During Eid, Daddy’s friend Atiq Mian would send home giant vessels of Biryani and mutton curry along with trays of dry fruits and sweets…the smell of that Biryani would linger in the house weeks after that! Holi meant helping ourselves to packets of aabir of every possible color and filling balloons and pichkari from buckets my brother prepared to attack unsuspecting passer-by! For Lakshmi Puja, Didi and I would painstakingly adorn the house with alpana while mom fasted and prepared the bhog and in the evening we would all sit by the alter with folded hands watching mom in her red-bordered garad saree, face radiant in the lamp-light, read aloud from the panchali, asking goddess Lakshmi to keep her home filled with good fortune and happiness forever! Then there was Bijoya Dashami when the house would be filled with people and mom would serve never ending plates of home-made nimki and narkel’er naroo to every one who walked in and Poush Sankranti when the entire paara could smell the delicious puli-pithey and the patishapta being made in our kitchen!
But my favorite holiday of all was Christmas. That particular time of the year signified a lot of things; exams were over, good or bad – the results were out, which meant we could play all day long without a care in the world! Christmas meant hanging our school stockings from the bed-post before going to sleep, which would miraculously get filled with candies in the morning! It also meant enjoying once in a year treats – a fruit cake from Nahoum’s, a trip to the zoo or the Victoria Memorial! One year Daddy took me to New Market before Christmas - I don’t recall how old I was or if I had ever been to New Market before that! But I remember this – it was filled with Christmas trees, shiny ornaments, paper streamers, garlands, colorful hats of all shapes, piñatas and star lanterns – an enchanted bazaar straight out of a little girl’s fantasy! Daddy bought me a Christmas tree that day. It was a tiny thing, the kind that one puts on their desks. I decorated it with tinsel garlands and little shiny balls of different colors! That tree was my pride and joy – none of my friends had it and I would show-off my little Christmas tree to anyone who came by!
A few years later Daddy passed away and all celebrations stopped in our house! Holi became colorless, Diwali light-less. Uncles and aunts and cousins started congregating in someone else’s house. Dada would wake up very early in the morning on Rakhi and Bhai Phonta and disappear for the rest of the day! Eid came and went but the aromatic Biryani from Atiq Mian’s house never came! Very few people came to wish us during Bijoya Dashami and who ever came would be served store-bought mishti and shingara instead of my mom’s home-made delicacies! Like every year Didi and I would adorn our house with alpana, but mom would never make bhog again. Neither would she sit by the lamplight and read aloud from panchali. She would offer cut fruits and sweets to Lakshmi and sit in front of the alter in mute silence as if she was having a silent dialogue with the goddess who let her down!
But I held on to my Christmas tradition; every year I would unpack my little Christmas tree and decorate it with great enthusiasm. The twinkling lights and shiny ornaments brought a strange sense of peace in my heart! But nothing lasts forever, and one day my tree fell apart – the wooden base was eaten hollow by wood-worms and the paper needles of the pine disintegrated! I threw the tree in the garbage and never looked back. So along with other festivals even Christmas was buried under the collective grief in our house-hold! Yet every year I would be drawn to Park Street on Christmas; I would treat myself to a piece of fruit-cake at Flury’s while looking at the magical lights adorning the street outside!
Many years later in Bangalore, on Christmas day I found myself alone at home with my Anglo-Indian landlady. I was new in town and had nowhere to go, and she was almost 70, a spinster and nearly crippled with arthritis! Together we sat in her bed-room watching TV and drinking home-made wine while she told me how she was betrayed by her Sikh paramour, a doctor in the army where she was a nurse during the WWII. Her hatred for the man who broke her naïve heart fifty years back was quite intense!
“Men”, she said taking a sip of the too-sweet wine “are all bastards! You smile at them and they’ll want to get into your knickers!” The wine, in spite of its rather overwhelming sweetness, was quite potent!
“You’re right, Aunty!” I said.
“Take it from me girl - don’t let any man take off your knickers unless he gives you a wedding ring first!” A wonderful pearl of wisdom from a senile (and drunk) old lady on Christmas night that I’ll never forget in my life.
Little more than a year later I was married, moved to Seattle, bought a house and trying to settle into the suburban American life. That year I learnt that one can celebrate festivals with people other than family. I attended the Bengali community Durga Pujo, followed by Bijoya Dashami and Sindoor Khela party at some one’s place. There was more than one Diwali party to go to, where we didn’t burst fire-crackers, but generally partied till wee hours of the morning! Along with these I also adopted the American traditions of barbeque on 4th of July, putting pumpkins outside your doorway and dress-up silly on Halloween and eat-till-you-throw-up on Thanksgiving! Sometime after Halloween I noticed a giant Christmas tree in a mall…I was child all over again…I rushed to the tree and stared at it in amazement! Never before I had I seen a tree that big or ornaments that beautiful! I stared at the tree for a very long time admiring its beauty.
