The negative hysteria that surrounds Hindu festivals has certainly amplified in recent times.
On the blissful morning of Holi that just recently passed us, I woke up, quite expectedly, to a torrent of WhatsApp messages and Facebook posts wishing me a “Happy and safe Holi.” I was aware that it would be unfair of me to expect originality in the way those messages were articulated in this age of quick ‘forwards’, and yet I found myself to be perturbed by one aspect – to be precise by a single word – that was common to a lion’s share of the festive wishes that I had received. In the present state of affairs pertaining to the economic model that our country has adopted, a holiday – whether it is due to a religious occasion or a secular one – brings us some welcome relief in the midst of our usual hectic schedules (after all, not all of us in the academia can afford to have anadhyayanamperiods, thanks to Thomas Babington Macaulay and his foresight). In many cases, holidays offer little more than that small but much-needed window for the seeker of knowledge to think, to reflect and make sense of the myriad happenings and ideas that inundate their modern lives. And so, I decided that I would invest my time in musing over the uses and misuses of language in the context of wishing ourselves on our Hindu festivals, and the potentially terrible effects thereof. Innocence may bear insidious designs within itself, and linguistic machinations are, in my opinion, the most lethal of them all; because they appear to be the most innocuous. It was time, I thought, to take those innocent-looking wishes with a pinch of salt and think them over. What follows is an account of that cerebral exercise conducted on that auspicious day which was a holiday on account of being a Holi-day.
Happy, okay; even though I have often – friends and well-wishers say obsessively – failed to understand why my fellow Bengali-speaking friends/relatives/colleagues would abhor our common native tongue and use English beyond the space where we are forced to use it. The Anglo-Saxon tongue is neither necessary nor sufficient when it comes to talking about contexts which are essentially Indian, such as Holi, or any other Hindu festival for that matter. But I do forgive them actually, with the attitude of a loving and agreeable elder brother. I have a English-medium going sibling, after all.
But then, the next adjective is where I paused, and paused for a duration longer than usual this time. I have done some ‘professional’ reading up on intellectually-attractive-sounding-and-yet-usually-skirted hot subjects like colonisation, epistemic violence and cultural appropriation. Hence I am compelled, almost by instinct, to scratch the surface of words which otherwise appear innocent. I also happen to have a knack for spotting such occasions where a single community or group of people is being singled out from among a larger collection of communities/groups, each of whom are equally susceptible to criticism on similar grounds, or at least, exposed to harsh/unfair censure. But then again, who isn’t vulnerable to chastisement, especially if the chastiser is hell-bent on unleashing harsh words that may end up essentializing the whole community/group or one of their practices, reducing it to a mere stereotypical caricature of the real thing?
I find it a mischievous, even menacing suggestion when someone wishes me a “happy and safe” Holi/Diwali. Have you ever heard anybody wishing someone a “Happy and safe” Muharram/Eid/Christmas/Halloween? Yet, each of those Muslim/Christian festivals can be potentially injurious to health, and in some rare cases, lethal. I mean, what if a person falls sick as a result of watching all those self-flagellating individuals or the blood flowing down the roads? What if an unsuspecting, weak-hearted fellow like myself is startled to death (I am thinking about cardiac arrests) when a Halloween-er donning a ghastly costume and larking in darkness appears out of nowhere?
Point is: Are only Hindu festivals meant to be singled out and marked ‘dangerous’, which is why you are obliged to append an ostensibly caring “have a safe time/be safe” kind of cautionary disclaimer? This is just another form of virtue-signalling by non-Hindus. I feel like letting my beloved fellow non-Hindus know, in the most politest manner, that you are being condescending towards me – every single time you utter those loaded words which are not meant to become clichés, ever: “Have a happy and safe Holi/Diwali/Durga Pujo”. I am even ready to give them some leeway of unwittingly taking up such a obnoxiously paternalistic tone. We Hindus aren’t infants after all; we have been around for some time, you know – like at least a few millennia. We have been philosophising life and the world, grappling with the most profound questions of human existence, practicing surgery and metallurgy way before your ancestors even learned how to drape themselves properly and avoid all the embarrassment.
And to my dear fellow Hindus, I have these final words of free Hindu wisdom for the day: For the love of Krishna, prithee, do not fall for the parental attitude that others knowingly or unknowingly take up towards us; to start with, don’t start copying that same expression for wishing each other. Safety is an attitude that must be adopted and inculcated into the lives of one and all, while driving, trekking, eating, drinking, making love, even while dreaming – as the best-selling self-help volumes will suggest. But do not ask me to be safe every time I am about to revel in my millennia-old festivals which celebrate life and are like no other. At least we don’t indulge in self-flagellation or wholesale butchery of livestock. We worship fire to the extent that it lights up the dark corners of our homes and our minds. We use colours to erase the grey creases of time and space. And if you must use that expression, then do ask others following way more dangerous and destructive means to ‘celebrate’ their religion and identity. Do not use it only on the days of Hindu festivals to awaken your supposedly unwitting Hindu neighbour. Stop it. Or better, don’t wish me on my festivals at all. Give me some laddoos instead, which are mute anyway. That will do.