To an onlooker, Christmas in Calcutta is a lit up Park Street, cakes from legendary bakeries and a whole lot of cheer. This is Christmas in Calcutta, but this is not the only one. I’ve come to understand that in a place where diverse communities co-exist, every festival has several characters.
Having had no close Anglo-Indian friends or extended interactions with them, I recently realized that I know nothing about Christmas in Calcutta. This realization came to me, far away from the city in the confines of my office when I started speaking to my colleague about what her Christmas is like in Calcutta.
More loaves of cake than you can count was the primary feature, but behind it was a fascinating story about how the Anglo-Indian community acquires cakes during the season. Now based in Bangalore, my colleague’s parents still go to Calcutta every December. The whole family flies in for a few days of togetherness, traditions and new rituals. The only thing more important for the celebration than cakes are the family recipes for baking them. Each family guards a recipe, perfected over time and preserved with care. The supplies for hundreds of loaves are bought during the season, counted and re-counted to ensure that even half an egg is not missing.
But where are these cakes made, these special loaves marked with unwritten history and an unbroken spirit? Each family employs a baker before the festival, the baker who would have been baking for the family for years. Even though he sells his bakes throughout the year locally, this is the time when he becomes the star of the mohalla, the messiah of a tradition and the reason it hasn’t died down yet.
With ovens that cover up entire walls leaving little space for customers to stand in, these bakeries come alive in the month of December. While you pull your blanket closer and enjoy the sweet sleep away from the chilly air, the Anglo-Indian community is out and about at 4am. With bags full of measured ingredients and an appointment with the baker (make sure you take it at least a month in advance), families line up outside his shop. Turn by turn they enter the room with ovens for walls and take out their recipes. With precise directions by the family members, the batter of the cake is prepared and poured into containers. Each loaf is marked with the family name to identify the recipe.
I wonder how many loaves are baked in each of those rooms, how many families take home Christmas in bags filled with the aroma of upcoming celebrations, how many children are forced to go there with their mothers to imbibe the tradition within them. It’s a strange ritual, to exchange cake for cake. It’s also what humans do isn’t it? Give and take has formed the foundation of all human contact. Hate for hate, love for love. And in any case, each cake is different from the other. Each loaf tells a story that is exclusively told by mother to child for generations until the story itself is lost, and only the knowledge of its existence remains.
How do the bakers feel about this tradition? Are they the real enablers or is it the family which hides away the recipe? Perhaps it is both working in harmony; one wheel moves for remembrance and the other for celebration. After all, all celebrations begin in memory: the memory of a happy moment, an unforgettable laughter and a sense of belonging. Oblivious to all of this, I lived my entire life in the city believing Christmas was just a holiday on which you ate cake. My father was a willing Santa, filling up stockings for me every year and hiding gifts under the bed until my fantasy was shattered and I knew it was him. I stopped writing wish lists with him in November but he never stopped buying me cake in December.
When I think about this, about a home that I never fully understood or discovered, I think about what I carry with me from there. What do we carry with us as adults who no longer share a house with their families? I wonder what are the things that I will repeat unknowingly in life, which flowers I will offer to gods and which sweets I will make on certain days for the rest of my life. Traditions that become a part of you, lose all meaning but that of claiming your roots.
Are these roots only about the rituals that echo in every home that we build? Or do they reach out to the space beyond into who we become altogether? Do they coincide with our values, with what we believe in and what we stand for? Or are these separate from the way families gather around for meals? What do we carry with us all our lives?
The oven-walled rooms create not even a flutter in our lives but they go with us in our suitcases, recipes are remembered on long evenings filled by quiet. Collectors of our own stories, we sometimes trespass into the lives of others and our suitcases become heavier. Are we the weight of untold stories? Stories that do not even know who they are, stories that are maybe just some ovens in the wall.
I pack my words and I go
What else can I need?
“Do you have any baggage ma’am?”
My insides weigh down on me
Airports have the longest corridors
“Can I get a window seat?”
“Is the last row ok?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
There is no order to some chronologies
Departure only happens after it has already happened
“Boarding will happen at gate no. 24”
The shops have excellent bags
My mother likes plain ones,
Those that are not made to be seen, only used.
The chairs fill up in the waiting area
I can see my father sitting on one, his hand on his chin
He’s there and then he’s not.
Boarding begins, people line up
“This is the final boarding call…”
Departures are marked by a large black border,
Don’t cross over.
Switch off your phone, fall asleep
Departure only happens after it has already happened.
The person at the store will tell you that suitcases come in four sizes: small, medium, large and the one that’s the same size as that 12 year old you. I took the medium one last year. What was I going to do with a suitcase any bigger than that anyway? My father wanted me to buy the large one, he believes in covering all his bases. I am still tainted with inexperience.
