Indian Christmas

When you commit to living in another country, you have to do a lot of things that are entirely out of your comfort zone, and you have to just get stuck in and find the heartbeat of it.

Last year, my Xmas was flying to Sri Lanka and wending my way by public bus through mountainous countryside, and arriving late at night at a hostel run by a Muslim family in a Buddhist country and smiling at the Christmas tree and decorations.

This year, for some strange reason, I really had a pull to visit a church and be part of something familiar but not necessarily religious. i guess a nostalgia, or a touch of home-sickness and a sweet longing to hear Christmas carols, and be with other foreigners and slightly, for a moment pull myself back from the Indian Hindu and Indian Muslim and Indian Jain dominant faiths of Jaipur. It is an old city, and there are landmarks of old British era churches, stone built, with walled gardens, evocative of all I know really.

I could feel the Xmas spirit vanish, and we are stuck in a horrible financial quagmire with literally no funds. Kind strangers have helped put some cash in the pot that will enable me to get to a neighbouring country to do my visa, and we are absolutely having to manage the tensions, dance with despair and count the days till our circumstances begin to improve. it is definitely a time to keep the faith. we wandered into a local shopping mall, and actually we loved the no money, no shopping experience; it was hugely fun, and we got to try on silly hats, and make believe shopping baskets filled with all the things we would buy if we were credit card enabled people.

Tiny handmade clay panels were painted in garish glittery colours, and at the last minute instead of being used as hanging Christmas decorations, they became teeny Hanukkah candle pedestals; each candle resting on it’s miniature menorah, and we even made an upstanding shamesh to light the candles. A teeny tiny eight inch Christmas tree arrived, with ready made-in-china decorations, Dairy milk chocolate, bundles of bhakti-blessed temple rose petals and a slightly wild, disheveled gypsy bunch of flowers graced our studio work table. not so shabby really.

The plan was roast chicken and roast potatoes, but that, along with the old picturesque chapel did not actually happen.

I got restless, and frustrated, and a sense of urgency overtook me. I really needed to keep the faith and knew how easily these best laid plans can drift in and out of reality, so I threw on my British Barbour jacket, and hailed the first auto-rickshaw I could find, saying, Christian Church, Christian Church, Christmas, C-Scheme.

A little too long in C-scheme and it started to become obvious that Christian Church was not something the driver really knew about. We stopped and asked some passerby’s who gave us good clear, straight ahead, turn left kind of assistance. Several straight aheads and left, rights, and U turns later, I felt that wave of urgency again. I pulled my jacket close to my body, and jumped out the auto and started walking, in search of anything merry! Saint Xaviours School is the most prestigious Christian school in Jaipur with extraordinary standards and the graduates all excelling in every single subject. It is a huge, pristine campus, and I followed my nose until I found the school, and at the gates, bought a prayer candle, and asked, Is there a church here? It was a post-modern 1970’s designed church, sparse, and modern, and whilst not what I had in mind, it was just going to become exactly what I wanted. The families crowded around the garish lights in the garden, and took selfies with the cardboard nativity mural that included several sheep! Jesus and Mary were not really present in the Nativity scene, but there, low and behold, they were hanging together in a heart shaped garland of plastic bows on the alter wall. It was a solemn affair, no carols, no music, and some earnest folk, sitting on benches with clasped prayful hands. I kind of liked it. And I took some sparkly pictures in the spirit of all things sparkly 2016.

I walked the cold evening streets and found myself back near the part of bustling town I know quite well, and cheekily ordered a piping hot espresso coffee in the stunning well of the beaten track French cafe that I like. I was actually not at all sure I had enough cash to pay for it, and was relieved that for once all the delicious french pastries were sold out. My little phone photos get edited into something hazy and vague, but depicting some gentleness that I was desperate to mark this holiday with. Where I have been fierce, may there be more gentleness. Where I have been stark and blunt in my dislike, may there be some softness, some blurred edges. May I also see the sweetness, and dispel the harsh edges that seemed too real all year.

Chasing atms’ at 9pm was a perfectly normal Demonetization activity, and not even especially stressful. The big, giant Standard Chartard Banks, all displayed the now normal, photo-copied signs saying No Cash available. I smiled. I actually had one trump card up my sleeve which was the lesser known State Bank of Kerala that has a small hidden ATM that is really own known to Keralites. A sweet auto-driver took me there, and there was no queue. The limit now for withdrawals is 2500 rupees, but, that can not be dispensed as the machines only have 2000 rupee notes. So, the limit suggests one thing, the reality, that the lesser amount is what you will be granted, no matter the 58 different declarations by central government.

Whilst some imperative made me do this Christmas eve thing alone, I still felt ready and able to come home a gift bearing, satisfied to have mission accomplished girlfriend. I came home with cash, rum, Hanukkah candles, and a smile that said, See I can manage!

At the last minute, on Saturday evening we were invited to join a Kerala family for lunch. The tree was huge, and lunch was….. biryiani!

I am not sure what I was imagining. Roast potatoes, and smoked salmon, and turkey. Ya. I was. Biryiani and sliced cucumber and a small bowl of curd was Christmas feast in this christian family tradition. And, it was delicious. To be among laughing, friends, sharing a tipple of home-made wine, and eating Plum Cake filled, packed with dried fruits, soaked for months in sun-drenched rum.

like all Xmas traditions, we clamoured to the sofa to watch a movie. Slapstick Malayalam movie hour had the whole house in belly aching laughter. Whilst I knew it was to my norms, surreal, it was also absolutely filled with family and friends doing what we all do during this holiday; enjoying some wind-down time, not thinking about work, and problems, and just feeling thanks for food, warmth and shelter.

It was not the roast potato and roast chicken day I had planned, sharing a little Brit tradition with my other half. I actually doubt that will ever happen. It seems too far a leap, to celebrate Western traditions with people that despise and resent what my people did to their great nation. I cannot fix that pain and loss. Not in a thousand days, can I hold a candle to the Westernization of the world. I can not say, Yes, I robbed you of your childhood memories, of young girls bathing in rivers, and young lads jumping off bridges into rippling clear waters. I personally did not steal from your memory gentleman on bicycles and fine elegant ladies polishing rice and singing together as they braided their hair. I did not make time rush forwards. I did not fracture village life, and build shopping malls, and American cinema complexes. I did not ask for Coke over a lime sherbet or Limca. I came because I love this place. I came because it stands on the brink of modernity and yet holds the past in it’s big bosom. I came because religions merge, and worship is noisy. I came because thousands of gods hold up the sky, and I walk the streets and am repeatedly greeted with the humbling of a folded hand Namaskar.

I did not come to impose my British ways. But, after two thousand nights away from my home, I too wanted to share some fond memories, some bygone moments. I too wanted to fill the space, between the differences, and say, Ah, me too. Us too.

Searching for the moments that made us, broke us, remake us, the fragments of family life, of traditions past, are the delicate construction of this now. The narrative can be a big lie, or it can be a portal to a sort-of truth. The sort-of I wish to remember. The sort-of I wish it were so with all my heart. I come in peace. I come with love. I am not the enemy and I have no sword.

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