"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Diwali, Rosh Hashanah, FY 13, January 1st–My New Years

One of my most lasting memories is that of Benares (Varanasi) during Diwali, an important Hindu festival celebrating many things, one of which is the new year – a time to reflect on the old but look forward to the coming prosperity of the new. The festival starts with Dhanteras on which most Indian business communities begin their financial year; and the third day of Diwali, marks the worship of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.

It is also the Festival of Lights, and each year pilgrims to the holy city float thousands of small clay lamps onto the Ganges.  The city receives pilgrims all year ‘round, for Varanasi is one of the seven holiest sites in Hinduism, but during Diwali it is transformed.  The devotion is even more visible, perhaps because of all the lights floating on the river, or on balconies, ledges, and walls, but because of the rituals, ablutions, prayers, and ceremonies taking place along the ghats from early morning till evening.  I would rent a country dugout at first light and travel slowly up the river watching the pilgrims make their way down the steps to bathe in the river. 


There are nearly 100 ghats along the Ganges in Varanasi – Ganga Mahal, Scindia, Tulsi, Raj, Mana Mandir to name just a few.  Some are small and modest, others temples to wealth and influence. 

I always think first of Diwali when I think of New Year’s.  The often forced revelry of an American New Year’s has never appealed to me, and our celebrations have always been quiet ones with especially good food and friends.  American New Year’s is more a retrospective of the past year’s most notable events – killings, elections, storms, political upheavals, economic cliffs and downfalls – than a time for serious reflection.  Resolutions are made as easily as popping a party favor, and as quickly discarded.  New Year’s day is the only real quiet day of the year – nothing is open, few people want to go pub crawling or drinking, and most are just plain tuckered out after too late hours and too much to drink.

Diwali on the other hand always gave me pause.  I went there every year during my five year residence in India, and each year I happily and willingly became part of the crowds, the alms-givers, the pilgrims, and the lights.  It was a time for spiritual reflection and possibly renewal.  I have never been a religious person, but Varanasi, imbued with devotion and spiritual expression, was as close as I have ever come to letting myself slip into belief.  I even toyed with the idea of studying philosophy at Benares University.

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is close to this idea of reflection and resolve:

In Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah marks the anniversary of the creation of the world as described in the Torah. It is also the day on which God inscribes the fate of each person in the "Book of Life" or the "Book of Death," determining both if they will have a good or bad year and whether we will live or die.  Rosh Hashanah also marks the beginning of a ten-day period on the Jewish calendar that focuses on repentance or teshuvah (About.com).

My wife always half-jokingly says that her new year begins on October 1st, the beginning of the new fiscal year.  That marker has, she says, practical meaning – a time to put the affairs of the old year in order and to start the new one with a clean slate.  I was never sure why the chronological and fiscal years did not coincide; but perhaps it is better to keep personal and financial issues separate.  For years as a government contractor, I dealt more in FY’s than January 1sts, and was very aware of project fiscal cliffs.  It was very important in my incessantly bottom-line business to meet spending targets and to come out even.  Fiscal years were a part of business, however, and I never attached any more importance to them as did my wife.

Most people of a certain age don’t even bother to make New Year’s Resolutions – too great a chance that they won’t live till the end of the year.  Young people, still happily in the ‘whatever’ or ‘fuck it’ period don’t bother either – they just look forward to another year of exploration, adventure, and romance.  Everybody in between makes some kind of resolution.  It is never to late to start dieting again, or to quit smoking, or to get more exercise.  “I will spend more time with my family” is not only the classic Washington excuse for resigning from one job to take a better one; but also the perennial sop to unhappy spouses and children.  There is never even a scintilla of conviction when a Type A workaholic lobbyist says or thinks these words.  Yet, the vast middle – middle-class, middle-age, middle-brow – will continue to feel that life has not yet excluded them totally from the American dream; that anything is possible in this great country of ours; that hope springs eternal; and that the grass is definitely green wherever you look.

I am an amalgamation of all of this.  I still have a ‘fuck it’ attitude, come what may, let life bring it on; but it is looking a bit shopworn these days compared to what it was a few years ago when every new year meant new countries, new adventures, new loves, new and unexpected happenings.  I still have that middle-level optimism, and have taken on new challenges – modest to be sure, but challenges nonetheless.  I hope to finally be able to speak intelligently about all of Shakespeare’s works, direct a Tennessee Williams play in his birthplace, continue to learn and write, teach new and difficult courses.  I also have that alter kocker resignation that this year might be my last, so might as well check the date off the calendar and try not to be “Too soon old and too late schmart” .

One thing of which I am particularly aware in my Golden Years is how time has accelerated. How could that be possible?  How could one day run into another without my noticing it? New Year’s.  What, another already?

I have the usual parent’s modest hopes for my children – that they may be happy, productive, healthy, and fulfilled.  I pay no attention to their still-youthful hopes (“2013 will be my best year yet”).  I am too much a seasoned realist to think that any year will be much different from the one preceding it.  All ups and downs, satisfaction and disappointment, obstacles and free running.

And I am too much of a Stoic to wish anyone a Happy New Year, so Good New Year to all!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your post i was looking for some examples of similarities and differences between the two festivals for some homework and you really helped me. :-) thank you!


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