Column | Kolkata’s Western fantasy Christmas may be a tad tacky — but I always feel homesick for the city this season

A crowded park in Kolkata on Christmas eve.
| Photo Credit: Getty Images

At one time, I was always embarrassed about a Kolkata Christmas. It felt like a big fat slice of colonial nostalgia. The British had left but we had held onto their traditions. Everything about it was fake — the cotton wool snow, the Santa Clauses with crookedly pasted beards, the spindly Christmas trees.

In America, my friends regarded the rich fruit cake as a bit of a joke, the Christmas gift that’s promptly re-gifted. But Kolkatans took their fruit cakes with utmost seriousness, standing in serpentine queues for hours to get that one fruit cake from that one Jewish bakery tucked away in the bowels of the old New Market. The Anglo-Indian population was dwindling by the day. But the al fresco Christmas in Bow Barracks, their old neighbourhood, had become a jam-packed carnival for revellers in Santa hats, very few of whom were actually Christian.

One year, I saw a man selling turkeys on the street. The black-and-white birds pecked at the grain while everyone stood around taking pictures and offering expert commentary. “It is a foreign chicken?” asked someone. “No, no,” said his friend confidently. “It’s an Australian ostrich.”

Turkey for the table

A poultry farmer who raised turkeys in his backyard told me he had first encountered turkey meat in a deli in America. He didn’t really know how to cook them. He’d never roasted a turkey. Sometimes his wife made a curry but he didn’t particularly care for it.

But he raised them because they were hardy birds, easy to raise, and made for good business at this time of the year. “People like you want to have turkey for Burra Din,” he told me.

The turkeys and suckling pigs now served as Christmas lunch in fancy restaurants in Kolkata are not really from an Indian Christmas. They are from Indian entrepreneurs selling some kind of western Christmas fantasy to Indians. Madhulika Liddle, who co-edited the book Indian Christmas with Jerry Pinto, says as a Christian family in Uttar Pradesh, their big Christmas lunch was chicken curry, mutton pulao and shammi kebabs. Her mother would bake a Christmas cake but she had to make the candied peel at home because there wasn’t any to be found at the local stores.

Even the cake would change as it made its way across India. Some used candied ash gourd. In Allahabad, Liddle says, there was cake that used ghee instead of butter. Before baking powder became common, people used fermented cashews and apples to make the cake rise. But the Kolkata Christmas with its rich plum cakes and tipsy puddings felt like tacky tinsel, a kind of make-believe Christmas Pujo, devoid of real substance.

When I went to the U.S. as a student I thought I would finally encounter a real Christmas. The lead-up was promising. San Francisco was bedecked in twinkling lights. A giant Christmas tree came up in Union Square shopping district. The department store windows had elaborate manger scenes and wreaths and poinsettia. I could smell the pine leaves and gingerbread. An ice skating rink sprang up in the middle of Union Square. Even the pet dogs were parading around in cute red and green Christmasy jackets. The pre-Christmas sales, the lights, the carols conjured up a sense of anticipation and excitement.

Eggnog in the lobby

And then came Christmas Day and I realised everything was shut and I had nothing to do and nowhere to go. The lights were bright but the streets were deserted. My neighbourhood restaurant was only open for lunch. The supermarket close by was shutting early. One year, I went to a little resort in the Russian River woods near San Francisco for Christmas. There was a log fire in the room and eggnog in the lobby. But I didn’t realise the dining room was shutting early. My Christmas dinner came out of a vending machine that year. If you didn’t have family around, Christmas was actually the loneliest time of the year.

It’s not just San Francisco or London. One year, I was up in Shillong on Christmas Day. Pinewood Hotel, built in 1898, was festooned in twinkling yellow fairy lights. Next to it, a poinsettia blazed red — not a plant in a demure little tub but an entire tree. It really felt like an “authentic” Christmas unlike a Kolkata one. But in a town with a large Christian population, on Christmas evening, everything was tightly shut. It was hard to even get a taxi.

It made me utterly homesick for a Kolkata Christmas and appreciate it a little more.

In Bethlehem, there was no room at the inn for baby Jesus. But in Kolkata, there’s always room for you at the Christmas party. And a slice of rich plum cake.

The columnist is the author of ‘Don’t Let Him Know’, and likes to let everyone know about his opinions whether asked or not.

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