Saturday, January 7, 2006

Christmas in times past

Christmas means different things to different people. For devout Christians, it is the advent of Jesus Christ; they go to midnight Mass, sing hymns, pray and tell beads of their rosaries. Their number has been dwindling over the years.

To the vast majority in western countries, it is the time to give and receive presents. Their shopping spree begins early in December and goes till Christmas Eve. And it is Christmas Eve more than Christmas Day they celebrate. They consume more alcohol and eat more — turkey and pudding laced with rum, port wine and brandy. They light up Christmas trees, tie gift parcels on its branches. An elder dons a bright red dressing gown and fur cap, sticks a long snow-white beard under his chin and ho, ho; everyone’s to be merry.

There is little of Christ in their merry-making. They do very little on Christmas Day besides drinking black coffee and popping pills of aspirin to get over the hangover. The presiding deity is not Jesus Christ, the messiah, but Bacchus, the god of wine.

I celebrate Christmas Eve in my own way. For me it is time to revive memories of the many a happy Christmas I spent in England and in my years in college.

It started around 1935 when I went to live as a boarder with Professor F.S. Marvin, who had a lovely little cottage in Welwyn Garden City, about 40 miles north of London. I had to take a train every morning to King’s Cross Station to reach college.

I got to nodding terms with people who took the same train. Among them was a group which practised singing Christmas carols during their morning journey. Other passengers who wanted to read their morning papers avoided getting into their compartment. I joined this group and soon familiarised myself with quite a few Christmas carols and joined them with my besura voice.

I celebrate Christmas Eve in my own way. For me it is time to revive memories of the many a happy Christmas I spent in England and in my years in college.

They invited me to join them on Christmas to go from door to door to sing. A Black man was regarded auspicious. I did not have to paint my face. All I had to do was to carry a lantern and knock at the door. We were welcomed indoors and offered drinks and cakes.

That was a long, long time ago. But memories linger. Comes Christmas time and the carols I sang float back into my mind. I often mix up the lines but the tunes stay. “Silent Night, Holy Night; Noel, Noel born is the King of Israel; Holly and the Ivy. Ols King Wenceslus; O, let us adore him.” And a few others.

For years I tried to relive Christmas Eve in England and by spending the last week of December in a hotel in Goa overlooking the Bogmalo beach. The village alongside is largely Catholic. As Christmas approaches, the hotel loudspeakers blare out my favourite carols. On Christmas Eve, schoolchildren come by the busload and sing carols for hotel guests lying on canvas chairs by the bathing pool.

I am unable to travel any more. So I replicate the past in my home in Delhi. In good time I place an order for a Christmas eve dinner with Claire Dutt: she makes the most delicious turkey or duck and pudding. My only guests are my daughter Mala, her husband Ravi, their daughter Naina and their closest friends Dalip and Nandini Mehta. We always include our neighbour Reeta Devi, who we have adopted as a family member: she is Hindu-Buddhist.

We listen to Christmas carols on the stereo, relish our food and wine. None of us is Christian. Only the atmosphere is make-believe of the Christmas spent in England. Nostlagia is always tinged with a little melancholy; my Christmas Eves take me back to England of my youth.

Rising saints

We Indians must be the only people in the world who regard getting up very early as an act of piety. Anyone who is up by, or before, 4 pm is assumed to be God-fearing. It is taken for granted that he or she must do so to pray or meditate. If they also take an early bath in cold water during winter months, it lends an aura to their saintliness.

No such assumptions are made for people who get up late and bathe in warm water. Is there any logic behind such assumptions? None. Nevertheless, they are a part of our hallowed tradition. We believe that just as prayer and meditation cleanse our souls, bathing in cold water is more cleansing than bathing in warm water.

We go a step further; an early morning walk is regarded more beneficial for body and mind than an evening stroll. There is not the slightest difference in physical exercise taken at any time of the day, but we stick to our belief that there is something extra special about exerting oneself before dawn.

I am an early riser and always wake up well before 5 am. I do not waste my time on prayer or meditation. If I am reluctant to get down to reading or scribbling, I switch on my world satellite radio’s Morning Maestro Channel. I listen to western classical music in the pitch dark of pre-dawn silence till the morning paper arrives around 5.45 am.

During winter months, I do not bathe every day. I wet part of a towel in warm water and rub it over different parts of my body. It is as cleansing as a shower bath. When the sun is up, I take a stroll in my backyard. I don’t feel pious or saintlike; I feel fit and ready to take on life.

AB phenomenon

Two letters of alphabet, A and B

A strange phenomenon in them I see

From Kashmir to Kanyakumari

AB stands for Atal Bihari

Amitabh Bachchan, a star of super fame,

With AB begins his popular name,

Another AB, architect of question sting

Who put eleven MPs under sling.

Aniruddha Bahal, what is he?

In shape a cobra, in action a bee.

(Courtesy: G.C. Bhandari, Meerut)

Fast learner

Teacher: Why are you late, Guddu?

Guddu: Sir, because of a sign down the road.

Teacher: What do you mean?

Guddu’ the sign reads: ‘School ahead, go slow.’

(Contributed by K. J. S Ahluwalia, Amritsar)