Valparai, 1973: Brandy, pachyderms and a pile of dung. It was the day of the annual Christmas party. The town doctor was to be Santa Claus. The president of the Annamalai Club was elated; the doctor, a well-rounded gentleman, would make the perfect Father Christmas. It was a beautiful evening and planters were playing tennis and golf under a sky that heralded the end of the monsoon.
But the doctor couldn’t make it; he had a stomach ache. Who would volunteer at the last minute? Playing Santa in front of 40 or so children is a daunting task. A bottle of brandy was offered as inducement. There were still no candidates.
Finally, the president induced a golfer in the last throes of a bad round. The brandy was temptation enough, and, with the help of two fellow golfers, the new Santa demolished the bottle. He got dressed—traditional red robes, white whiskers flowing down to rest over a large pillow strapped under the garment. But Santa still wasn’t ready. “I didn’t get my full share of the brandy.”
The flabbergasted president, the doppelganger of Omar Sharif, protested but as the would-be Santa had started disrobing, he sent for another bottle. Sated, Santa left the changing room at last. A slanting sun silhouetted a large object looming on the mud road to the Masonic Lodge. A horrified Santa found himself confronted by an elephant with a chair strapped to its back.
A crowd had assembled: Children gesticulated and squealed in delight as a slender mahout tried to keep them at bay. Santa would never be able to mount the pachyderm on his own. The villagers got together, lifted him and pushed him on to the chair. Nobody knows whose fault it was but the chair hadn’t been fastened properly. It flipped over to the other side, taking Santa with it.
Sprawled on his belly, rocking on the pillow stuffed under his belt, Santa couldn’t even utter a curse. The wind taken from his sails, Santa was hoisted once again. This time, Santa found himself astride the coarse hair that sticks out from an elephant’s back. It was like riding a porcupine! Before he could protest, the elephant began its interminable journey (all of 500 yards) to the club house.
But the surfeit of alcohol had finally kicked in. A weary, battered Santa put his elbows on the chair backrest and fell asleep. The elephant entered the club, and, annoyed, discharged a voluminous quantity of steaming dung. It was stopped right there and Santa forcibly dismounted. The children insisted this was the best Christmas ever. And after the presents were distributed, Santa was the life of the party.
A few years later, in South Coorg, the same Santa was called to perform above and beyond the call of duty. There was no elephant; Santa was to make his appearance on roller skates. I suppose everyone is entitled to surmise how that ended!
Darjeeling, 1949: By the time the bells of St Andrews struck four times, it was dark. There weren’t too many people around; the town square seemed bigger than usual. It was bitterly cold. Overcoats, scarves, gloves and felt hats made it difficult to recognise anyone.
There was no discernible breeze. Yet the cold chilled one to the marrow. As it turned dark, the snow started falling. Crunching through the white carpet, holding my mother’s hand, I was excited. Muriel Ray had invited us for Christmas dinner and my mother was on a last-minute mission for presents. Habib Mullick, on Chowrasta square, was the destination.
It was warm inside. Fur coats and an assortment of warm garments, hanging from the ceiling, left a musty smell. Intricately carved, collapsible walnut tables from Kashmir took pride of place. Thick Tibetan carpets covered the walls. As my mother took in the wares with an experienced eye, a large foldable knife caught my attention. Before I could ask her to buy it for me, she had finished her purchases and dragged me out of the shop.
The disappointment was brief. Snow was still falling and, in the silence, the faint sound of Ave Maria, sung by half a dozen schoolchildren, wafted across. A girl leading them was carrying a hurricane lantern. It sounded as though the angels were amongst us. In the dark, trampling over a carpet of snow, hearing Silent Night was enchanting. My mother began singing, her beautiful voice floating over the whitened earth…I felt I was in heaven.
At the entrance to our home, another group awaited us. As soon as they saw us, they burst out with “Happy Birthday”. My mother was a Christmas baby and this was the first of my many, many Christmas memories.
I clutched my mother’s hand tighter. She was 28 years old that Christmas day. To me, she was very old and I was afraid I wouldn’t have her with me much longer. Then my mother turned and told me to get ready for the party. The nightmare of mortality wiped away, we arrived at the hacienda where Muriel and her daughter Jennifer lived. The lawn had turned white and the tiny pond in the centre had frozen. The sitting room was large and a roaring fire did more to light up the room than the dim electric bulbs overhead. There was an entire goose, still steaming, on the table; a white swan made of papier-mâché hung from the rafters. It was enough to give me goosebumps. My father said it was a “khoi bag”, which didn’t make sense to me at the time.
After the goose was carved, the stuffing attacked and all the crackling chewed, aunt Muriel pulled a cord under the swan. Confetti drizzled over the dining table. There was an occasional thud as gifts rained down. I quickly grabbed one to discover a tiny car, a model of a Hillman Minx. It had two doors that opened. There were seats, a steering wheel and a dashboard. Dad told me it was an expensive Dinky Toy. I treasured it for many years.
On 1 October 2021, my mother died. She would have been 100 today. I am sure she would have us celebrate the wonder of Christmas. Merry Christmas to all…and a very happy birthday in heaven, mum!
Kodaikanal-based Minoo Avari is a retired tea and coffee planter. Published in collaboration with The Kodai Chronicle