Year in, Year out
Posted on 1-January-2007
It is long since I went to a New Year party. Except in one year as a first time ambassador when I used some of my frais de representation for the purpose, salving my conscience by picking up greeting cards printed by the United Nations' Children's Emergency Fund, I have not been in the habit of sending out annual greeting cards wishing people a merry Christmas and a happy New Year or extending to them the more irreligious season's greetings. I have told myself it is better to save the money and use it for some other, not necessarily 'charitable', purpose. I have now gotten used to the idea of ringing out the old year and ringing in the new in the privacy of my immediate family. Not joining in any of the revelries of the day, I indulge my taste for curmudgeonly brooding, for there is pleasure in doing that too.
It is a strange thing, this concept of time; or, more than a concept, it is a reality with an independent existence outside our minds. Philosophers, poets, novelists and physicists have pondered over its nature, meaning and effect. Einstein told us that it is a dimension in addition to the three dimensions of space we are all familiar and comfortable with. Fiction writers and popularisers of science conjured up the vision of people travelling back and forth in time and created images of living persons going back to past dates before the birth of their grandfathers--something I have never felt comfortable with, preferring the more homely possibility of being able to converse with the ghosts of my ancestors, as in a delightful Marcello Mastroianni film I saw years ago. Mercifully, another idea, that of the arrow of time, is as firmly entrenched in physics as the notion that time is the fourth dimension of space-time--physical objects move on the axis of time in only one direction, which is forward, and much as many of us might like to, we cannot with the turn of a knob on a time machine, put back together a broken glass or china vase or recreate our ancestors from the cinders to which we have reduced them or be present at the birth of our grandfather.
Time and tide wait for none is one among scores of adages strewn across different cultures, underlining the fundamental human understanding that time is a continuum. It simply cannot be broken into discrete units. Yet people have devised markers on the unbroken axis of time. Of these, possibly the oldest--maybe part of our inheritance from our pre-human evolutionary past--is the period between two sunrises. Observation and deduction have made us aware of the period between two full moons and the periods between equinoxes and solstices and of the period of one circumambulation of the earth round the Sun. Other derived markers, such as solar months, weeks, hours, minutes and seconds became over centuries both habit and practical necessity. Modern physics has added other 'natural' markers such as atomic frequencies and Planck time and their many practical applications. In this festive season, when it is not unusual for people to count their blessings, I have no hesitation in expressing my gratitude to I know not whom or what for the blessing that the many 'natural' or invented markers of time are. For, life in eternity, promised by many religions as the highest reward for those who obey God's commands and regularly glorify and thank Him, could be a bore even in the company of seventy-two virgins or of Indra's apsaras. Life on this earth, punctuated by seasons, the phases of the moon, storms and rain, the tic-toc of the clock and the passing of years, dealing with man, beast and insect, is much more interesting. And I, like most other ordinary folk, want my time served up not as a continuum but broken into pieces.
How big pieces? In December 1999, when men and women the world over were agog about the advent of a new millennium--never mind the quibblers who asked if the year 2001 rather than 2000 should not mark the beginning of the new millennium--a newspaper asked me and many others to write, for printing in the paper, my hopes and wishes for the future at the beginning of the new millennium. Forced though I was thus to consider the long future on that occasion, I could not form a wish for the whole millennium and saw that I would not be able to do so even if I was Methuselah. I could not even form a wish for the whole new century which was about to begin even though I knew that the life span of many in our times was much longer than the biblical three score and ten. The most I could think of was five or ten years ahead and ended up writing my wishes only for the next year. A few years later I received an invitation from some people to a luncheon to mark so many thousand days of the wedding of their parents. That was obviously in jest and my host was delighted that I had taken the time to work out the date, month and year of the wedding. But partly out of habit and partly due to the scale of their perceptions, people are comfortable counting their age in years, that of the Great Pyramids in centuries, their working time in hours and weeks and their salaries in months.
Thus the longest practical unit of time in most people's lives is one year and since the solar year more or less synchronises with the seasons, a very large number measure time in solar years in one form or the other. It is not surprising for the turn of the year to become an occasion. There is no reason why a new year cannot be said to start on any of the three hundred sixty-five and one quarter days of the year just as there is no reason why we cannot celebrate every day as the beginning of a new year except that we shall soon tire of the celebrations. Different societies count the beginning of the year on different days. In India alone I know of a Saka lunar new year, a Saka solar new year, a Vikrama new year,Tamil, Bengali, Punjabi, Malayali and Andhra new years and a Muslim/Arab lunar new year, each celebrated with greater or smaller gusto. Some people usher in the Hindu new year that begins on the day after Diwali with all-night gambling, believing that if Dame Fortune smiled on them that night, she would continue doing so the whole of the ensuing year. The most notable of all the new year days all over the world including India, the first day of January, is ushered in with general merry making in the hope perhaps that the rest of the year may also be equally full of mirth and joy. Vain hopes, maybe, but the merry making is what matters, especially on a cold mid-winter night, or on a warm midsummer night in the southern hemisphere.
Even though the year beginning on 1st January has been called Christian, its beginning commemorates no event in the life of Jesus of Nazareth who was born on 25th December, not 2006 years ago but probably six years before then. The year that used to begin on 25th March, the day when Archangel Gabriel is said to have announced to Mary that she was pregnant, in all her immaculateness, with the seed of God the Father was much more Christian. This present new year, harking back as it does to Julius Caesar, is pagan. For that reason the modern fashion of calling the Christian Era the Common Era is not inappropriate. Nor is it inappropriate to celebrate the beginning of the year of that Era in the most pagan manner possible: eating, drinking, dancing and prancing about, complete with dunce's caps and other fripperies.
Let the cavorting and the singing go on lest cultural policemen who inveigh against young people in India rejoicing and exchanging gifts, cards, flowers or lovers' vows on St. Valentine's day also take to denouncing New Year partying "for inciting good people to drunkenness, gluttony, gaming and other licentious behaviour". May the tribe of such spoilsports decline and vanish in the coming year. I also wish this year to be less sad and mad and happier than the one just gone by--a wish that can be repeated year after year without losing its point.