(Published in Business Standard on November 2, 2013)
It’s that time of year again when we Delhiites excitedly prepare for colder weather, an uptick in the number of social events we commit to being late to, and rich cultural traditions such as Navratra, Dussehra, and, Halloween. Ah, Halloween. That Celtic pagan tradition of Samhain that Indian kids have looked forward to for generations going back at least three years.
Ha ha, fooled you! Halloween is not a traditional Indian festival.
Ha ha, fooled you again! Go stroll around in the markets, we’re obviously all pretending that it is. You can’t throw a pea without hitting a kid in a witchy costume asking for candy—not that you’d want to miss. The great thing about globalisation, and when I say ‘great’ I mean ‘maybe great and maybe not’, is the cultural fast food that you might call McTraditions, tagline “If you can buy the merchandise, you can have the festival.”
I’m not against shallow, rootless celebration, by the way. If there can be a Diwali puja in the White House, why shouldn’t we celebrate Halloween in Delhi? And when I say ‘celebrate’ I mean ‘buy a lot of themed stuff’. You’re going to say that the White House celebrates Diwali because it’s a representative democracy with a large number of influential Indian immigrants. By the same token, we’re a representative democracy with a large number of people who like to find ways of making money, and a large number who like to find ways to spend it. And frankly, we atheists are shallow, rootless celebrators most of the time anyway, so who am I to judge? So what if your brain does cartwheels when it sees Delhi beggars in Santa Claus hats on December 25, or Bombay heart-shaped paans on Feb 14 or Bangalore awash in tiny sorcerers and fairies looking for a sugar rush? No, I’m all for it.
It’s just that the new sanitised trick-or-treating version of Halloween is not scary. The real thing began as the seriously hair-raising idea that on All Hallow’s Eve the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest, and that spirits roam the earth. People would put out food and offerings for their departed loved ones and friends, and give alms to the poor in exchange for prayers for their dead. The idea that some of these spirits are malevolent eventually made a debut, and people wore costumes so that these evil spirits would not recognise them. All through, young women tried to figure out when they would get married, and people tried to read the future.
I don’t know if they therefore saw that, as it its wont, a very large institution would get into the act and put it about that pagan celebrations are just not cool. This institution also disapproves of the Harry Potter books, which is odd because it is itself headed by an old man in a big pointy hat with a cloak. The point is, this institution tweaked Halloween to take out the really creepy stuff and make it more about entertainment. Enter the age of little kids knocking on people’s doors and demanding candy. Not scary.
The new thing in America is trunk-or-treating, which is about getting a bunch of wobbly tots together in a parking lot and making them just take the candy out of the trunk of a car, already, and then let’s go home. It’s apparently much safer than having them walk around dealing with traffic. Evocative, huh?
Nah, I don’t see the point of Halloween as it is now. If you really need something to scare the living crap out of you, all you have to do is read the newspapers.