H.Y. Sharada Prasad, one-time advisor to Indira Gandhi and now a New Delhi elder, had this to say of the millennium when asked to open a South Asia media conference in New Delhi recently:
The first thing to remember when encountering the 21 st century is that except that the numbers of the calendar will change, nothing else will change. It is not as if at that midnight hour when the 20th century will make way to its successor, there will be any surge of wisdom in human minds and of goodness in human hearts. Sure there will be extra revelry in Times Square and other metropolitan spots where people foregather. There will be a great brouhaha on television, in newspapers and magazines. The internet will be crowded with messages. But when the morning dawns after the night of celebration we shall find that the world is as full of hate and hunger and inequality on the first day of the brand-new century as throughout the bad old one.
Exactly. Already, much like the unfathomable two-year countdown to the American elections through which the entire world was dragged until release was obtained in November 1996, the countdown to 2000 has already begun. The flap and flutter over the upcoming millennial watershed will become increasingly louder over the next three years. One cannot but shudder at all the commercialised hype and hoopla that we will have to endure between now and 1999.
Truth be told, the population of South Asia, and other similar billion-sized chunks of humanity, have no connection with the Gregorian calendar except in the most recent nano-second of recorded history. While the elite of the South certainly are by now very much part of the Gregorian time-set, the commoners are either entirely out of it, or are only tangentially affected by the fact that Baby Jesus was born just about two thousand years ago.
For practical purposes, of course, the Gregorian calendar has become a worldwide measure of time, and the standardisation that this has enforced is all for the good. It is also true that the demands of the unitary modern state means that—like the English language in South Asia—the Gregorian calendar enforces a uniformity that is required to run national government, business, and so on.
What we cannot fathom is the celebration of New Year´s Day that South Asia´s English-speaking upper crusts foist upon the rest of the populace. For, the birth that year and that night in Bethlehem is not part of South Asia´s historic culture, and is not significant to an overwhelming portion of the region´s population. The daily rhythms of life among the masses is still dictated by the lunar cycle, on the one hand, and various calendars that were established in far corners of South Asia at different times. These calendars range from the Vikram Sambat, which is in its 2053rd year, to the Tibetan calendar that begins a new cycle every 60 years.
The millennium that three years away as of this writing, is that of the Iswi Sambat. As a secular gauge of time, and as a marker of European historicity, and as a calendar which helps South Asians run their governments and economies more efficiently, we are all for marking the transition. However, do not force us to celebrate, and, more importantly, do not ask us to generate all the anticipatory excitement between now and then.