Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Connection

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
Of Christmas
Children laughing
People passing
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...

Someday, someday.


Unknown said...

Merry Christmas to u....sir may u keep all ur fans enchanted with ur posts for several Christmas to come

Sudeep Chowdhuri said...

Dear BG,
Christmas songs by Jim Reeves – and you left out ‘White Christmas’? Not done, Sir. I know you have mentioned ‘White Christmas’, but I am talking about the Jim Reeves ‘White Christmas’. In my childhood we had it on a 45rpm SP Record – Jingle Bells on one side, and ‘White Christmas’ on the other.

Christmas means something else for me - tonight, my son will wait to try and catch Santa bringing him his gift(s), but will fall asleep. His friends tell him that Santa does not exist, but he knows Santa exists, because he saw Santa slipping out of the window the time he almost caught him. Isn’t this just ‘me’ a few decades back?

Cheers, and Merry Christmas.

Sepiamniac said...

it is quite true most festivals and their moods are always linked to our childhood. All that compartments that classify our lives vanish the day we start working, or get old...

Btw, sad end for your Mizo neighbour...

Needless to say- a good piece!

Anonymous said...

Someday, someday, I would want to be a part of your Christmas dream!

Anonymous said...

Dear BG,

My favourite Jim Reeves number was "Merry Christmas Polka." Of course, wouldn't miss out for the world the numbers you mentioned.

Besides, it comes as a total surprise to know that you connect to christmas in a far richer way than most christians do.

Here's wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy Birthday!

Neha said...

Merry Christmas!

This post took me to my childhood...miss those days and celebration!

Lakshmi said...

dropping in here after a very long time..seasons greetings and a very happy birthday

Bishwanath Ghosh said...

Thank you everybody. Cheers and Merry Christmas!

J said...

You just described my perfect Christmas with your final lines (I am no Christian but Hollywood paints us a pretty picture).

Its just hot chocolate, rum, presents, the wood fireplace...ah... Christmas.

Owh well, Happy Christmas, Happy Birthday and Happy New Year BG ji!!!

Madhurima said...

Merry Christmas!

Your post took me back down memory lane to my childhood days and my days in US.

I try to recreate the childhood magic with my son-decorating the Christmas tree, baking rum cake and putting up the star.

In US I remembered 2 consecutive years we saw “White Christmas” which is supposed to bring good luck. When I looked out from my bedroom window the whole place was covered with snow. It was breathtakingly beautiful.

In my house we celebrate Christmas with same ferver as we celebrate Durga puja. Christmas Eve is always with good food and wine and my hubby playing all the Christmas carols. Christmas morning is all about exchanging gifts and having a sumptuous breakfast.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bishi.Happy birthday.......hope you had a blast.....

Paresh Palicha said...

Sorry for being late here. It wasn't intentional as you may understand. My Christmas was spent in movie theatres & the next in writing about them (to beat the deadline) & then hopping into a train for a medium distance journey.

Hope you had a wonderful Christmas & a great birthday.

May 2011 be brighter with much joy & little sorrow!

Desi Babu said...

Happy Birthday Ghosh-Babu! And Merry Christmas! Hope you had a good time...

Anubhuti said...

and northern lights glistening in the sky, nights that go on and on.

Santa sitting with lots of kids and me (not the one with a 20 rupey ka mask, but the real one), telling us tales of christmas.

Bones frozen and spirits warm.

Someday in Norway, we will meet, maybe.