West Bengal’s list of holidays is growing longer. The latest addition to it is the birth anniversary of Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, on the occasion of which most schools in the state declared a holiday. Bengalis, with their pride of intellect and their deep faith in the virtues of idleness, have a penchant for holidays. This love for a holiday in the middle of work may initially suggest that the Bengali has not really grown up, but it is more likely to conjure up images of adult males luxuriating in the idea of a day ‘legitimately’ stolen from work, a satisfying lunch at home, a snooze in the afternoon and adda in the evening. Paradoxically though, many of the holidays Bengal enjoys are dedicated to the remembrance of people who probably thought, even if they did not articulate it, that work was worship. Some of them may have been happy to know that they were being remembered with fanfare — garlands, deafening music, speeches, or the whole package that stands in for respect in this state — but all would probably have been embarrassed, even angry, to find that this remembrance was being enacted briefly by a few on a holiday for all, a break from work that those remembered would consider morally, intellectually and economically damaging.
No doubt Bengal’s citizens today would find such thoughts profound and pointless. But the lengthening list of holidays raises some other questions. What is the hierarchy of greatness according to which holidays are declared? There must be one, else why should it take so long for Vidyasagar to join the category of specially remembered ones? This leads to a second concern. The means of publicizing respect in Bengal is clearly the holiday. Would that mean, then, that those greats who have no holidays on their anniversaries do not deserve respect, and Bengal can happily forget them? Bengal is very proud of its great past; it is bristling with great poets, political leaders and martyrs, writers, artists, reformers, actors. So if Bengalis are not to forget them, should they not all be remembered for a whole day on their birthdays by people enjoying home-cooked lunches and snoozes in the afternoon? That would be best, because then Bengalis would have very few working days left in the year. It would be a veritable heaven on earth, even if not quite the one that Bengal’s great figures dreamt of and worked for.