India’s major annual religious festival, Diwali, the Festival of Lights, consists, to the outsider’s ear, of little more than fierce explosions detonating at ten-second intervals for five October days and nights – and often much longer. How anyone could choose to live in an aural war zone – if only for five days – is odd to me. But then I’m probably not attuned to the religious significance of ear-splitting cracks and bangs.
Nor, as a child in England, did I ever really understand what Guy Fawkes Night was all about. Yet, there it was, another annual event: on 5th November every year, just as the first chilly mists are rolling in, British children burn effigies of a 17th-century anarchist who was stupid enough to try, along with unnamed accomplices, to blow up the Houses of Parliament – founding seat of what now passes for democracy worldwide. He failed, of course, (it was all a set-up anyway) and was burned at the stake. And ever since then, no one has been able to let his treasonous soul rest in peace.
This is a rare honour. I know of no other radical gifted with such a memorial. Christmas and Easter being the only other days of nationwide ‘religious’ ritual in the UK, the message is clear: democracy is as sacred as Jesus.
And why not? It is democracy, after all, that enables Jesus to live peacefully alongside Mohammed, Moses and Buddha in the country that invented suffrage for all (sort of).
Diwali and Bonfire Night
Not that we knew about any of that as kids. But much like Diwali, Bonfire Night, as it was also known, was an evening for loud explosions, Technicolor skies, and lots, but lots, of smoke. Somewhat like Halloween in the US, Guy Fawkes season was a time for children to assert both their creative and their entrepreneurial talents. As October ends, the grubby little charmers used to be out on the streets with their boy-sized rag dolls propped up in Dad’s old wheelbarrow, soliciting a “penny for the Guy.”
In India, where hawking is many poor youngsters’ survival gambit, none of this seems so astonishing. But for an eight-year-old middle-class English girl tutored to hold her fork in her left hand, asking for money from strangers was a rare adventure.
We did it in pairs. Dad being an artist, our Guy was more than just a newspaper-stuffed Oxfam sweater with a Pound Shop mask pinned to its collar: We rolled corrugated cardboard for arms, secured grocery boxes for head and torso, pulled old stuffed socks through box-flaps for ears and used the feet of Mum’s used nylons for hands. And we took paint and colour to its boxy-face and gave it pouting cheeks and eyes with prominent lashes and a great grinning mouth with a circle on its Picasso chin. Ours was a jolly, clown-like revolutionary, really looking forward to being dumped onto a blazing fire while the entire neighbourhood cheered.
Once constructed, our Guy would be balanced up against the front fence of the house and, not having wheels as some other kids’ Guys did, his job was to wait, albeit somewhat floppily. Children are good at that. When it comes to money, they know how to wait.
On the streets where I now stay in India, kids frequently approach me with flowers or guavas or hand-made paper thingies whose use I know not. So I know how good at waiting for money they are. They jive, they fool around, and though you squirm to escape them you can’t help admiring their determination. And, of course, you’re always aware of the difference: when I was a kid we did Penny-for-the-Guy five evenings a year. It was lollipop money. These kids do it every day. It’s their family’s livelihood.
I may be wrong but I know of no other country that commemorates with any pizzazz the demise of the bad guy (so that’s where ‘bad guy’ comes from!) Usually we celebrate the good guy – we celebrate his birth, we celebrate his death, embellishing both with miracles, naturally, to make it worth commemorating.
When I was a child, Guy Fawkes’ festivities were celebrated with full fun and games. There was wine and spaghetti for the adults and we kids ran wildly around the house and up and down outside with our uninhibited energy, because that’s what parties were for. They were concluded with heaps of roast chestnuts and sausages, a raging bonfire with potatoes in its coals, sparklers for the youngsters and a display of scintillating fireworks. The fireworks were its highlight…
They ranged from glowing roman candles that turn even the dowdiest back yard into Las Vegas for a second, to puffball rockets bursting above the skyline and little cone-shaped numbers that shoot evanescing comet-heads which fade somewhat like asteroids do in a TV trek across the galaxy.
It is sad that this home-made nature of the festival, with its many private parties, has been increasingly jeopardised by insane health and safety regulations, so that Guy Fawkes night has become an increasingly municipal affair, with big, commercialised extravaganzas on communal grounds that, though they are more inclusive, lack the old-style charm of intimate family gatherings.
But then perhaps Bonfire Night was Britain’s politically correct way of shouting out about itself to the world: “I may look dead, but I’m alive!” And maybe this is no longer as urgent. Unemotional, courteous, a nation of lukewarm-beer drinkers, the British would keep a stiff upper lip 364 days of the year so that on one night, in the name of democratic values, small children can express their backlog of politely repressed vindictiveness by burning an effigy of some Jacobean fall guy.
In much the same way, the benign smile on the mask of Hindu non-violence compacts Indian aggression into a 5-day rampage of explosions so horrendous they resemble Syrian bombs. And, strangely enough, at the same time of year, on All Hallow’s Eve (what is it about the autumn?), millions of American kids dress up as demons and ghosts, and threaten strangers into giving them treats.
What seems likely here is that every country needs its celebration of catharsis and intimidation. And could it be that the more celebrations, the fewer the actual wars? Britain, after all, has the least amount of wild celebrations and is notorious for having colonised half the world. While India has religious festivals at least once a month and hardly ever attacks anyone.
So what if every individual celebrated their violent underbelly daily in his or her own private way? Dynamic meditation, for example – Osho’s gift to anger management – combines rapid movement, silence and dance, and provides the perfect combination of catharsis and festivity. Then perhaps there’d be no exploding firecrackers to give the old folk heart attacks, blind the careless and terrify the dogs.
And maybe even no more wars!
This article was first published in a slightly different form in the Osho Times International