For Children

Ariana McGinn

The Flag

Ninth through Twelfth Grade Prose Winner

When India was a whole country, before Pakistan was created, everyone lived together. The Muslims and the Hindus stood side-by-side and fought against the British.

At the age of twelve, my grandfather stood among a crowd of Indian protesters in a riot. The people crowded around three or four British soldiers and screamed, rage controlling their every action.

What angered them was not, of course, simply one thing. It was the fact that they were controlled by a foreign regime, the fact that they had no freedom. But in the moment, what had sparked this wild, reckless anger was a small action.

A British soldier had taken down an Indian flag and replaced it with a British one. The people in the riot, perhaps realizing the precariousness of their situation, decided not to attack the soldier. Instead they began making their way to the flagpole. A grown man, the leader of the crowd, was looking desperately for a way to rip down the British flag. His eyes scanned the crowd and stopped on my grandfather.

He was young and small. He looked quick and light on his feet. Surely, he could climb up the flagpole. Within seconds, the crowd began chanting my grandfather’s name. “Ram!” “Ram!” “Ram!”

A sense of pride ran through my grandfather’s small, lanky body. This was his duty to his country; how could he have seen the consequences? How could he have known that he was going to be arrested and beaten mercilessly?

He did what was right. He put two hands on the flagpole and pushed himself up. The crowd cheered as he climbed slowly.

The soldiers, blocked by the protesters, couldn’t make their way towards the flagpole to stop him. In that split second, India seemed immortal, and my grandfather felt invincible.

Ripping the oppressive red and blue flag from its place, he held it above his head and threw it in the air. By then, the soldiers had made progress and were approaching the scene. A man in the crowd quickly folded the Indian flag into a ball and tossed it towards my grandfather.

You could practically hear triumphant music playing in the background as he fastened the Indian flag back into its rightful place, the protesters cheering and clapping. But in a moment, it was all over. He slid down the pole directly into the claws of the red-coated tyrants. In a few minutes, the flag he had risked everything for was taken down and my grandfather, the twelve-year-old, was arrested.

Unfair as it is, the consequences of that day are the only things that remain. Sixty years later, the scars on his backs still look fresh and ugly, a constant reminder of what happened when he took that risk.

I have heard this story many times. Growing up, I heard different accounts from my mother and her sisters. My grandfather didn’t talk about it much.

About two summers ago, my grandparents came to the U.S. The last time they were here was six years earlier. We usually came to India to visit them because it was hard for my grandparents to sit in a plane for a long time.

They stayed in our house for six weeks. They had a strict routine: get up at 5 AM, exercise, eat breakfast, read, eat lunch, nap, have teatime, go for a walk, and then eat dinner. As a result, the majority of their day was spent eating and talking slowly.

After a while, their routine became tiresome to me. I could not eat four, long, drawn out meals every day. They spent every meal not only eating the food, but also talking about the food they ate, which was simply torturous for me.

My mother let me skip some of the meals. I went out with my friends instead. But leaving them made me feel bad. I promised myself that every day I would come back at 6:30 PM each day and go for a walk with them.

My grandmother’s arthritis flared up one evening as we set out for our daily walk through Riverside Park, so she decided to stay home. My mother and father were both working, and my sister was at a ballet class.

My grandfather and I began walking slowly through the park. He talked about the importance of eating bananas, how it can help with depression, blood sugar, and overall happiness. He talked about the beauty of nature and how the sunset was the most magical natural occurrence in this world. As we approached the walkway by the Hudson River, he placed two hands on the railing. The sun, hiding behind a skyscraper gave the sky a tint of orange. I always dreaded this moment. He put his hands together and bowed his bald head towards the water.

He began chanting the Gayatri Mantra, the sun chant. I shifted uncomfortably, moving away from him. I placed my hands together nonchalantly, trying to prove to him that I was praying. At the same time, I was trying to put on the appearance to everyone else that I wasn’t praying; perhaps they would think I was just fidgeting with my hands.

After it was done, we kept walking. I told him about an internship I did earlier in the summer, shadowing a heart surgeon. I told him how I got to watch surgeries and touch a human heart. “That is so amazing,” he said, beaming, “You have accomplished so much at such a young age!”

I smiled and kept talking about the internship. As I babbled on, I realized that what he had just said felt very strange to me. Because looking at my life, I really hadn’t accomplished much. I was growing up in New York City on the Upper West Side. I had never taken a stand, stood up or said anything that might have caused an uproar. No matter how far I managed to succeed in my life, the fact would still remain that I probably wouldn’t have gotten there without the help of my parents or their connections. The only reason I got that internship was because my dad is a doctor, and he asked his friend for a favor. I didn’t earn it.

But my grandfather had done it all. He was self-reliant, made his own money, and gave an amazing life to his three daughters, and as a result, to me.

I looked at my grandfather as he started to talk about nature again, slowly beginning to appreciate who he was. He was the man who, against all odds growing up in a third-world country, was an ardent feminist. He was the man who, during his arranged marriage with my grandmother, refused to “rename” the bride, because he thought it was ridiculous and sexist. He was the man who insisted that my mother go to America for graduate school, rather than get married and stay home like her other friends did. He was the man who founded a school for the blind and the physically disabled, and spent every day working there. In his free time, he decided to build “sparrow sanctuaries” around Bombay because he heard that sparrows were dying off from the effects of pollution. He is the man who, no matter how many times I decline, will offer me a banana because he still thinks it’s the solution to my happiness.

I’m not sure if I am only viewing his life from a granddaughter’s perspective. I’m sure he has flaws, and I’m sure he’s not just the good, inspiring, old man I have come to know and love. I’m sure he’s not perfect. But when I imagine the twelve-year-old version of my grandfather climbing up that flagpole, the ground shaking, the crowd going crazy, chanting his name, I can’t help but think that he just might be.