Christmas is one of my three favourite festivals. Diwali and Onam are the other two and all involve doing lots of highly specific decorating and very general stuffing of the face. Ever since I began living on my own as an adult, I have enjoyed going bananas in the festival department. One year I had a young, stylish hipster roommate. She looked at the strings of gendaphool going up everywhere and my frantic organising of diyas and said, “If I knew I was going to be on gendaphool duty, I would have stayed in my mother’s house in Rohini.” After rolling her eyes at my ancient person behaviour, she jumped in and we Diwali’d it up in a way that made us briefly famous in our new neighbourhood.
Nowadays I like Christmas the most. This is for a very shallow reason. The time that Diwali decorations are up and Onam pookalams stay intact seems too sadly brief for all the work involved. The pointless buying of cheap trinkets round the year to eventually go on a tree, which I fiddle with for 25-odd days, is just the way I like my holidays.
Given my shallowness, I should not feel disturbed by the growth of Christmas as a recreational activity in India. The truth is, it is easy to partake, and almost too hard not to partake, of the global Christmas industrial complex. Plus, Christmas looks like foreign, if you know what I mean. Almost all the iconography associated with Christmas, from the trees to the trinkets to cotton fake snow, is actually foreign.
The occasional Santa on a camel or an elephant is to be enjoyed. It’s hard to find a desi look for Christmas which is not some self-important nativist reform project. As a non-believer, I feel like I should be the last one to feel worked up by people who are into Christmas but not into Christians.
Still, it’s strange to look at Christmas merchandise everywhere, from food to decorations to book stores, when it has been a year of mounting violence against Christians. In Karnataka, the Advent calendar could be easily marked by a daily act of violence against a Christian accused of “forced conversion”.
Do you know of the insult rice-bag Christians—meaning Christians who converted just for a rice bag? I have giggled over the self-goal this insult is. I mean, if your religion is just one rice bag away from being dumped, then how hot is it to begin with? It took a friend who is a believer to point out the casteist implications of the insult—telling someone who has embraced a religion as an adult that their belief is not good enough, that their eyes closed in sincere prayer are actually half-open for the main chance. And in a flash, I remembered being taken as a student to meet a famous literary critic in Bengaluru.
In his durbar, after a very long discussion about the Indian self and M.F. Husain and all manner of things, he asked us students our names and then commented that it would be hard for me to find my Indian roots. Blocked as I was by my Christianity, he explained. I remember going home in the autorickshaw that night, half-laughing, half-raging and then waking up the next morning thanking my stars I was not inclined to believe the things old men said.
Old men were always saying things that at heart seemed to mean: It would be best if you didn’t exist. This was true in school, in my neighbourhood, in college and in church. I wanted nothing to do with their ideas of the righteous. I admired and occasionally envied the sukoon (comfort) religion gave friends and cousins who believed. I had a running joke in my teens that regular church-goers had better skin. And that was about it. Except Christmas. I loved the way it filled up homes with friends, I loved pitching in with the special cooking, and the small bits of decorations.
My immediate family can go on for years without going to church and are happy to stick to praying at home, gratitude and the caustic citing of Scripture for fell purpose. The Bible offered me some map to a kind of cultural and intellectual context. When the old man said that passing ridiculous thing, I wondered what he was talking about. I felt as Indian as anyone. To be specific, I felt as Hindu as anyone. Even in 1999, when, the week after the Australian missionary Graham Staines and his sons were murdered, one of my Brahmin classmates said in a public forum at our Catholic college that if Christians and Muslims “decided to stay back after 1947 they better put up with what they get”. In case you are wondering, yes, she left swiftly for the US. Telling her that there have been Christians in Kerala forever and two of them travelled to Europe in Pedro Cabral’s fleet in the early 1500s defeated the point, I thought.
To scandalously misappropriate E.E. Cummings, since feeling is first, who pays any attention to the history of things. Years later, I understood that my surname and some other accoutrements did prevent me from experiencing one great Indian phenomenon—casteism. I also realised that I am part of a Christian world whose casteism prevents them from seeing that the flood will come to their homes too eventually, even if their toes remain dry currently.
Some of my believer friends have left the church. Women particularly have tired of working for the church without finding refuge in it. I continue to have network problems in reaching God. In the slow passage of the decades, I have found ways that connected me back to Christianity—without old men.
When I first heard the song Nobody’s Fault But Mine, my hair stood on end. The lyrics in the Joan Osborne version go, “Mama taught me how to read/ And if I die and my soul be lost/ it’s nobody’s fault but mine.” At first, I was inclined to obsess over that stanza and ignore the one that followed, “Mama taught me how to pray.” But Blind Willie Johnson’s lyrics are about damnation for not reading the Bible, not cute bibliomania. And pretending otherwise would be like Coleman Barks giving the world a Rumi carefully sanitised of Islam. Still, I have had to accept that my way back to Christianity might yet lie through good books, if not the Good Book Blind Willie Johnson loved, and my grandmothers read every night to themselves.
As an adult, reading Malayalam lets me live among the believers, the mockers, the ones smoking outside church, the sceptics, those who have converted and those who want to convert. With Paul Zacharia’s short story The End Of Third-Rate Literature, I laughed at the mediocre Syrian Christian writer waiting to steal from the brilliant Ezhava writer. With K.R. Meera’s Sooryane Aninja Oru Sthree, I met a young doctor called Jezebel who faces the violence of family and family court by pretending she is Jesus on the cross. With Paul again, in Until You See The Mirror, you cannot help but feel sorry for a young Jesus at the barber afraid to look at his reflection in case he sees an unwelcome immortality. Or was it mortality that made him cry? And finding myself inside this sad, mean and affectionate register allows me to access Christians without Christianity even when the world outside is busily decking the halls for a Christmas without Christians. It’s a literary Santa on an elephant.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.