I am not a Christian, yet when Christmas approaches, I greet it with a deep sense of familiarity. Part of the reason is that I was born a day after Christ, though some 2,000 years apart; partly because I went to a Christian school run by the nuns. So Christmas is in the blood, as much Diwali is.
Though it does not feel all that Christmasy in Chennai, where I have spent the past ten Decembers without a break. Christmas, to me, means fog, if not snow, thanks to the carols one has grown up with. I mean, if you shut your eyes and imagine Santa Claus, you automatically see snow and pine forests and certainly not the sun and the sea.
My best memories of Christmas go back -- naturally -- to my childhood days in Kanpur. By December end, at least during those days of pre-climate change, the whole of north India would invariably be engulfed in dense fog during the nights and the much of the mornings. Our immediate neighbour was a Christian -- a jolly Mizo man who loved his drink and who was a die-hard fan of Indira Gandhi. When she won the elections in 1980, he distributed laddoos in the entire block, but when she was assassinated four years later, in October 1984, he remained in a state of inebriation for several days. With bloodshot eyes he would stare angrily at my Sikh classmate who often came home, and would slur, "You bloody Sardarji." I don't think he survived that Christmas.
But before tragedy, in the form of Indira Gandhi's killing, hit him like a thunderbolt, it was very assuring to have a neighbour like him. Always jovial. He was the Mongoloid equivalent of Om Prakash in Julie. The Christmas star outside his door -- shining through the fog -- was the sole indication for the neighbourhood that Christmas was round the corner. I mean, you know Christmas falls on December 25, but most often you need physical reminders -- that's true for any festival.
Those were the simple days. The TV station shut shop by nine or 10 in the night. The radio too went silent by, I think, 11 pm. After which, fog and silence would have descended on the neighbourhood. Suddenly, close to midnight, the silence would be shattered by the sound of live drums and guitar. And a chorus would burst out:
Jingle bells, jingle bells
jingle all the way...
My neighbour's doors would fling open, and a party, led by Santa Claus, would troop in. Loud laughter and bantering and some more carols would follow, and then the party would leave for the next Christian home. Jumping out of our quilts, shivering and wide-eyed, we would watch the spectacle from our windows. To me that's real music: something that you sing or play live in a chilling foggy night when nothing else is to be heard for miles and miles around. The music touches your bones.
That's how my love for carols was born. Even after my neighbour was dead and his family gone, I would make it a point to play carols on the radio or the cassette-player during those foggy nights preceding Christmas. For several years I was in the possession of a lone ecstasy-inducing T-Series cassette titled Disco X-mas. And I still have it with me in Chennai. The cassette gave me company during half-a-dozen Christmases, apart from serving as the background music for my workouts, during my late teens.
That's the thing about carols. When you are mellow and nursing a drink, nothing beats Jim Reeves. Who can ever forget his rendition of Silver Bells?:
City sidewalks, busy sidewalks
Dressed in holiday style
In the air
There's a feeling
Meeting smile after smile
And on every street corner you'll hear
Silver bells, silver bells
It's Christmas time in the city
But Chennai has no bloody sidewalks. It is perhaps the only city in the world without footpaths. Anyway, Jim Reeves did not lend his silvery voice to the song keeping Chennai in mind. Oh, never mind. What I was saying was how the carols can adjust themselves according to your mood.
If you are in a mellow mood, Jim Reeves can hold your hand and guide you to heaven. But if you are in the mood for a long drive, what better companion than Boney M? Their rendition of Mary's boy child still gives me goosebumps. And if you are working out or dancing, there are countless adrenalin-pumping disco and rock versions of the good old carols. What pumps my adrenalin particularly is Feliz Navidad.
After I moved to Delhi, I kept the Christmas spirit alive in my mind for selfish reasons. It worked like this: if I was alive to Christmas, I would be alive to my birthday, and if I was alive to my birthday, I would realise that another year is soon going to pull the rug from under my feet and that I better buck up. On foggy nights, I have attended the midnight mass at some of the most handsome, British-built cathedrals of Delhi. One Christmas eve, I think this was 1995, sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan performed at one of these cathedrals and I can never forget his rendition of Silent night, holy night. That night, watching him, I realised the difference between a maestro and a musician.
So much for the carols. Now for the atmosphere. Isn't it foolish to sing "Dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh" in the tropical heat of, say, Chennai? The romance of Christmas, at least the way we -- the former British colony -- know it, lies in the weather. Christmas is about Arctic winter: Dashing through the snow; Frosty the snowman; Winter wonderland; Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer; White Christmas.
Someday, yes someday, I intend to celebrate Christmas the way it is depicted in the carols. That would be a childhood dream come true. I would like to be in a village, American or European, where there is nothing for miles around except snow and pine forests and a solitary log cabin. The log cabin would, of course, be occupied by me and my companion. No wi-fi connection, no mobile network, no phones, but only a fireplace to warm the cabin and Scotch to warm the bodies. And as you sit by the window, cuddling and sipping Scotch and watching the snow, you suddenly hear voices coming from afar. The voices come closer, and soon you sight a party of men with flowing white beards, marching towards your log cabin and singing,
Jingle bells, jingle bells
jingle all the way...