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December 2003 - January 2004
Festival & Remembrance
by Aline Dobbie
Today as I write this article I cannot but think of all those who have fallen in conflict, it is after all Armistice Day. Annually here in Britain we honour the Fallen of two world wars and countless other conflicts that have taken place in the last century and sadly now, in this century. Yet a couple of weeks ago Diwali was the cause for celebration and a feeling of renewal; the festival of light has now become so widely recognised that even the White House wanted to be seen to be participating. That is wonderful really in that it demonstrates to the world that India's Hindu culture has reached the four corners of the globe and that Diwali is worthy of everyone's recognition.
Out of the two annual rituals Diwali came into my conscience first as a tiny child in Monghyr in India's state of Bihar. Now Bihar has shed its southern areas to the new state of Jharkand. In my childhood Diwali was pure delight with houses completely lit up by the candles in little clay pots. Last year whilst we were in Delhi we were able to go through this timeless ritual at Tikli Bottom, when staying with our good friends the Howards. On a calm evening as the light faded into dark, the birds started to roost the sky had a few stars and we looked for the New Moon of Diwali. Graham and Martin were busy lighting the little oil lamps but a slight breeze mischievously blew them out and the men would start patiently again! Perhaps this year Martin used a more modern form of light. Yet when the darkness came we stood at the doorway to Tikli with Martin and Annie and the grandchildren of the housekeeper and waited for the goddess Lakshmi to enter in. I realised that I had not had the good fortune to celebrate Diwali in India for exactly 40 years - it was so good to be back.
However material and brash and glitzy it becomes the Festival should be kept alive in one's heart as a chance for a new beginning, hope, family togetherness, kindness to one and all. For me of course those could be the adjectives to describe Christmas, which is another universal celebration, but to us Christians should be a time for spiritual commitment and joy in the symbol of new life. This year we will have the good fortune to celebrate Christmas in India in Goa; now that will be truly something special I am confident.
But for the hundreds of thousands, indeed millions who have died in war they never had the opportunity again to rejoice in Christmas or celebrate Diwali. Their annual ritual is to be a name or a face in the period of Remembrance. A strange thought for me is that circumstances conspired that a sombre reflective ritual should be sandwiched between two that increasingly grow in fantasy and flash. We are told that though the survivors of the First War are so very old now and few and far between, and even the Second War's veterans are in their last decades, that as a people we are still very conscious of the great debt we owe them all. Young people appear to have a great respect for the War Dead, possibly because television brings home the ugly truth right into one's sitting room courtesy of documentaries and fiction. This is a good thing obviously but how sad and odd it has been that it took so long for the West to recognise the supreme sacrifice made by so many from the East.
Being a soldier's daughter it was always there in the back of my mind once I grew old enough to be taught about these things. However, when I studied history at school the Great War as it was called was still not yet on the GCE syllabus. Modern History had not yet become a recognised subject, so for our generation of' baby boomers' there was a huge gap between the zenith of the British imperial empire of 1911 and the 1950s and 1960s. One only learnt about it through personal research unless of course undertaking a history or politics degree. Yet two cataclysmic events so shook the world and changed the paths of huge nations.
By the end of the First World War 1,100,000 people from British India - now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh - had served overseas, at a cost of 60,000 dead. Some 9,200 such soldiers won decorations, including 11 VCs. In the Second World War the Indian Army had two and a half million men, the largest volunteer army the world has ever seen. And 87,000 died for us. There have been 20 different conflicts since the Second World War in which people have paid the ultimate sacrifice, just as has happened in Iraq this year.
It was such a good thing that last Remembrance Season The Memorial Gates in Hyde Park to the Commonwealth War Dead were dedicated by HM The Queen to give us all a lasting tangible reminder of that huge sacrifice. This project was the brainchild of Baroness Shrila Flather who made it a five-year project to raise funds for this monument and committed herself to the huge task of raising the funds. Now this year we have seen HM The Queen unveiling the Memorial to all the Australian Forces who died. Both were so long overdue.
Diwali this year for us was a quiet affair but no less enjoyable. Having been inspired by last year's experience in India I bought some tea lights and lit a path of them in our porch to shine into the night. It was a cold Scottish night but the wind was absent and the little lights shone like beacons past my bedtime. We had the opportunity to eat mithai and reminisce. Now the shops are filling up with all things Christmassy and some trees and street decorations are already up and twinkling away and people are beginning to think of shopping and hospitality and family gatherings. I think it is rather sad really; it all starts too early because it allows commerce to exploit the sentiment and ritual. By the time the day arrives huge numbers of people will be depressed, exhausted and burnt out. Hopefully the nation's children will still enjoy it in their innocence, but I doubt that lasts above the age of five years these days. The spiritual content of Christmas appears to be receding yearly and indeed many have dispensed with that part of the festival entirely.
Just occasionally though something or someone lifts one's heart and rekindles the flame of kindness, tolerance, brotherhood and family unity, and it can happen in the strangest of ways. Our lives are so busy these days that people do not have the time for reflection and self analysis that spirituality is in fact designed to give one. But, stop, listen or look and it can happen. A small child will sing away to himself 'Away in a manger….' completely oblivious to the onlooker, or an elderly person over a cup of tea will start to recollect their youth and how it was in those days, pause and listen to them. A new recipe will be given prominence in the press and inspire another attempt at Christmas cake or fifty ways to cook a turkey. Each time one has to try and find that essence of the season and then sometimes something quite odd and moving can happen and lift up one's heart.
In December 1999 as a family we had been through a challenging time and as we drove to the midnight service in our little Kirk at Culter it was dark and windy, but quite clear. The country road is narrow and winding with fields right up to the edge of the road; we came round a corner and there the car's headlights picked up what looked like a thousand lights, but in fact it was the eyes of the sheep, sitting in a field resting from their endless munching of grass. It was a fleeting experience but it took my mind back to the Christmas story of the first Christmas when the shepherds were visited by an angel in the fields whilst they watched their sheep; having heard the news they left to pay homage to the light of the world born to a man and a woman in a stable in Bethlehem.
It was strangely moving to be transported back to the origins of the Christian story, and what were we doing? We were travelling to the Kirk to give thanks for the Christ Child, two thousand years later close to midnight in a northern cold land far from Bethlehem. Our ritual and singing and greeting of each and everyone would cement the timeless feel of Christmas morning with its age old opportunity for renewal, tolerance, respect and giving love and fellowship. In the Hindu belief you have this opportunity at Diwali too.
When I am in Goa this year at midnight service I will think of home and light a candle for family happiness and love and unity and very probably look around me and find something new and wonderful that will act as an inspiration. Take care of yourselves.
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