Do you leave town for Durga Puja and stay put for Christmas? I plead guilty. Macaulayputras like us love to complain that Durga Puja feels suffocating. Those milling crowds, the blaring loudspeakers, the traffic jams and that miasma of stale oil that has been used to cook a thousand biryanis hanging like a smog of indigestion—all that is too much for our convent-educated sensibilities. We flee to the beaches and hills and fields, leaving behind the blood, toil, tears and sweat of a Kolkata stuffed to its festive gills.
Christmas is different. Christmas always feels much more genteel. It is about plum cakes from a Jewish bakery, a suckling pig roasting on the green lawns of one of the city’s starchy clubs, midnight mass at St Paul’s Cathedral and plum wine brewed by some dear little lady in Bow Barracks, the Anglo-Indian quarter of the city. Christmas is when our non-resident Indian cousins flock back to the city, uncles don sleeveless sweater vests knitted by their wives and aunties argue about which club’s Christmas lunch had the best buffet.
Kolkata has always been identified with Durga Puja. That is the festival that features in all its ululating frenzy in the climax of films like Kahaani. It is the one that defines the city in popular imagination, as much as the Howrah Bridge and the Victoria Memorial and the aloo (potato) in its biryani. Christmas does not get the same pride of place in cultural representations. Yet in its own ways, Christmas in Kolkata is just as shining a representation of the city’s fabled hospitable spirit.
Once the British left India, there was no reason for Christmas to remain. The Anglo-Indian population was small, and diminishing by the day. Yet Kolkata chose to hold on to Christmas and make it its own. Perhaps it was the city’s famous indolence—this was yet another excuse to eat, drink and not go to work. Perhaps it was its Anglophilia, a city home to the original suited-booted Sarkars and Mookherjees, where its clubs insisted on jackets in the dining room at the stroke of 15 November. Perhaps it was just the wistful nostalgia of a humdrum Kolkata for its more cosmopolitan Calcutta heyday. Or it was about making the most of a brief winter of content before summer hit hard—these few weeks were all we had to indulge in quilts, nolen gur and sweaters. Whatever it was, a Kolkata Christmas became the epitome of a secular holiday, celebrated not out of religious compulsion but just because it felt good.
Then Mamata Banerjee got into the act and turned Christmas into a sort of cure for post-Durga Puja blues. If you go now to Park Street—once the centre of the city’s nightlife—anytime in the middle of December, it’s like entering a Christmas pageant of twinkling lights. There’s a red-clothed Santa Claus giving us the salute while bells promise a merry Christmas and reindeer pull sleighs via glittering lights. A park in the middle of the street becomes home to a music stage, Usha Uthup belts out carols, and pop-up stalls sell home-made Christmas cake and vindaloo. It is the Christmas Festival. The lights stay on well into the New Year, a sign of a city loath to let go of that Christmas feeling. At one point it felt like excess, another example of Mamata Banerjee gone tackily overboard. It’s Christmas Puja, says one friend sardonically.
Old timers are getting nervous. They say Bow Barracks turns into a mosh pit where tourists outnumber local Anglo-Indians ten to one. The club buffet lines are too crowded. And is it really worth waiting in a snaking queue for half an hour to get a plum cake at Nahoum’s or Saldanha’s now that everyone has discovered their allure? Denzil Saldanha of Saldanha Bakery once told me with a chuckle that people don’t realize they actually make that cake year round, whether for weddings or Holy Communion or just as rich fruitcake.
In many other parts of the world, the fruitcake is the joke gift, the one that’s re-gifted because no one really wants to eat it. In Kolkata, it has acquired a sort of exalted status as the food of sahibs and memsahibs. People rent out ovens in bakeries by the hour in neighbourhoods like Taltala where bakers, mostly Muslim, shove enormous batches of cake, doused in rum and studded with raisins and candied peel, into coal and wood-fired ovens.Newspapers faithfully report the swelling crowd size at Alipore Zoo on Christmas Day, an annual ritual for thousands of Christmas enthusiasts and surely an annual nightmare for the poor animals.
A Kolkata Christmas is now becoming pickled in nostalgia as well, haunted by the ghosts of Christmases past. We hear some of the same arguments that have been trotted out about the fall of Durga Puja—too crowded, too cheap, too commercial. Chinese restaurants are cashing in on the nostalgia with roast duck festivals. Just outside the piggery store in New Market in central Kolkata, someone sets up shop selling live turkeys. Malls are oozing fake snow and schmaltzy Christmas Muzak. Sorry- looking skinny men fitted into uncomfortable Santa suits are positioned in the lobbies of shopping centres trying to persuade us to splurge on that year-end television set. Chain bakeries and confectionery stores set up special plum cake counters for those who want a slice of Christmas spirit without standing in line at the old Jewish bakery. The old traditions are going for a toss, it seems. Christmas has escaped the gates of Kolkata’s clubs, one of which was the home of Lord Macaulay himself.
But at least it means that in 2019, Christmas is alive and well in Kolkata, mass produced and over the top, but still merry. In the end, we know it’s all fake. Those cheerful Santa Clauses that pop up at street stalls are really cheap, one-piece, sexually indeterminate dolls that are Santa-fied with stick-on cotton wool beards and red felt suits. The trees are as fake as the snow. The jingles about winter wonderland and Rudolf are entirely out of place in Kolkata’s 20 degrees Celsius balminess. The reindeer headbands look ridiculous.
But the good cheer is not fake. It might all seem a bit chintzy, but there’s still something to be said for a Kolkata Christmas. A friend waiting for a flight to Guwahati, stranded in town by the Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests, visited New Market in the city’s centre. There, she found something to marvel at—an old Chinese man selling Christmas trees while talking to two women in hijabs a stone’s throw from the Jewish bakery.
This was not some staged unity-in-diversity tableau. This was just the way the city had always functioned. We might read too much into this but in toxic times when one’s religion determines who gets to be how Indian, there’s something reassuring in this Christmas that still belongs to everyone who can afford a cheap Santa hat and a slice of plum cake. Heck, it’s Christmas, we can splurge and get the extra-rich plum cake instead, and whether it’s from Nahoum’s or Saldanha’s or just the no-name bakery down the street, it will still taste like a Kolkata Christmas.