Christmas acquires an entirely new meaning in the Orient
By Swapan Dasgupta
The growing traffic mess in Delhi — courtesy, it is said, the preparations for next year’s Commonwealth Games — may be infuriating to the man in a hurry, but it has provided fresh employment opportunities. It may be a sign of the capital’s growing prosperity that beggars (they double up as propitiators of Shani Maharaj on Saturdays) have been vastly outnumbered by an army of itinerant hawkers selling everything from mobile-phone chargers, magazines and pirated paperbacks to boxes of tissues. Last week, the magazine sellers appear to have switched tack and moved on to something extremely seasonal: red-and-white floppy Christmas hats and somewhat frightening masks of a very pink-faced Santa Claus.
Indians are very partial to celebrations of any description. Yet, the transformation of Christmas into a middle-class celebration in a new city whose connections with the raj are at best tenuous has surprised me. Even the ‘natives’ of Calcutta, a city created and nurtured by the last set of imperial rulers, took a long time to warm up to this seemingly alien tradition. As a child in the Sixties, I was always struck by the fact that most of my relatives and, for that matter, our ‘Hindustani’ drivers, never referred to Christmas: it was always burra din. Worse, childish implorations to gawk at the lights on Park Street and visit the makeshift shops selling Christmas decorations in the central circle of New Market were invariably translated as the expedition to the ‘shaheb para’ (sahib quarter). For the Bengali bhadralok, still nurturing a visceral distaste for the rulers who never acknowledged their erudition, burra din was synonymous with shaheb para — although I did witness the incongruity of the Ganguram shop in Gariahat market wishing its customers Merry Xmas.
It is one of the oddities of history that Christmas became an indispensable part of the ‘season’ only after the Union Jack had been permanently lowered. The boisterous Christmas parties at Firpo’s, Princes and the clubs that attracted the beautiful Indians of the 1950s and 1960s were a post-Independence phenomenon. For the burra sahibs of the raj in government, the boxwallas in Clive Street, the Anglo-Indian community around Free School Street and the handful of ‘native’ Christians, Christmas had a loose religious significance — the Church of England rarely went beyond acknowledging that god was a good chap. But its transformation into a secular bacchanalia had to await a time when race relations were on a more even keel.
It is not that the British in India never tried to spread the tidings of happiness to the other side of the bridge. In Curries and Bugles, a delightful cookbook of the raj, Jennifer Brennan, a daughter of the Regiment, recalled that both British and Indian children were invited to a party hosted in the Karachi garrison but with mixed results: “[The] high point of the party was always the arrival of Father Christmas. Sometimes he rode in on a camel, sometimes grandly on an elephant… Many of the Indian children didn’t know who he was but the English kids would rush up and surround him, dragging their nannies and ayahs behind them. I remember one time the red-clad figure with the white woolly beard called out ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’ in a stentorian bass voice and a little Indian boy beside me burst into tears. He thought the figure was a demon.”
I was narrated the flip side of this cultural mismatch in London in the mid-1990s. An Indian banker was given the responsibility of being Santa Claus in an office party of a conservative financial institution in the City of London. One of his jobs involved plucking out a gift from his sack, calling out the name of a child and presenting it to him with the mandatory ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’ It all went smoothly till he plucked out a present for a Scottish lad called Hamish. “Hamish!” he called out, pronouncing his name as a variant of the Indian name, Harish. There was no response. “Hamish!” he bellowed again. Again there was silence. The awkwardness was broken when he heard a mother whispering to a bewildered child, “Hamish, I think he means you.”
This year a well-known politician is negating the idea of Christmas as a family occasion and hosting a lunch for 200 of his “close friends” on Christmas Day. He is neither calling it a Christmas lunch (or even the politically correct “holiday lunch”) nor does he plan to serve cold cuts and the obligatory pasta; he is partial to Amritsari kulcha and many versions of chhola bhatura. But this politician friend is a wonderful aberration — he once nibbled at a lavish French dinner hosted by Prince Norodom Sihanouk and then feasted on daal-subzi at the Indian ambassador’s residence. To the discerning Indian, Christmas is a celebration of Western culture — its cuisine, including mince pies and Christmas pudding, its music, its made-in-Germany Englishness and its theology. The indigenization of Christmas may have taken place in evangelical outposts, but it may take the capture of the Vatican by Kerala before it becomes conventional wisdom.
What is even more striking is that this celebration of Occidental Christendom doesn’t follow a script. Once upon a time, while entertaining local Britons, Indian notables tried a bit too hard to provide “English fare” to their guests. The results were often as comic as the old Colonel’s suggestion of a spoonful of jam as an antidote to an over-spiced curry. In Dekho! The India That Was, Elizabeth Wilkin recollected a disastrous culinary experiment by an Indian: “The soup was too peppery, the fish too salty. A none-too-tender peacock, which the cook had failed to stuff, was served with a jar of strawberry jam which did proxy for the absent cranberry sauce…and an iced pudding which had refused to freeze made its watery appearance before a final indigestible savoury. Had our hospitable host but realised how much more we would have welcomed a good hot Indian curry, he would have spared himself trouble and us a very painful experience.”
Western civilization, which the Mahatma impishly thought was a good idea, lies in the eyes of the beholder. The old burra khana of the regimental mess tends to often get lost in translation or, perhaps, even acquire an entirely new meaning. So it is with Christmas in India—both for Christians and others.
Some years before the 1857 explosion, the dispossessed Nana Saheb invited some East India Company officials to dinner in Cawnpore. Its disdainful description by a guest is instructive: “I sat down to a table which was covered with a damask tablecloth of European manufacture, but instead of a dinner napkin there was a bedroom towel. The soup was served up in a trifle dish…I ladled it with a broken tea cup…The pudding was brought in upon a sup plate…The cool claret I drank out of a richly cut champagne glass, and the beer out of an American tumbler of the very worst quality.”
The sneers of the Company officials drove Nana Saheb into rebellion. Some 150 years later, his syncretic tableware would probably have been celebrated as an example of aesthetic audacity, if not multiculturalism. On Christmas Eve, I plan to tuck into New Zealand lamb, washed down with agreeable claret and the choral chants of the New College Choir. On Christmas day, it will be Amritsari kulcha and tandoori chicken. If only I could add the 3 pm Queen’s speech and a silly hat, my burra din would be truly gratifying.