To be turned away from a church entwined with all your childhood Christmases is an unsettling experience. Returning to Kolkata in 2017 for my first Christmas there in two decades, I had unwisely dallied at dinner with childhood friends. I arrived at the imposing gates of St Paul’s Cathedral after the candlelit service had begun. Fearing overcrowding, the police had barred entry to the grounds of about seven acres. The huge crowds were a reminder that Kolkata’s citizens, regardless of religion, celebrate Christmas with a multicultural enthusiasm no other city can boast of.
There was proof of that everywhere. On Christmas Day, Park Street, already closed to cars from about 4pm, had been roped off by policemen to prevent a stampede. An aerial view would have suggested a river in flood. The Metro stops near Park Street were closed for a couple of hours that day to limit the flow of people. A pilot friend who had been in London a week or two earlier wagered that Park Street’s decorations outdid those in London’s Oxford Street.
On Christmas Eve, I had stood outside St Paul’s Cathedral, proud of the city’s Christmas spirit even as memories of my childhood washed over me. Our yearly ritual was to arrive an hour before the candlelit service because my mother always wanted to be seated at the top row of the wooden pews that descended to the central aisle of the cathedral. She reckoned there was less chance of being the victim of a candle knocked over accidentally. Usually indomitable, her fear of a fire was bafflingly uncharacteristic. I never saw anyone drop a candle, let alone set off a fire in that cathedral, which twice survived powerful earthquakes, in the 19th and 20th centuries.
At any rate, being at Christmas Eve service early allowed one to take in the beauty of the cathedral. I would quietly wave to school friends who happened to be Hindu but whose parents always came for that midnight mass. One Christmas in the early 1970s, just as the service was about to begin, a homeless man, stark naked and likely deranged, walked to the altar. The cathedral’s priest at the time, Reverend Subir Biswas, had set up a relief service in response to the 1971 Bangladeshi refugee crisis, when Kolkata took in about a million migrants. For Christmas Eve, Biswas was dressed in his finest flowing cassock.
The most compassionate of men, he wrapped his golden cream, cape-like outer garment around the homeless man while quietly leading him away. For those dressed up in blazers and ties and somewhat scandalised, it was as if he was reminding us that the story of Christmas was about kindness to the less fortunate.
In the 1980s, the concerts leading up to Christmas became legendary. A charismatic German conductor, Hans-Jürgen Nagel, had arrived in Kolkata to work at Max Mueller Bhavan after being assistant conductor at the Bonn Opera House. He brought soloists from Germany—oboe players and bass singers—to Kolkata and performed miracles, raising the standards of the St Paul’s Cathedral choir and the Calcutta School of Music (CSM).
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Decades on, I am unable to listen to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio’s alto arias without a flashback to the deep voice of Roshan Gazder, then a pillar of the CSM, filling that huge cathedral in a manner akin to ventriloquism. For my father, the effect was transformative. He had never sung in choirs before but thereafter singing became a passion, one he continued till months before his death. I am an agnostic who is bored by religion but that exposure left me in awe of religious music, ranging from Western classical choral works to the Sufi singing of Abida Parveen and Atif Aslam.
Celebrating Christmas in Calcutta was something I looked forward to for many years, travelling back from New York and Hong Kong, where I lived at the time. My father, playing on India’s love of acronyms that meant the Protestant Church of North India was inevitably shortened to CNI, joked that I was a CNE Christian (Christmas and Easter). After losing my parents a few years apart more than a decade ago, I am not even that.
My mother died on 22 December; more than a decade and a half later, I approach 25 December with the wariness of a teetotaller who has arrived late at a noisy bar. As author Salman Rushdie observed recently of one of his Indian characters: “The world you came from has gone. The loss of home is not because you are not there, but because it is not there.”
Although I am never happier than when preparing for a lunch or dinner at home at any other time, I find myself unable to entertain around Christmas. Instead, memories of Christmas parties at our home flash before my eyes. The brandy butter my mother made for steamed Christmas pudding was so alcoholic that no one who ate it would have passed a breathalyser test. My mother’s irrepressible wit and energy worked across generations, putting everyone at ease.
I had returned in 2017 to Kolkata seeking a cure for my reluctance to celebrate Christmas. What was called Boro Din as a legacy of Kolkata’s British managing agencies had morphed into something out of an epic. On the day I arrived, chief minister Mamata Banerjee had opened a festival of carols that carried on for two whole days. On Christmas Day, the police commissioner was out late into the evening trying to ensure the huge crowds on Park Street did not snowball into a stampede.
Policemen appeared to be in a tug-of-war, using long ropes to hold back people who waited their turn to enter the sound and light show of revelry Park Street had become. What sounded like a riot unfolding in the distance turned out to be a series of loud Mexican Waves. Pessimists have been predicting the death of Kolkata for decades but its unique spirit of embracing festivals and its sense of fun remains undimmed.
Christmas remains a time of bittersweet memories, when I am apt to be ambushed by what the Welsh call hiraeth, an undefinable homesickness or longing. Earlier this month, my brother and sister-in-law hosted a Christmas party in Bengaluru, where we live. The spouses of friends sang carols with gusto. My nephew ably manned the bar, adhering to my mother’s rule that “to get the party going, make sure the first drink is a stiff one”—without ever having heard her say it. I was similarly moved watching my college-going niece passing around perfectly decorated mini chocolate cakes on dessert plates we used at Christmas parties in Kolkata decades ago.
Last week, I was at a Christmas bazaar pop-up by Baro Market (@Baromarket) in Mumbai’s Bandra West, listening to the Sassy Songbirds (@TheSassysongbirdsMumbai), my first live performance in 18 months. Their rendition of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas at the end of this year of covid-19 calamities was moving: “Faithful friends who are dear to us/ They gather near to us once more. Through the years/ We’ll always be together.”
“Fingers crossed,” interjected one of the fabulous singers. A cry from the heart, it also seemed sunnily optimistic. Her crossed fingers were pointed towards the heavens in an entreaty for better times. We can only hope.
Rahul Jacob covered the economic reforms of the 1990s for Fortune and Time magazines.
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