Xavier School of Sustainability, says. They even tease the father, a senior journalist, for having a son on Gandhi Jayanti, which is a dry day in India. But the ‘no-alcohol’ tag doesn’t bother the college student, who is still five years away from the legal drinking age in Haryana.
As a schoolkid, he didn’t always like the ‘national holiday’ part.
“I never went to school on my birthday, unlike other kids in the class. I was always home, spending time with family and a few friends from the neighbourhood,” he says. “When I was in junior school, I dragged my mother to the market to buy chocolates for distributing among classmates, but I could never do this on my birthday. It was always a day before or after,” he adds. A few years later, he started enjoying the fact that he would never have an exam on his birthday: “No matter what, I knew that I will be free on the day...”
The deadly novel coronavirus has changed that part, too. Online classes keep Vihaan busy through the day and that’s how he will celebrate his 20th today — “my first working birthday...” he says.
Also born on October 2, Aroma Bhattacharya’s “first working birthday” — at the age of 23 in 2002 — was spent answering calls at the housing finance company in Kolkata she had joined that year. “I had never celebrated a birthday without my parents and younger sister, but because I had started earning, I wanted to have a meal at a Park Street restaurant that year,” she recalls. Bhattacharya also wanted a celebratory alcoholic drink — a wish that remained unfulfilled. The penny dropped when the liveried waitstaff said, “Sorry, madam, aajke (today) dry day.” The disappointed birthday girl ordered soft drinks instead, and hasn’t, till date, stepped out for a birthday dinner on Gandhi Jayanti again.
October 2, however, is not just MK Gandhi’s birthday. Pavitra Satish, a Std XII student based in Bengaluru, is quick to point out that she also shares her birthday with Lal Bahadur Shastri, India’s second prime minister (PM). “Everyone talks about only Gandhi’s birthday. We should also talk about Shastri,” she says. A member of the school choir, Pavitra grew up singing hymns at special assemblies held to observe Gandhi’s birth anniversary. Even there, she recalls, little was said about the former PM who led the country during the 1965 war with Pakistan.
Pavitra’s interest in history — one of the subjects she chose to pursue in high school — has made her read more about Gandhi and other political leaders of the world. More information has also raised questions in her mind about the hallowed terms in which history textbooks package Gandhi. “He was an important figure but he had many flaws,” she says, “and we should talk about those too — especially his views on women.” Given a chance, Pavitra would like to learn more about Sarojini Naidu and Aruna Asaf Ali. And dedicate space in the books to someone like Alan Turing, the 20th-century British mathematician and code breaker who was condemned and tortured for being a homosexual.
Delhi-based Riya Mehta, who turns 12 today, is a fan of Mother Teresa. When asked if she also likes Gandhi, she encapsulates what she hears in the school assembly on October 1 every year: “He did a lot for our country. He also died for our country.” Her father Sandeep, an assistant professor at Delhi’s Dyal Singh College, says that he crosses Gyarah Murti (a landmark that commemorates the Dandi march) every morning. “We are not Gandhians, but I bow my head every time I see the statues. It happens automatically, out of respect for Gandhiji’s contribution to the freedom movement,” he adds. Young Riya, however, is not in favour of a national holiday on October 2 — she wants to go to school, spend the day with her friends and favourite teachers, and come back home to a birthday cake, and hot and crispy chicken popcorn from her favourite fast food chain.