Children are useful. In farming-dominated societies, they are important during periods when there is a need for an extra pair of hands. So it is likely that school schedules, as they evolved, revolved around the farming cycle. It is said that in America, in the middle of the 19th century, it was decided that urban and rural schools should have the same academic year. This included, during harvest, a long summer break.
The idea of such a gap in the year was probably brought to India by the British who could not bear the heat. Going on summer holidays is also part of British popular culture. Cliff Richard, incidentally born Harry Roger Webb in Lucknow, was in the hit film Summer Holiday (1963) and the song became a big hit in India as well: “We’re all going on a summer holiday / No work. ‘For a week or two. / Our Fun and laughter on summer vacation / No worries for me or you.”
Going on a summer vacation is part of the collective consciousness of any Indian above the age of 40. It was a time when schools closed and parents took their children to distant towns or villages, to spend time with grandparents or aunts. I remember spending my childhood in Kerala and Mysuru. For many of us, these months were spent dipping in the village pond, catching lizards, spending time on the beach or riverside. If there was a zoo or a museum, that became part of the agenda every week. A visit to the temple was a must, especially to taste the various offerings.
In his book, Journey to the Hills and Other Stories, my friend Divyarup Bhatnagar lovingly recounts his family’s annual summer train journey from Kanpur to the hills. Preparation took weeks as the family packed huge suitcases; Elaborate meals were cooked in large quantities, to be consumed during and after the train ride.
For those who haven’t experienced all these, I recommend time with the classic TV series Malgudi Days (originally released in the 1980s; now on Voot). Our summer vacations were slow-paced, slow-living.
It’s not surprising that confectionery manufacturers avoid summer launches for new products, a lesson I learned while working on a campaign for a large candy brand. When asked if we should launch a new candy this season, I was told by a client that this is the worst time for any new product activity. Children need to communicate with their peers when they are able to talk or brag. The best time is when the schools are open. Not when they’re lazing by the pool or lounging with a comic book.
Are summer vacations still as important as they were a few decades ago? Are they all lost? What drove them out?
The demographics of middle and upper middle class families have changed significantly. For one thing, they are, as a rule, small. My generation had dozens of cousins, usually living somewhere in India. Today’s small families are scattered around the world, which means there are fewer places to go on long vacations.
There was a time when the grandparents of urban children almost always lived in small towns or rural areas. In R Gopalakrishnan’s book, A Comma in A Sentence: Extraordinary Change In An Ordinary Family Over Six Generations, he describes how his family expanded from a village to a city, then a district, a state, a country; And now it has spread all over the world. This is a common occurrence in today’s middle class. Some villages have been emptied.
Meanwhile, over the past three decades we have seen the rise of the “tiger parent” and the “helicopter parent.” They want their children to excel in all activities – academics, hobbies, languages, arts. The long vacation is used to better prepare them for the coming year. Coaching for entrance exams, which was common around class 10, is now common from class 7 onwards. Coaching classes fill the gap that leisure vacations fill.
Another new phenomenon sweeping urban India is summer camps. Parents are asked to send their children to these camps to learn new skills such as rock climbing and rope climbing, hobbies that are often pursued indoors or in designated areas because India’s cities are very densely populated, with little green and hard to access open spaces.
The rise of working couples, especially in upper-middle-class households, has also changed things. In the past, mothers used to take their children to their parents’ or in-laws’ houses in the village. Father will join them for a week or two. No parent can afford to take two months off from work anymore.
Increasing affluence and social media have had a perverse effect on those late summer breaks. Parents want to give their children a quick tour of the world. So instead of two months in the village, it now takes 10 days to travel to a foreign country or a foreign place in India. I’m told, at least in high schools, there’s a constant bragging war between kids about where they spent their vacations. The mandatory back-to-school English assignment – write an essay titled “What I did on my summer vacation” – has been transformed from a monochromatic portrait of village life in India to a 70-mm techno world tour!
Another interesting phenomenon is the cleaning of cities like Delhi and Mumbai. If the owner is off with family in Europe, what should the driver do? Many drivers now get two or three weeks of vacation each year, and use that time to bring their families back home. What we saw as the ideal summer vacation still exists; It has recently moved from middle class to lower on the socio-economic scale.
Meanwhile, the winter vacation activity has increased among the urban rich. This is when family members from Europe and America visit. The Chennai Carnatic music season has become a major attraction for visiting NRIs. Goa, Kerala and Tirupati also see exceptional traffic from visiting family members. Will the winter holiday phenomenon catch on, one wonders.
Gone are summer vacations like we experienced in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. The idea of a slow, long, leisurely break doesn’t sit well with the new generation, who are looking for instant gratification. Attention spans are getting shorter. Time is at a premium. Revenant shopping and revenant tourism have picked up, as the epidemic subsides. Most importantly, the world goes with you, in the palm of your hand, wherever you are. As a result of all this, real and virtual types of “experiences” have taken hold.
I wonder how many school children today know about the song Summer Holiday.
(Ambi Parameswaran is a best-selling author of 11 books and an independent brand coach)
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