One of the legacies of the colonial rules is the
Anglo Indian community growing smaller by the day. Standing on the
border of two traditions this community evokes a lot of wonder and
interest. Hugh and Colleen Gantzer let you peep into their lives
during Christmas time. This nostalgic piece takes you back in time
to two different palaces in India : Bombay and Bihar where the couple
spent their childhood.
Above our cottage in the
oak woods, snow clouds are forming in the high Himalayan sky : smoky
grey masses against a pearl grey background. Soon well live in
a Christmas Card : a red-roofed cottage in the snow, golden light
streaming from its windows, smoke pluming out of its chimney. Inside
therell be bright streamers and tinsel and holly, a glittering
Christmas tree rising above wrapped presents and festive Christmas
cards on every available space. And, inevitably, Bill Crosby singing
Im dreaming of a
Just like the ones I used
But we didnt really
know such Christmas as children. It doesnt snow in the
plains and so our childhood Christmas were filled with sunlight and
the bright red burst of poinsettias against a whitewashed wall and
nodding yellow calendulas, and the heady perfume of sweet peas when
the soft wind blew through their trellis.
One of us was born into a
family of Civil Servants and professionals in Bihar. The other came
from a line of expatriates who built the great railways of India and
lived in the Bombay Presidency.
Ours was a large, tiled,
railway house with a verandah of arches and the spreading green
fields of Bombays suburbia beyond. Trains went chuffing,
clanking, thundering down the track which separated us from the
Institute : the bright centre of our social lives.
Christmas trembled in the
air. The old tailor, sat cross-legged on a mat whirring his
hand-powered machine creating my Christmas frock in frothy pink.
Aunty caught the local train to Crawford Market. Everyone in Bombay
went Christmas shopping in Crawford Market.
In Hazaribagh, Bihar, our
house looked out across a lawn, down a gentle slope, to a lake dotted
with wild duck. Granny, with her glasses, sat on a cane chair
pouring over fat catalogues from Calcutta. For us, everything
Christmassy came from Calcutta : from Hall & Andersons, and
Whiteaway Laidlaw and the Army & Navy Stores. Hornby trains and
Mechano sets and Daisy air guns and Mickey Mouse albums. We were
hopping-impatient with excitement. The expectations of little boys
and little girls varied in those well-defined days.
But there was no
variation in the demand for Christmas cake. Tacky, messy,
mouth-watering Christmas cake mixture, stirred in a bowl with eggs
and flour and raisins and candied peel and caramel and powdered sugar
and spices and brandy. Silver and gold coins were mixed into the
plum pudding : it was steamed and hung in a cloth bag in the pantry
and the whole house was redolent with the aroma of cinnamon, cloves
and toasted raisins. Then we bathed, dressed and rushed out to the
Institute for the sports ; and the next evening for the Fancy Dress
parade. And the next evening for presents from a hoho-hoing Santa
Claus who was really Mr. Murphy, the Loco Foreman. Though we were
all bursting with suppressed mirth we kept his secret.
Christmas was great fun !
The parties in the
Hazaribagh Club were not nearly as much fun as those in the
Institute, but there were other Christmassy things.
Trudging in the cold,
pre-dawn, light, we huddled on the ridge of a paddy field, cradling
our guns. We hear a distant quacking and freeze. A huge flight of
pintail ducks wheels in. The guns bark. Seventy-three ducks bank
away, nine fall. We trudge back, our shoes squelching. Duck
vindaloo will be on Grans menu for Christmas lunch, and I can
almost taste its rich, vinegary-spicy flavour.
We put up our Christmas
decorations. Christmas cards glowed everywhere. We stood on chairs
and tables and hung the paper bells, streamers, balloons, Chinese
lanterns and holly and sprigs of mistletoe over the doors. Then the
older children sat and told us ghost stories in the gloaming.. you
must tell ghost stories at twilight at Christmas time
shivered in my bed that night and couldnt sleep while the moon
poured in through the window and a huge owl went Who ? Who?
in the fig tree outside. It was a sepulchral sound.
In contrast the happiest
sound of Christmas was the sound of carolers.
We heared their voices in
the drive and came out. Crash-jingle went the tambourines. We
Three Kings of Qrient are
, a little off key, the guitar not
quite in tune, the tambourine too loud and the smoky lanterns held
high to glow gold on the faces of the carolers. Theres Arthur,
and Sybil, and the Sequeria sisters and Cynthia and Oscar and the
Miller twins with the tambourines, and Dennis who thinks hes
Errol Flynn. When theyve sung two carols, Uncle invites them
in and they sit around and have cake and wine and then they chorus
Happy Christmas and move on. Its beginning to sound a lot like
Then we went to
Watchnight Service or Midnight Mass.
We step into a warm
little church, filled with flowers, the flicker of candles and Baby
Jesus lying in his crib in a stable. The clear voices of the Nuns
sing Adeste Fidelis and the Holy Host lies fleetingly on the
Jesus, says six-year old Marianne Wheeler, kneeling at the
crib, and suddenly, Christmas falls into place. Were having a
world-wide Birthday Party.
Birthday parties never
change.Our Christmas days never changed.
Waking exalted on a
bright Christmas morning. Unwrapping presents, friends kissed and
hugged, and back-slapped with boisterous bonhomie ; plenty to eat,
plenty to drink. The fortifying reassurance of Christmas lunch; news
of the family flowing across the table, easily absorbed; photographs
in a garden to be sent with long letters to distant lands ; throwing
bridges of nostalgia across the world, knitting our diaspora with
memories. Evening comes quickly, and we change for Christmas dinner.
Relaxedly formal. Good friends, old friends arrive ; mellow wine
and spirits and the non-alcoholic OT. Songs around the piano, our
eyes filmed with happiness. Old ties renewed, old tales retold, old
jokes laughed at . We walk into the dining room ; sit down, spread
damask napkins, pick up crackers, cross arms, tug.. Bang! Bang!
.and favours and fortune-cards and paper hats and
whistles tumble out and soon were all children again with
trumpets, hoots of laughter, wine and mountains of food. The hams
carved, the turkeys sliced, the suckling pig portioned. Theres
tomato soup with swirls of cream, fried fish and tartare sauce,
boiled peas and roast potatoes, baked cheese and cauliflower,
ice-cream fresh from the churner, mustard, mint sauce, apple sauce
and walnuts, pistachios, liqueur chocolates, peppermints.
The lights are
dimmed. The khitmutagar ( the waiter) bears in the plum
pudding with aplomb, smiling broadly, proud of his role. The pudding
is drenched with brandy and set alight and its blue flame illumines
our faces as we link arms and sing Auld Lang Syne, for those
who are far away but still loved. And then we help ourselves to the
dark, rich, hot confection, waiting till everyones been served,
hoping the flame still flickers because then all our wishes will be
granted. Shouts of delight as the silver and gold coins are
discovered, proudly displayed and proudly pocketed. Coffee, brandy
and liqueurs in the Drawing Room. Everyones content,
everyones smiling, everyones reaching out. If only, if
only, this Birthday could last forever. But nothing can, nothing
does. Half-suppressed yawns precede sleepy Good Nights.
Doors close. The house darkens. There are only the lights on the
Christmas Tree blinking on, blinking off. Glinting on the tinsel.
Lighting flares across
the Himalayas bringing us back to our cottage in the oak woods, in
the here and now. The fire is just a glow in the stove. There is a
soft whisper of drizzle on the roof. It is almost cold enough to
It is time to sleep and
drift into dreaming of a white Christmas.