Come summer vacation time, and social media is full of people wearing bermudas grinning at us as they sip something lurid some place exotic. Vacation snaps are to social media what show-cases are to our drawing rooms- pictorial windows that give others a glimpse of the best parts of our life, spent lolling about in the beaches of Bali or the sidewalks of Rome.
Competitive holidaying is a bruising contact sport, and nothing makes us happier than making other people miserable about our happiness. Of course, holiday photographs make all happiness generic- it is impossible to distinguish one family or location from another. Everyone becomes the same person on holiday, or so it would seem.
In some cases, this particular property of holidays photographs can be quite revealing. Many traditional families on holiday present a completely different picture than what they do in normal everyday life. Traditional roles get relaxed, the clothes get way more daring, and sometimes, altogether different people emerge from under their everyday selves. People travel not merely to reach somewhere else, but to also become someone else. It is difficult to tell what is being enacted- the holiday persona or the person one pretends to be in regular life.
The idea of the holiday has begun to take on dimensions of a giant project. Every year needs to feel different, not just from previous years but from the holidays other people might be planning. The idea of a week or ten day long period packed with superlatives, makes the holiday less like a pause and more like an accelerated and anxious affirmation of enjoyment. We must have so much fun, and it must look like we are having so much fun. From the free welcome drink to a free day at the spa, every element in the holiday counts.
The holiday has evolved considerably over time. Growing up, it holidays had a rudimentary quality- they were meant to plug ourselves back to our roots, and recharge the connections that made us who we were. Every year, one headed to one’s hometown, after having reserved the train months in advance. Nothing much happened in one’s home town; indeed most home towns were designed to be that way, but it was still a wonderful time spent in the bosom of a bewilderingly large family. The holiday month ( or even two) started slowly, droned by for a while and then galloped alarmingly as it became time to go back to one’s primary life.
There were other kind of holidays that were permitted; the pilgrimage being the most legitimate. Families travelled together, carrying bundles of many kinds, and a lot of shouting in the name of organizing took place. Pilgrimage travel made the idea of budget holidays feel lavish, and between dharamshalas, dormitories and cramped houses of really obscure acquaintances, there was little scope to spend money. Occasionally, one could also go to a hill station to walk up and down mall road and get one’s photograph taken while wearing a ‘traditional hill costume’, clothes that no sane hill dweller of any description would be seen dead in.
Then there were the package tours, with an impossibly large number of destinations being crammed together to deliver a feeling of value for money. The South Indian temple tour was a staple, and as a child the idea of being lugged across from town to town to wade through enormous crowds to visit what at the time seemed like the same exact temple was hardly a treat. In retrospect, the worst tours were the ones where large families were packed into the Matador van, a vehicle designed as an orientation programme for Hell. A virtually windowless metal box, that disdained the idea of suspension, the Matador could take in an infinite number of people, simply by always being able to accommodate one extra person. Breathing was optional.
The Maruti changed holidays for good. This was a new luxury, this ability to jump into a car, which in turn darted on to the road and took us where we wished to go, led by the merest whisper of an intention. Our life began to have a radius; in our case up to ten hours in a day. The freedom that the Maruti brought was unparalleled; the idea of a zippy reliable, affordable car, made travel feel like an imperative.
It is only post liberalization and the relaxing of the foreign exchange norms that international travel began in any real sense. It began with a somewhat narrow focus on shopping and a particular kind of sub-culture popular in some specific streets of Bangkok. Flying to Thailand was cheaper than flying between Delhi and Chennai, and full use was made of this startling anomaly.
For those born after the 80s, it might be difficult to explain the lure of the foreign to the Indian mind. In Gujarat, for instance, newspaper ads were routinely taken out to welcome back someone from an international sojourn, or to bid them farewell. Massive groups would travel to Mumbai to see a departing relative off or to receive them. Among the three things that one asked astrologers, ‘the chance of foreign travel’ was bound to be one. The ability to go abroad for a holiday, just like that, thus strikes a very resonant chord.
The holiday serves many purposes. It detaches us from a life that seems to consume us with its rhythm. It allows families, separated by goals and technology to come together for a while. It allows us to live out our fantasies in a concentrated manner. It helps us find aspects to ourselves we didn’t know existed. It also helps us show the world how splendid our life is. It stints on its most basic ingredient, time, and fills up what little is retained by an overriding compulsion to have fun. The holiday of today makes us work at having fun, and we have the pictures to prove it.
(This is a slightly modified version of an article that has appeared previously in the Times of India.)
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