Independence Day 2023: Seniors Share Memories Of August 1947

On 15 August 1947, when the stroke of midnight announced Indian independence, it was a bittersweet moment for the citizens of a nation newly freed from the colonial regime. For freedom had come at a steep cost and even as the country revelled in the joys of liberty and sovereignty that independence would bring, the scars of partition ran deep. Now, 76 years into Indian independence, as freedom comes to be celebrated and marked with great pomp, a generation which witnessed firsthand, the first footsteps of the nation into independence, describes the jubilant mood they experienced back in 1947. As they do so, they reflect on the past in a more sombre manner recounting how independence felt to them when they were but young adults and how marking the day with a sweet treat was the simplest of ways in which they celebrated this monumental moment. 

Image credit: Abu's Cookbook

"Celebration means different things for different people," says 86-year-old Gangadhar Phadke who recalls that in August 1947, he was at Ichalkaranji in Kolhapur and remembers stepping out into the wee hours of the morning to look at the flags being hoisted on the rooftops of all the houses, and lamps lighted in every household to mark Indian independence.

For Pushpa Soman, who was but a 12-years-old girl when India was freed from the British rule, "nothing really felt different, but there was an excitement in the air," she says. "We walked to school as usual and had classes," she recounts, as she reminisces in the memories of walking to school with her seven siblings in Belgaum. "In school, they gave us one pedha each and we went about the day as usual." Although what she does recall vividly is her teacher sharing the significance of this historic moment with her class of nearly 30 students before handing out this sweet treat made from milk and sugar.

Within Indian culture, marking an important moment with sweets is an age-old tradition. For the octogenarians and nonagenarians recalling their memories of Indian independence, there was a very simple and wholesome joy associated with savouring a pedha, a kaju kanda or a naral barfi distributed in school to mark this occasion. This simple joy was felt so profoundly because around them, while there was happiness and revelry, there was tension and crisis unfolding simultaneously. 

As Pune's 91-year-old Kalindi Londhe describes, "We were very sad because the nation had been split into two. There were protests everywhere but I do remember someone telling me that Camp was lighted with many lamps." Even though Kalindi's memories of the last few decades of her life might be fading, what she does remember distinctly is this significant moment, 76 years ago. "I was down with typhoid so I missed school," she says. But Independence had come at a time when the world was reeling from the effects of a war that had hardly left anyone untouched. Rationing persisted all around so Kalindi notes that this was hardly a time for big celebrations. "We had to wait in line for hours to get one kilo of sugar," she adds so although freedom was a big moment, there were few celebrations within households.

The octogenarian Madhav Kolhatkar shares a similar story. "We did not celebrate at home," he says, "but I do remember that all the students in my school were taken to the big ground where we hoisted the flag and everyone was given a kaju kand." As a 15-year-old growing up in Wai, a small town in Maharashtra's Satara district, he remembers that students from all different schools in the area were brought together to the ground and were handed out this pink, square-shaped sweet made from creamy cashews and sugar, seasoned with rose water. 

Independence for the young ones 76 years ago was celebrated with simplicity and festivities were carried out through the night. The elderly who witnessed it all unfold note that flags were being hoisted everywhere and everyone came out on to the streets and the rooftops to revel in this moment. 

However, this was also a time to mark the sacrifices made by the freedom fighters, the statesmen and the revolutionaries who had made significant contributions to the struggle for independence. Mihir Naik, whose 91-year-old grandmother bore witness to the freedom movement as it unfolded around her, says that while she has now forgotten most episodes of her life, what she does remember is the Swadeshi movement that persevered well into the 1940s. This meant that citizens would boycott western imports and for Mihir's grandmother and her group of friends, independence was the time to pay homage to the freedom fighters by giving up on one such object which signified colonial rule. "There was a thing going around where they had to give up one thing," says Mihir so his grandmother gave up tea.

Although the tradition of drinking tea in India can be traced to cultural exchanges with China, it was a practice popularised as much by the English who ruled over the country for over a century. Giving up tea signified honouring those who had fought in the freedom movement by symbolising that an oppressive regime had been defeated. "To this day, she hasn't had tea," he says.

As we venture into yet another year of marking a sovereign and free nationhood, the spirit of this national pride finds associations with food and culinary cultures embedded in the memories of the elderly who grew up alongside a newly independent country. Their memories of sharing a small pedha or a kaju katli or even giving up tea become testament to a time that was filled with the euphoria of independence but also with the recognition of the sacrifice and revolution that are indelible markers of the freedom struggle.