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© Neena Bhandari, The Hindu, March 26, 2006

ImageON a balmy Sydney afternoon in November, a phone call changed the way me and my family would henceforth celebrate January 26.

Throughout my growing up years, Republic Day held a special significance. We would spend long hours practising national songs on the flute as our school band marched through the streets of Ajmer into the main city stadium. There was a sense of immense pride in witnessing the tricolour unfurl as we played the national anthem. The bundi laddoo we received after all the fanfare was over, continues to be my favourite.

In the years that followed, we would watch the colourful ceremony on TV, in the comfort of the lounge, but we would always step out on to our Nizamuddin terrace to see the flypast — the sound of MIGs showering rose petals and forming amazing patterns in the sky was a sight to behold. The Delhi sky would then be adorned with thousands of saffron, green and white balloons. It felt really special to be an Indian.

Later, when we moved to London and then to Sydney, attending the Republic Day function at the foreign missions was always looked forward to.

Coming back to the call, the caller was asking if I was still on the line, saying he had some good news for me. "You have been nominated as the Commonwealth Games 2006 Queen's Baton relay runner". I was shocked and pleasantly surprised. I told him that I can't run and can only walk with the help of a calliper (I have poliomyelitis in my left leg). He said that it didn't matter as I would be the person carrying the baton into Hyde Park on Australia Day (January 26!) to Sydney's Lord Mayor Clover Moore and they were confident as a foreign correspondent I would be able to do a live interview with her on stage.

Well, here I was going to be on the other side of the fence — the one to be questioned before the local and world media. Apprehensive I was, but knew I could do it. Several subsequent phone calls and emails from various officials and organisers of the Queen's Baton Relay succeeded in convincing me that I could do it.

We returned from our holiday in India, just in time for the big day. It was hot and humid and pregnant clouds threatened to give way. I woke up early and sipped into the smart green and white runners' uniform, in my mind practising various permutations and combinations to the forthcoming Q&A. My son and husband were very supportive, assuring me that all would be fine, even as dark thoughts of tripping and falling with the baton, as thousands of people watched, numbed my senses.

Besides my immediate family, I only have friends in Australia and my husband and son would be on the stage and not by my side as I marched through the streets. We were among the 16 people chosen to become Australian citizens at a special ceremony to be followed soon after the baton relay at Hyde Park. Manoeuvring our way through road closures, my husband succeeded in dropping me at the Conservatorium of Music gate, where some 20 baton relay runners were to meet at 10 a.m. Once there, the reality sunk in as I joined hands with some of Australia's leading athletes. They were friendly and warm.

Nervous moments

We boarded the shuttle bus that was to drop us at different points from where we would carry the baton on the next lap; I was beginning to feel the excitement. As our bus snaked its way through Sydney CBD, deafening sounds of "Aussie, Aussie Aussie, oi, oi, oi" from the crowds waving Australian flags greeted us. On Elizabeth Street - King Street corner, it was my turn to alight. A big cheer and high fives from the other baton runners really lifted my nervous spirits.

As I stood, wiping my brow dotting with sweat every now and then, strangers came and congratulated me, posed with me to click pictures and then came the sounds of siren and four policemen on motorbikes. One of them stopped just next to me and shook hands. Probably he could sense the nervousness in that handshake. He tried to make me laugh, which I did until in the distance I saw 20-kilometre walker Jane Saville (She was Australia's flag-bearer at the 2006 Games Opening ceremony) with the baton, bodyguards running beside and behind her and a van of 22 world photographers just metres ahead of her, clicking in frenzy.

My turn was only seconds away. As she handed the baton, she said, "I am puffing. It's heavy." There is only a faint memory henceforth as the adrenalin pumped in. I remember people shouting "Well done," "Keep it up" and clicking pictures and waving. Before I realised it, I was standing next to the Lord Mayor with the baton in one hand and the microphone in the other, answering her questions to this huge crowd that had come to celebrate Australia Day in the true Aussie spirit at Hyde Park.

I recall saying: "It has been an overwhelming experience. The crowds have been absolutely amazing and it's the people that make Australia such a special country. Here I would like to thank the organisers for their continued encouragement and support that has made me a part of this very special occasion. Having lived in Commonwealth countries (India, the U.K. and Australia) all my life, I can appreciate the importance and significance of this moment."

When she also asked me what the feeling was like, becoming an Australian citizen, I said, "Relinquishing the citizenship of the country of one's birth is always emotionally a very difficult decision to make. Recently, when India offered dual citizenship, we decided to call Australia home. We have been here for over five years and now want to play a proactive and more meaningful role in shaping the future of this country."

And then the Master of Ceremonies, Nick Hardcastle asked, "How will you spend the rest of Australia Day?" "We'll probably savour it over a barbecue and a Bollywood film." In the confusion and excitement of the morning, the three of us at home had suddenly managed to come up with the catchy line media is always looking for.

Moving on

All over within minutes, I was back on the run all the way to Elizabeth Street-Park Street corner to pass the baton to the next runner, a surf lifesaver, David Locke. I remember people coming to congratulate and journalists wanting to have a word, but Bernadette Wallace from the Premier's Department quickly whisked me away to a tent behind the stage, where I had precisely nine minutes to drape a sari and join my family on stage to receive the citizenship.

Chance had brought us to Australia in 2000 and today we were going to call it home. January 26 had become even more important in our lives — linking the past to the future.

Neena Bhandari was also one of the journalists on The Ghan train, accompanying the baton from Alice Springs to Darwin.

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