Christmas Miracles in India
When we were kids we used to go to see the Christmas lights on Park Street, the main restaurant drag in Calcutta. Restaurants with names like Sky Room and Moulin Rouge twinkled with lights. Flury’s fine confectioners would stay open late for Darjeeling tea and plum cakes. Calcutta, the most British of India’s big cities, celebrated Christmas as if the 1950s had not gone out of style.
This year as I walked down Park Street and saw the trees and restaurants strung with twinkling strings of lights, it felt a little shabby. Nothing, it seemed, had been updated in the last twenty years, unless you consider the new McDonalds an upgrade. Sky Room was gone. The fancy restaurants of our childhood looked a little timeworn, the uniforms of the doorman seemed a little shop soiled.
The fake Christmas trees were still there – spindly and green, surrounded by mounds of cotton wool snow. The toy Santa Clauses were on sale. A big one for Rs60 ($1.50), a small one for Rs 25. They looked tacky now. The rest of the year they were cheap plastic dolls. During Christmas they got red suits and crookedly pasted white beards.
But Christmas was also much bigger now than it had ever been in my childhood. Even my bank officer has a tiny Christmas tree in a thimble sized pot on her desk next to twin flags of India. India of the malls and shopping complexes had seized on Christmas and made it just another giant Indian festival after Diwali and Durga Puja. Every mall had Christmas trees and Xmas sales. Restaurants were serving tandoori turkey specials. Confectioners were advertising Yule logs and Christmas cakes (some of which tasted like a run of the mill fruit cake with a new wrapper). Even my cell phone keeps spamming me with exhortations to send Santa text messages – Rs 3 per message.
We tried to escape the carol frenzy and go to a traditional Bengali restaurant for lunch. Though there was no turkey on the menu there was a Christmas tree in the lobby. The doorman, a rather thin, undernourished looking man was standing miserably in the sun in his red Santa Claus costume. My sister says he’s probably going to be stuck in that costume till New Year’s day.
It’s still warm in Calcutta – the winter sunshine buttery gold. The temperature is in the seventies. But outside the huge new mall in our neighborhood, the piles of cotton wool snow gleam pristine unmelting white.
I remember we used to always get a box of brightly colored crackers for Christmas from New Market. You pulled one end, your friend pulled another. It was supposed to pop and out would fall a little gift. The crackers were badly made. The string would tear before the crackers popped. The toys were usually the same – a little plastic whistle.
I don’t know if you can get the crackers any more. Christmas was a private festival then. Now it’s another mall special. But in the old convent college where my sister went, the nuns still gather for midnight mass. Those cheap little plastic Santa Clauses in their red suits now seem almost retro in their tackiness. That that even survives is one of the small miracles of Christmas.