Indian Christmas: Essays, Memories, Hymns
Edited and with introductions by Jerry Pinto, Madhulika Liddle
They call it ‘bada din’ —the big day— in Bengal. Perhaps it is a colonial hangover, but who knows? Christmas with its trees, stars, and cakes penetrates into every corner of the country and, in many places, it is more about festivity than faith. As Jerry Pinto writes in his essay, the image of a mother cradling her new born baby is universal — the story of Herod’s slaughtering babies links seamlessly to Raja Kansa’s quest to destroy the baby Krishna. Add to that the rusticity of shepherds and a barn and India has many reasons for celebrating Christmas.
Brought out in time to celebrate the season, the book Indian Christmas: Essays, Memories, Hymns is crammed with essays, accounts, poetry, and pictures like an overflowing stocking with pieces by Damodar Mauzo, Vivek Menezes, Elizabeth Kuruvilla, Jane Borges, Mary Sushma Kindo, and more, not to mention the two introductions by Jerry Pinto and Madhulika Liddle. It is visually rich documenting Indian Christmas art through Mughal miniatures and other arts and brings together local language hymns and poetry that many will be unaware of.
Cake, of course, dominates, as it surely would, for what is Christmas without cake? Liddle writes about her family’s cake traditions which unite Uttar Pradesh and Bengal. Esterine Kire adds a new perspective to the traditions with her mother’s use of ammunition tins for cake ovens. In fact, the North East dimension is something that is normally overlooked when it comes to India’s Christmas tales, which is surprising, given the fact that Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya, and Manipur had their fair share of missionaries and have the largest Christian population. A Christmas cake anthology also seems to be a future possibility with recipes and cake stories from various states thrown in.
The erstwhile Calcutta could possibly have had a few more memories — today the city hosts a Christmas festival at Allen Gardens that can hold its own against more capital celebrations and while Nazes Afroz touches on Bow Barracks, eking out his words with photographs, and Mudar Patherya pays tribute to the Kolkata spirit, the story of Nahoums and Christmas at New Market is a miss — though that again is a cake story. But then perhaps everyone feels like that about the cities or villages they belong to come Christmas.
Not that the festival is as overarchingly harmonious as one would like to think. In Jharkhand, Hansda Sowendra Shekhar writes about being mistaken for a Christian simply because of his community and the Christian school he went to, which again puts a different perspective on the festival. Not all of Bombay celebrates Christmas with an equal no community barred fervour — Bandra holds the crown with its cathedrals and churches and Christmas trees becoming a totally different entity for the single day of the season that it celebrates as Deborah Rosario discovers in her quest for an East Indian Christmas.
There are other pieces to counterpoint these which directly focus on the pluralism of communities — Damodar Mauzo’s question as to whether a village has a religion is very relevant in today’s times. In fact, pluralism is one of the themes of this anthology at a time when the minorities are under threat and when the Centre was originally planning to celebrate 25th December as Good Governance Day.
If there is a criticism, it would be that the food pieces after a while seem very similar, since the same food groans on tables over and over. Perhaps a curation of other unusual aspects of the season could have been considered — Christmas ghosts come to mind and a touch of Ruskin Bond, or more about Christmas music since the baritone of Jim Reeves is another unifying factor across the country from Kerala to Manipur to Goa. But then, yes, for most, Christmas is just eating what they love best — whether shammi kebab or paneer or biriyani – and writing about it.
And yes, it is always about family and, on occasion, friends and the book is a joyous interesting read.