The day after Thanksgiving, spouse pulled out a battered old card-board box with a picture of Douglas fir on it from the store room and that day we started our very own tradition of putting up the Christmas tree. In the initial years the tree wasn’t much to write home about…but with each passing year we added more ornaments to our collection and decorated the same tree with great enthusiasm. After we had sonny boy, he too joined the family tradition with equal gusto – he would putter around us, handing us ornaments and squealing with delight when we turned the lights on!
The two winters that we spent in Hyderabad were rather interesting. The first Christmas, we were in Bangkok partying like it was the night before apocalypse! Little did we know that the very next morning hundreds of thousands would be killed as giant waves would hit the coasts of Indonesia, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka! We were incommunicado with family back in India who just knew we were in Thailand and Phuket was one of destinations – till we were able to get past the tremendous communication jam and get in touch with them! It was a time of stress, anxiety and immense sadness!
The next year we decided to celebrate Christmas in a much sober manner and planned to throw a party for sonny boy and his little friends! It was fun organizing such an event…it took me all over Hyderabad in search of Christmas paraphernalia, including a Santa Claus – yes, a rotund jolly-faced Santa Claus, who would walk in with his customary “Ho Ho Ho” and distribute gifts to kids from his giant sack! But alas, there was no Santa to be found, specially the jolly-faced kind! Every one offered me a Santa suit and asked me to find someone who’ll wear it! Honestly, I couldn’t ask any of my friends to actually wear that ill-fitting, not to mention smelly red suit! At the last store, I begged and pleaded with the owner. “Please, please, please find me a Santa! The children are expecting him – it was written on the invite that Santa will be there!”
“Sorry madam! This is a very busy time for Santa – they are all booked by star hotels months before Christmas!” the store owner said.
“What will happen to my party?” I wailed.
He took pity on me and had a quick discussion with his partner in swift Telegu which I failed to catch. Then he turned towards me and said “I think madam you are in luck…we can give you a guy!”
“Really? Wow! Where is he?”
He called out to someone “Ask Chhotu to come here for a minute”
A minute later Chhotu appears from somewhere in the back of store.
“Madam, this is your Santa Claus! Kya re Chhotu, do ghante ke liye Santa banega kya? Sirf yeh laal rang ka suit pahenna hai aur bachcho ko present dena hai…kar sakega?”
Chhotu dutifully nods his head as I stare at him. Where is my rotund, jolly-faced Santa? This guy is tall as a lamp-post, skinny like a match-stick, black as ebony and as if that wasn’t bad enough, he was completely cross-eyed! I wanted to cry. I wanted to go back to Seattle, to a mall, where Santa sits on an ornate chair, in his make-shift North Pole village smiling indulgently at whiny, snotty children who stand in line for hours in their stiff new clothes to get his or her picture taken with Him. I shook my head violently and left the store. Later in the party spouse and I cranked up the air-conditioners and wore Elf hats and spread Christmas cheer to a bunch of four year olds who kept asking when Santa will show up with the presents!
Christmas is still my most favorite time of the year – the beautifully decorated Christmas trees all over the city, the twinkling lights adorning the leafless trees on the curb, the gingerbread latte the Starbucks would serve during the season, the ancient creaking carousel in downtown, the fruit-cake baking in my kitchen, the holiday parties, the gifts under the tree – yes, I love every last commercial aspect of Christmas! And why not, it reminds everyone to be happy and kind, the idea of giving and sharing with everyone! Of course I’ve run into monsters out to do Christmas shopping, in the mall parking lot jostling for a spot, ready to run-over anyone under their expensive SUV’s; I’ve heard people complaining because of the conflux of family under one roof ; people getting stressed out over gift-giving; and people getting depressed because they have no one to share Christmas with!
This year, the day after Thanksgiving we took out our Christmas from its card-board box – its falling apart in every possible way. Spouse suggested we get a new tree. But I told him that I had promised our tree that it will be with us this year when we packed it last year. I have to keep my promise, so we lovingly put it up and decorated it with yards and yards of twinkling lights, red and gold ornaments, ribbons, garlands and beaded sprays – in my eyes it’s the most beautiful tree I’ve seen this season!