HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksReview: Indian Christmas edited by Jerry Pinto and Madhulika Liddle

Review: Indian Christmas edited by Jerry Pinto and Madhulika Liddle

Few know that Christmas has been celebrated in the subcontinent for almost two millennia. According to writer Manimugdha S Sharma, there are two different apocryphal traditions about the coming of Christianity to India. The first says that Thomas the Apostle arrived at the court of Indo-Parthian king Gondophernes and introduced the new faith in north-western and northern India. The other tradition says that Thomas came to Kerala in 52 AD and built the first church there and introduced the faith. Novelist Madhulika Liddle writes that Mambally Bapu, founder of the Mambally Royal Biscuit Factory bakery in Kerala’s Thalassery, baked the first Christmas cake in India in 1883. Author Jerry Pinto writes that, every Christmas, Rabindranath Tagore gave a talk about Christ’s life and message at Santiniketan. This anthology of memories, essays, pictures, poems and hymns on Christmas celebrations in the country also includes the final two sections of one of Tagore’s finest long poems inspired by the life of Christ.

“Missionaries to Indian shores, whether St Thomas or later evangelists from Portugal, France, Britain, or wherever brought us the religion; we adopted the faith, but reserved for ourselves the right to decide how we’d celebrate its festivals,” writes Liddle who reminisces about celebrating Christmas with her family, particularly at her paternal grandparents’ house, known as Dua aka Ghar. It was a sweeter, simpler time when the festival was not as commercial as it has now become. It was a time “when Christmas had not been so appropriated by the hep and happening that it had lost much of its religious significance,” she writes.

268pp, ₹699; Speaking Tiger

Christmas decorations, particularly in cities and towns with substantial Christian populations, are hard to miss. A lovely picture insert captures well the spirit of Christmas in India – in all its richness and diversity. There are Mughal miniatures depicting the birth of Jesus, folk art paintings by Jyoti Sahi and Sister Claire as well as images of Christmas celebrations in different cities. While Goa and Kerala illuminate entire localities, Aizwal has an annual competition for the best-decorated neighbourhood that carries a 5 lakh prize. Kolkata-based Mudar Patherya pays homage to “burra din” in the city of his origin. “Calcutta could well be on a ramp walk at Christmas time,” he writes.

Deborah Rosario writes about celebratory Bandra scenes in Mumbai when “This historically Christian suburb truly radiates Christmas.” Goan writer and photographer Vivek Menezes’s stunning photo essay entitled I’m Dreaming of a Goan Christmas shows how inclusive the festival is in the state. “Every one of every age from every community shares the fun,” he says.

Celebrations in Bandra, Mumbai. (HT Photo)
Celebrations in Bandra, Mumbai. (HT Photo)

Nazes Afroz’s picture essay focuses on celebrations in central Kolkata’s Bow Barracks, home to a large Anglo-Indian population. Mohona Kanjilal describes how the festival is celebrated by the city’s Armenian community, which believes in fasting during the week before the festival.

Customs are different in rural areas. “Gaon ki khushi alag hai,” says Mary Sushma Kindo, a domestic worker in south Delhi, reminiscing about celebrations in her village in Jharkhand. In the Chhota Nagpur region, mango leaves, marigolds and paper streamers are used to decorate sal or mango trees. In the same area, tribal Christians celebrate with a community picnic lunch. Coastal villages in Kerala have a tradition of partying on beaches.

Co-editor Madhulika Liddle (Courtesy Speaking Tiger)
Co-editor Madhulika Liddle (Courtesy Speaking Tiger)

Most writers in the collection agree that food has always been one of the most important elements of Christmas – sharing recollections of soaking raisins in rum and making marzipan sweets. Over a period of time, Christmas cakes in various states have also acquired regional ingredients and flavours. For instance, the Allahabadi version uses petha, ghee and orange marmalade. Maharashtrians add chironji to their cake, and recipes from Kerala and Tamil Nadu include cashew nuts. Poet and literary journalist Anupama Raju shares her favourite food memories associated with Christmas – in which “the vindaloo was always the star”.

Jerry Pinto, co-editor of the anthology (Anshuman Poyrekar/HT PHOTO)
Jerry Pinto, co-editor of the anthology (Anshuman Poyrekar/HT PHOTO)

In Kerala, the preferred dish is duck curry with appams; in Nagaland, it’s pork curries rich in chillies and bamboo shoots; and sausage pulao, sorpotel and xacuti is popular in Goa. There is much variety in terms of snacks across states too. For the East Indians of Mumbai, these are milk creams, mawa-filled karanjis, walnut fudge, guava cheese and kulkuls. In Goa, the platter of goodies includes kormolas, gons, doce and bolinhas. In Kerala, rose cookies and shakkarpara are favourites.

Needless to say, this comprehensive book is a great read for the festive season, and also makes for a perfect Christmas gift.

A freelance writer based in New Delhi, Neha Kirpal writes primarily on books, music, films, theatre and travel.

The views expressed are personal

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