May 11, 1997
Of all the various ways of measuring the relative under-development of nations, from GNP tables to the Human Development Index, the one that I would like to see is the Holiday Index. I think we’d do pretty well on it, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Festivals and melas define our need for escape, and I sometimes suspect that India has more of them than any other country. A look at the Government of India’s official list of holidays also suggests that we are somehow entitled to take more time off than any other country in the world.
Indians contemplate a calendar that offers a choice of 44 official holidays for a variety of religious and secular occasions, ranging from Independence Day and Republic Day to Id-e-Millad, the birthday of Prophet Mohammed. The birthdays of Guru Gobind Singh, Guru Ravidas, Maharishi Valmiki and Mahatma Gandhi are also legitimate excuses to have a day off, as are the ascensions of Buddha, Christ and Mahavira of the Jains.
Going a step further, we have the Hindu festivals of Mahashivaratri and Ganesh Chaturthi, in honour of the gods Shiva and Ganesh respectively. Throw in the Parsi New Year and the Shia Muharram, and you can see how secularism has deferred to religion, to the benefit of the indolent of all faiths.
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And when it comes to holidays, who needs an occasion? Add to all these official tamashas the 104 weekend days, annual leave, casual leave, compassionate leave and sick leave, and it is perfectly possible for a government employee to work for just one-third of the days on the calendar and legitimately collect a full year’s salary. And I have not even counted days lost due to strikes, hartals, bandhs, lockouts, and the like. Or the `unofficial holidays’ that are taken in every office around the country when there’s a cricket Test match or a one-day international on television, and people report to work in body but focus their minds, and as far as possible their eyes, on the distant pitch.
Shakespeare, who had a thought on every issue and an epigram for every thought, pointed out that “If all the year were playing holidays/To sport would be as tedious as to work” (Henry IV, Part I, Act I, Scene II, for pedantic readers). But he hadn’t met the Indian holiday-maker: our capacity for celebration is truly undimmed by repetition. Had old William seen the enthusiasm with which our young men spray coloured water on female strangers, or the lakhs who throng our melas from Pushkar to Prayag, he would undoubtedly have agreed that age cannot wither, nor custom stale, the infinite variety of our holidays.
So India, I suspect, would ride high on the Holiday Index. I wonder how Bangladesh or Burkina Faso would fare. My wholly unscientific theory is that the poorer the country, the more holidays it gives itself, and the more festivals it conducts.
Productivity may suffer from so many absences, but part of the problem is that we are not into producing all that much anyway when we work, so we don’t lose all that much when we don’t.
But is it that we are poor because we have so many holidays, or that we have so many holidays because we are poor?
Festivals and meals — mass gatherings of the many united around a common event — are the holiday events of the poor. The rich have no shortage of opportunities to enjoy themselves by themselves, but the poor have few outlets and pleasures other than communal ones. For an Indian villager, a day at the local mela is the opera ticket, tennis tourney and beach vacation rolled into one — and in celebrating it he experiences some of the happiness that Thomas Jefferson told rich Americans it was the duty of the government to allow him to pursue.
So, poor countries — or at least countries with poor people — need more holidays and public festivals to give people the chance to amuse themselves than the rich ones. Perhaps, we should leave our holidays intact, after all.
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