Whether it’s Christmas, Diwali or Id, there’s nothing we Indians love more than a good festival
Unlike most people who grew up in Calcutta and then moved away, I am not overly nostalgic about the city. I don’t pine for Bengali culture or Bengali music. I don’t reminisce fondly about the late, lamented Sky Room (a landmark city restaurant in its time). I don’t hanker after the baked beans of Flury’s or the jhaal muri outside Lighthouse cinema (though I sometimes dream about the puchhkas!). I don’t long for the lawns of Tolly Club. I don’t miss the delights of New Market. And I certainly don’t gaze back on my Calcutta days through a fug of rose-tinted nostalgia.
Except on one day of the year: Christmas. Or as we Cal types call it, Bada Din, or quite literally, Big Day.
That’s the only time I get a bit nostalgic about my Calcutta days. Growing up, Christmas was a huge deal. The excitement would start building up weeks in advance, reaching a crescendo when the festive lights on Park Street were turned on. Christmas trees would crop up in the unlikeliest of locations. There would be a sudden flurry of shopping as everyone stocked up on presents. The city’s clubs would vie with one another to host the most spectacular Xmas Eve party. The more devout among us would head to St Paul’s Cathedral for the midnight mass.
Christmas Day would be reserved for picnics to make the most of the short-lived Calcutta winter. I, for one, still have vivid memories of Bada Din family picnics in the Botanical Gardens, with almost the entire neighbourhood in attendance. Meals would be cooked in the open, the kids would dance along to loud music or play raucous games while the adults amused themselves with a pack of cards while keeping a wary eye on their children.
It didn’t really matter what religion we belonged to or what God we worshipped. When it came to Christmas, we were all believers – and celebrants.
As the saying goes, what Calcutta did yesterday, India will do tomorrow. And sure enough, over the years, Christmas has become a huge deal in the rest of the country as well. Our children believe in Santa Claus as fervently as those in the West. Mistletoe and ornament-laden Christmas trees sprout up all over our public spaces as well. We plan special parties on Xmas eve. We enjoy the day off on Christmas with our families and friends.
Of course, the cynics among us will say that it’s just that we Indians love nothing more than a good old festival. And Christmas, with its message of good cheer, its gleaming fairy lights and its lilting carols, fits the bill exactly. It’s a festival after our own hearts, with its emphasis on family, friends and feasting. Rum-laden fruit cakes, stuffed turkey with cranberry sauce, eggnog, mulled wine – who could possibly resist?
But I think there’s more to the way we have made Christmas our own. If you ask me, this ‘secularisation’ of Christmas is, in a sense, a triumph of Indian secularism itself.
As someone who spent her entire childhood in convent school, I grew up with a sense that Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary were just two more idols to add to the Hindu pantheon that I worshipped at home. Before every major exam, most of us would slip quietly into the chapel to have a quick word with God. It didn’t really matter if it was Mother Mary of Ma Durga we prayed to. Even as kids, we knew instinctively, that God was one even if She was called by many names.
And it is in this spirit that we in India take to celebrating each other’s festivals with as much gusto as we would our own.
The most obvious examples are Diwali and Id. Both have religious significance for Hindus and Muslims respectively. But the celebrations that mark them cut across religious lines effortlessly. Diwali parties are not all-Hindu affairs, just as Iftar gatherings and Id dinners are attended by people of all religions.
Hindus may mark Diwali with a special puja to Goddess Lakshmi, but there are many Christian and Muslims families who will light up their homes and burst crackers with as much fervour. Practising Muslims may celebrate Id with prayers in the mosque and exchanging idi gifts with family and friends. But their Hindu, Sikh and Christian friends will join in by cadging invitations to homes where they are guaranteed the best biryani and seviyaan.
And so it is with Christmas. Christians may mark it with a midnight mass or a early morning service on Christmas day, but the rest of us will celebrate the spirit of the day in our own way.
And that, if you ask me, is the greatest triumph of our syncretic Indian culture: that our festivals retain their religious significance even as they are celebrated across religious lines. Contrast this with the West where political correctness now dictates that you should say ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’’ for fear of giving offence to some minority or religious group.
Strange, isn’t it? Especially when in secular India we have no problem in wishing one another Shubh Diwali or Id Mubarak. And in keeping with that spirit, here’s wishing all of you a Merry Christmas. Enjoy the Big Day!