Re-imagining christmas

A week ago, in Jodhpur I was struck by the frequency with which one could see the coloured glass balls, which are usually used to decorate christmas trees, hung from the ceilings of restaurants and hotel reception areas. Eventually I traced the popularity of this innovative tradition to Maharaja Takhat Singh. You see his bedroom in Mehrangarh in the featured photo. After I tore my eyes away from the profusion of painting on the walls and floor, I noticed the glass balls on the ceiling. The Maharaja lived in the mid-19th century when these balls first began to be made. His interior designers would have been one of the early adopters in alternate uses of this German innovation.

Every year could be an occasion to re-imagine what christmas could mean. Because it has no particular resonance with me, I tend to neglect it and fall into a default mode of year-ending self-indulgence. Standing with a glass of wine in a beach-side restaurant in Mumbai yesterday, I noticed a pair of Santas seek out two poor kids and hand each of them a christmas present. One of the Santas, maybe the Banta, took photos. A photo could just be someone’s private jog to memories, but I thought it was more likely that it meant that this was the work of an NGO.

The two excited children ran off with their gifts to a bunch of others playing cricket on the beach. The game was abandoned as the two teams ran to the Santas and queued up for the gifts. I watched as all the presents were distributed. As the Santas walked off I called after them. When they turned around I asked “Which organization?” They shouted back, “SOS” as they walked off into the sunset. When I googled NGO SOS, only one organization popped up.

Christmas eve in Aberdeen bazaar

It wasn’t till Christmas eve that we had the time to actually walk around Port Blair. The previous days had passed in a flurry of travel from wetlands to forests and back again. Now that we had a little time in the evening, we asked an auto driver about the big bazaar in town. He assured us that we wanted to see the beautiful Aberdeen Bazaar, and dropped us there.

The shops started from a circle with a large statue of Gandhi. The first thing we noticed was that even now many shops were selling Christmas trees and decorations. Flower vendors in Aberdeen Bazaar, Port BlairThe market was buzzing, and only about half the people there were tourists. You don’t get a real feel of a town until you walk about a market. Now for the first time we noticed what a melting pot Port Blair is. We heard snatches of conversation in languages from across India, and saw faces which came from everywhere in the country: the north-east, east, heartland, north, and south. Clock tower in Aberdeen Bazaar, Port BlairI heard a snatch of Dogri, but when I looked around I couldn’t see who could have spoken it.

We passed a junction where three lanes met up with the road. Near one of them was a large stall selling flowers. This looked permanent enough to be an everyday affair. The chains of marigolds were probably hanging in many of the nearby shops. We walked up to a bizarre clock tower in the middle of the bazaar (photo here). I’d noticed this in passing before. The eye-watering blue lights were probably Christmas decorations.

We had to turn left or right, and I couldn’t remember which way we had gone the previous evening. Clerks busy at a shop about to shutWe saw an interesting looking Gurudwara to the right and turned in that direction. The next day we found that this was a mistake; if we’d turned left we would have reached the Christmas market. Near the Gurudwara we found a very interesting looking establishment; probably a wholesale grain shop (photo here). Most of the shutters were down but a row of clerks sat at their ledgers under the eagle eyes of past owners, whose portraits were on the wall. A few ominous drops of rain began to come down on us. We looked for an auto and just managed to get in before the skies opened up and sheets of water poured down.

We’d found a nice restaurant before we came to the bazaar. The rain hadn’t let up by the time we reached the place, but a doorman came with umbrellas to escort us inside. Our Christmas dinner turned out good: with fresh sea food done well, and a large slice of chocolate cake to follow.