High on the Holiday Index

Shashi Tharoor

I write these words on a long weekend holiday for Parliament. Tuesday is Ram Navami, so the Speaker has obligingly given us Monday off.

But I do so with a twinge of guilt, because years ago, when serving at the United Nations, I had mischievously suggested that of all the various ways of measuring the relative underdevelopment of nations, from GNP tables to the Human Development Index, the best would be a Holiday Index. I think we would do pretty well on it, but that is 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 our government’s official list of holidays suggests we are also entitled to take more time off than any other country.

Indians contemplate a calendar that offers a choice of 44 official holidays for a variety of religious and secular occasions, ranging from Independence and Republic Days to Id-e-Milad, 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 Chathurthi. 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.

But, of course, the secular harvest festivals of Dussehra, Onam and Vaisakhi are celebrated, too. Deepavali, our festival of lights, may not be entirely secular, despite all the godless gambling it encourages, but Holi is just a Dionysian spring festival and Raksha Bandhan a non-denominational day of brotherhood: we can take them off, too. We flock in our millions to the Kumbh Mela and other religious gatherings; we overflow the maidans for our regular Ram-lilas in every little town.

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 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, lockouts and the like. Or the ‘unofficial holidays’ that are taken in every office around the country when there is a cricket match 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 for every issue and an epigram for every thought, pointed out, “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 youths spray coloured water on female strangers or the lakhs thronging 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 might suffer from so many absences, but part of the problem is we are not producing all that much anyway when we work, so that 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 melas are the holiday events of the poor. The rich have no shortage of opportunities to enjoy themselves by themselves, whereas the poor have few outlets and pleasures other than communal ones. For an Indian villager, a day at the local mela is his 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 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 do. Perhaps we should leave our holidays intact, after all.

The article was originally published in The Week.