In the last one month, I chose to stay mostly at home (Other than the one trip to the hills). Everywhere I went despite this choice, I wanted to consume into my memory. Would I ever visit this lane again? When would I take this bus again? The dim lights of dinners, the blinding sunshine of afternoons in Calcutta and then the darkness of street lights. Maybe homes take up expanses that we fail to recognize and later, measure.
It suddenly dawns upon you that the tasks for the following days include emptying drawers, letting go of books, giving away clothes. These are the rituals of every departure. Life stands in a linear scale and the scale ends here.
The sun sets later here, evenings are longer. I wake up earlier than I would like to. New beds are hostile to sleep. You never return to the old, departure once is exile forever. Home, is a disease that infects memory. And yet, home is renewed everyday with memory. The further you move away from home, the more your memory creates it. For every bedside table that held your spectacles, is a shelf that almost fits them in the same way. Habits become rituals; homes are held together by rituals.
The first time you leave home, with only departure tickets, you will shed a chunk of your heart. Do not expect to find it back in the course of time.
Bombay is not unfamiliar, it’s not familiar either. Meals need to be taken care of, bills have to be paid. I think of Calcutta often, mostly in passing as a standard to compare every other place with. When you have known only one thing all your life, everything else seems to be a variable of that one thing.
New things grow on you, slowly. We spend lifetimes in finding dreams, but sometimes they come true in uncertain patterns. Happiness comes in toffee-sized bites, at the corner of every street in one strange shop. I think of my mother, of the way no other touch will be so old, so known. I think of departures, of the weight that I left behind. Perhaps, all departures only make us lighter. Everything is lost at its moment of inception. Where does life find its space then? Why do we collect souvenirs to remember? Umbrellas form silhouettes here. Bombay settles into you as you settle into the rains. Someday, the building opposite yours won’t be the same as the building back home that you remember.
I packed two suitcases for Bombay, and a bag. How many suitcases does it take to fit in the gatherings of lifetimes? Where do you keep the things you cannot carry? Every moment I spend here, I want to absorb everything. There is so much to see, so much that I do not know about. Laughter appears at odd hours, in pyjamas in the new place that you have to call home now. Embrace it, embrace every semblance of happiness that comes to you. Wait on the shore, see the tides rise. Love is a souvenir to keep, it fills all suitcases. Know that sometimes love is also the monsoon that comes without rain. Hold on to it anyway. It’s okay to believe. Let people find you, let rituals take you over.
गुलमोहर की लाल आहटें,
पत्तझड़ में आवाज़ देते हैं
कौन सुनता हैं उन्हें?
नाराज़ होने का एक तरीका वो भी है,
जिसमे नाराज़ नहीं होते
अधूरे-अधूरे से घुलते है केसर के धागे,
पर खीर की मिठास पूरी-सी ही लगती है
कौन चखता है उसे?
आदत की अदालत में,
वकालत सिर्फ बदलाव की
जीत जाने से, जीत तो नहीं जाते
एक दीवाल है तूफान की,
एक आँधी का रास्ता घर तक
लौट आने का रस्म निभाता कौन है?
गुलमोहर की लाली तो न सुनने वाले पर भी गिरती है,
खीर तो न चखने वाले को भी मिलती है
ये रस्में भी अजीब हैं शायद,
इनकी आदत ही खराब है शायद
हर बारिश के छत्री हज़ार,
फिर भी, भीग जाता कौन है?
सच तो यह है
की हर शहर
हर दूसरे शहर जैसा है
घर यहाँ भी सबके छोटे है, इमारतें वहा भी रोज़ बनते है
यहाँ तुम नीली शर्ट पहनते हो, और वहाँ काली
इस शहर से उस शहर के बीच में
चार कागज़ के फूलों का फासला
(वो फूल भी मुर्झाने लगे)
उस शहर से इस शहर तक
१५ कग – डोमेस्टिक
२० कग – इन्टरनैश्नल, कम है
१० kg वज़न तो सिर्फ इस शहर की बारिश का है
१६ kg यहाँ की नर्मी का, ठन्ड में पिघलती तेल के पास पड़े कुर्सी का
तुम कहते हो, तुम्हारा शहर ज़्यादा बड़ा है
वहाँ अॅफिस जाते है, काम पर नहीं
वहाँ फुटपाथ पर घर नहीं बनते क्या?
वहाँ भी तो तुम,
अचानक हँसते हो, धीरे चलते हो
अच्छा बोलो, एक हँसी की वज़न क्या होती है?
नहीं रहने दो,
अगले बार ले जाऊँगी
इस बार शोपिंग कुछ ज़्यादा कर ली
सच, तो यही है
कि हर शहर हर दूसरे शहर
जैसा ही है
कल सुबह फिर
तुम्हारा शहर अलग होगा मेरे शहर से
तुम्हारे शहर की काॅफी ज़्यादा मीठी
और मेरे शहर की चाय बिल्कुल कड़क
I say your name every fifth day of the week