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Charles Dickens and the legacy of a Calcutta Christmas

  • A secular, multicultural childhood in 1980s Calcutta helped forge a deep affinity with Christmas
  • The bond with the festival was deepened by having to read ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens in school

A still from Disney’s retelling of ‘A Christmas Carol’
A still from Disney’s retelling of ‘A Christmas Carol’

At the school I went to in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the 1980s and 1990s, students were subjected to one “rapid reader" after another for several years in the junior classes. The idea was to introduce us to texts that were easy to read, comprehend and enjoy. If this trinity hit its mark, chances were it would instil a love of books in our 10-year-old hearts—in those days at least, this was one of the primary aims of a well-rounded school education.

It was through one of these rapid readers that Charles Dickens entered my young life. In class V (or thereabouts), we had his immortal tale, A Christmas Carol, in the syllabus, along with The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde. Our school had thoughtfully bound the two together into a specially produced chapbook, which we dutifully covered with brown paper, sticking a label on it with our name, class, section and roll number. “Marley was dead, to begin with," we read aloud, moving our index finger along the lines. “There is no doubt whatever about that." The sentences rolled haltingly off our tongues, except Ebenezer Scrooge’s favourite riposte, “Bah! Humbug!" We yelled out that phrase at one another during the recess, without quite knowing what it meant.

For a ghostly tale, though, A Christmas Carol was a damp squib, especially for Bengali boys and girls brought up on a far more expansive and fearsome repertoire of stories of the supernatural. At home we readThakurmar Jhuli (Grandmother’s Bag Of Stories), a collection of folklore and fairy tales about ogres and ogresses (Bengal teems with many subspecies of the latter, variously called rakkhosh, khokkosh, bhoot, petni, shakchunni, doityo, danob, and so on), put together by the writer Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar. Compared to these horrific creatures with an insatiable appetite for human flesh and blood, the ghosts of Jacob Marley, and those of Christmas past, present and future, felt like benign visitations—most of them wispy shadows that glided around with a British mildness, unlike the pantheon of home-grown demons that howled and hooted through our minds, giving us nightmares.

The rituals and festivities of Christmas were familiar to my milieu though. In my middle-class Hindu family, hanging a stocking on the night of Christmas eve for Santa Claus to leave a gift was as common a tradition as shopping for new clothes for Durga Puja. A trip to Park Street, where a sizeable population of Anglo-Indians lived (and still does), during the week of Christmas was also mandatory. Baubles and lights crisscrossed the street like a canopy of stars as crowds swarmed in from all directions, heaving and swelling around New Market, the shopping district. Christmas trees and decorations would flank the stalls, an aroma of freshly baked plum cake would waft in the air as people lined up outside the butchers’ to pick up their preferred cuts of meat. If the adults were in the mood for it, we would troop over to St Paul’s Cathedral to join the throng of humanity gathered for the midnight mass.

‘The Ghost Of Christmas Present’ from the original 1843 edition
‘The Ghost Of Christmas Present’ from the original 1843 edition

Years later, while studying Dickens in college, I discovered a rather tragic association that the writer had with this fabled high street of Kolkata. In 1857, as Indian sepoys broke out into a revolt against the rule of the British East India Company (EIC), William Savage Landor Dickens, the fourth child and second son of Charles and Catherine Dickens, joined the EIC’s army and came to India. The 16-year-old boy was urged by the patriarch of his family to be part of the cause and probably didn’t have much hand in the decision. Although he survived the gruesome battle, he died prematurely, at the age of 22, most likely from a hereditary disease, in the city. He was buried in Bhowanipore but a gravestone marked to him lies unkempt in the ancient cemetery on Park Street, passed by Christmas revellers every year. Dickens senior never saw his son’s final resting place, but, in a peculiar coincidence, it remains tied to the festival he celebrated in a series of hugely successful books, written almost every year from 1843-48.

Having grown up among scenes of Christmas camaraderie in Kolkata, the London that Dickens depicted in A Christmas Carol during the season wasn’t entirely alien to my child’s mind. In the pre-internet age, I had a tough time imagining what a daffodil looked like as I learnt lines from William Wordsworth’s iconic poem by rote (another staple of school syllabi in many postcolonial nations). But Christmas was familiar stuff, thanks to the multicultural, secular Indian ethos I was exposed to, growing up in the Calcutta of the 1980s and 1990s. It would be several decades before I would actually find myself in London during Christmas, and Dickens’ tender portrait of a society, where pedestrians stamped their feet to warm themselves and good Christians called out “Merry Christmas" to one another, would be rudely dispelled by the mayhem I witnessed—stampede-like situations on Oxford Circus as people jostled and made beelines to enter stores where winter sales were at their peak.

A scene from the 1951 film directed by Brian Desmond Hurst
A scene from the 1951 film directed by Brian Desmond Hurst

Christmas, in its contemporary incarnation, may look like a festival celebrating aggressive capitalism, though it wasn’t all that different in Dickens’ time. Ironically, the writer himself has contributed much to the commodification of Christmas, says Sajni Mukherji, a Dickens scholar and former professor of English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, on email. “In the same way Archies has done to St Valentine’s Day, or jewellery stores have done to Dhanteras in India," she adds. “More people eat plum cake and Christmas pudding than read his works!"

Yet, if there’s one English writer of the Victorian era who echoed the realities of Indian life acutely—and continues to do so, although unwittingly—it is Dickens. A staunch champion of underdogs, a clear-eyed chronicler of urban poverty, and acutely sympathetic to the plight of destitute children, he seems to hold up a mirror to a society that reflects the sordid circumstances of Indian society over the years.

In the 21st century, more than 200 years after his birth, many Dickens novels remain useful lenses to look at the world that surrounds us. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, a movie like Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, inspired by Vikas Swarup’s 2005 novel Q&A, without the informing influence of a character like Pip in Dickens’ Great Expectations (1861), which set a template for the classic rags-to-riches story. Or think of Mr Micawber in David Copperfield (1850), and his innate ability to wing it, even when he’s stuck in the doldrums. That kind of hardy resilience is emblematic of a culture like India’s, where the talent for jugaad rules the day.

Typical of many Asian nations, India abounds with hapless clerks like Bob Cratchit (from A Christmas Carol) and differently-abled children like his son Tiny Tim, lorded over by the Scrooges of the world. Child labour, though legally banned in India, remains rampant, either clandestinely or otherwise, as the custodians of law and order and the public in general choose to look away. As the rich get richer, the poor get poorer all over the world.

In 2012, the BBC World Service broadcast a radio programme by Ayeesha Menon titled Dickens And India: Mutual Friends to celebrate the 200th birth anniversary of the writer. As an academic speaking on the show pointed out, it is telling that authors like Dickens and Jane Austen became part of the educational curricula in India long before they were taught in British schools and colleges. The fact that these greats, both of whom are associated with the “canon" of English literature, were, in a sense, “exported" to the UK via India shows just how deep their hold over the Indian psyche was, and remains to this day.

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