December’s foggy freeze

You remember celebrations by the smiles, don’t you? And the convivial atmosphere. But doesn’t the weather also play a role? From my school days I’ve been conditioned to a long winter break. Those were years when only children had a long break in winter; the adults had a day off for Christmas, and another for New Year. So winter holidays came without travel. Ever since, taking a trip over Christmas has not been on top of my mind. If it happens, it is usually a last minute improvisation.

Kolkata, 2020. Our first flight after a hard lockdown involved masks and face shields, PPEs, enforced distancing in flight. But I was glad we took this trip. We decided to go to Park Street in the evening. Past experience told me that this would be incredibly crowded, but The Family had never been to Kolkata for Christmas. It was the best possible year for us at Park Street. It was festive, there was live music, there were people dressed up, but no crowds. We sat at Flury’s and had coffee and a chocolate rum ball before walking on.

Kochi 2019. We’d just recovered from a bad flu which left us drained for weeks after (we realized half a year later that we had come through a COVID-19 infection), and welcomed a recovery trip. The Nasrani Mappila of Kerala are one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, tracing their roots to the arrival of the Apostle Thomas in 52 CE. The western church traditions are a much later, colonial, overlay. We loved the festive look of the ancient port city, and had a lovely time eating out.

Shillong 2018. This was one of our few well-planned Christmas trips. The Clan decided to take a holiday together. You can never get twenty people to agree on anything when you are traveling, so it was a week of delightful chaos. It all started with a discussion about whether to walk down to the neighbourhood church before tea or after. By the time the decision was reached, several rounds of tea were history. The mass was a long time away, but we stood with the throng of people and had the cake and wine. I think the older nieces made sure that the under-age got their sips of the terrible wine.

Mumbai 2017. The Family’s cousin had found a beach house for a party. It was a wonderful evening: a large number of people dressed to the nines, lots of food and drink, a dance floor. I stood with a knot of people watching the sun go down. Below us, on the beach, Christmas was on. A young couple had decided to bring a bag of goodies for the poor children playing there. Why hadn’t we thought of that?

Port Blair 2016. We hadn’t thought of Andaman as a Christmas holiday. We were there to watch birds. But on the eve of Christmas we decided to stay up late and go into the bazaar. Why was there a crowd at this temple? I asked a passerby, and he looked at me as if I was from Mars. “Christmas,” he grunted and went away. Religions are not so distinct; people will celebrate.

Mumbai 2015. “Let’s go to Bandra,” The Family proposed. She wouldn’t be deterred by visions of traffic jams that keeps bears like me at home. We walked through the festive lanes of Bandra, where the old villages of East Indians have become incorporated into the city. Parties were in progress and some spilled out into the lanes. The Family found someone making hampers of the traditional Christmas goodies: kolkol, several kinds of biscuits, mango jellies, marzipan, and the traditional fruit cake redolent of spices and rum. We had to get one.

Lava 2011. This was a birding trip gone wrong. But the day had been lovely, bitingly cold, and with grand views of Kanchenjunga all day. In the evening we reached the then-tiny village of Lava, and found a Christmas procession. A group of people singing carols went from house to house, and were welcomed with something to eat or drink at each. I don’t think they insisted on a figgy pudding.

Mumbai 2008. On Christmas Day the spell seemed to break. The streets had remained deserted even after the terrorists of November 26 were all killed or captured. No one wanted to be out. We went out for a walk late that morning, and found that large numbers of people had come out to exorcise the ghosts of the trauma. The media was clustered around the collapsed remnants of Chabad House. That’s what the photo shows. We walked round to the Taj and its blackened dome and exploded wings. We looked at stray bullet holes in buildings around it. The mood was somber.

Bremen 2005. We’d planned a Christmas holiday in Vienna. We’d bought tickets to two evenings of music, booked hotels and airlines. Then, at the airport in Duesseldorf The Family’s hand bag was stolen. It had her passport. We had to cancel the trip and stay in Germany. Between visits to the embassy and police, we made a few impromptu trips. One was to Bremen, and its warm Christmas market. The week was tense, but we had a lot of support, families I’d known for years invited us home every day, or met up at Christmas markets. Eventually, The Family got emergency papers for the return trip, and the police found her bag, with not much missing.

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.