Uncle Claus and Mallu Christmas Cheer
Been trying to wake up people for the last hour... with utter lack of success. And for me its yet another Christmas away from home. And I thought to myself... why not look back on the wonderful Christmases I have had back in Kerala. It would be interesting writing, and, hopefully, interesting reading. And no, I will not be evangelizing or fishing for converts. So proceed with the knowledge that your religious sentiments are safe. I will not make snide
remarks regarding Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, The Preity Zinta fans or any other lobby.
Back home is a village. Thirty, maybe fourty years behind today in most things. Its only clain to fame being a visit by Nehru in the 50s. Roads are being built, some of them in their 50th year of construction. There is one bus that serves the nook where I live. And the oldies talk about the bus with some pride. Equally of local pride is the a transformer. A Bharat Electricals transformer that now totally guarantees 14 hours of uninterrupted power. The
remaining 10 hours is a good reason why probability theory exists. The aforementioned roads, none of them wider than 18 feet or so, is where most of my Christmas memories start. (The 18 feet parameter is a local ego thing. If your house had an 18-feeter in front of it, you felt like king. And your NRI relatives were proud of you.)
Midnight service started with a brisk walk to the Church. Which was a kilometer and a half or so away. But before you set out for Church, there was a rigorous ritual passed down the ages. The men folk went out to buy Chicken, mutton, bread and some fish, while the women made sure they were all set to handle tables full of ravenous mallus. And that is no mean feat. If you dont think thats daunting, you obviously haven't seen Simba eat at 4 foods.
Walking to Church is an experience in itself. The trip back is a master class in Kerala social culture. Going for the service you start off from home and as you approach the Church, mud paths meet bylanes, and bylanes meet full sized lanes, and lanes meet 18-feeters, soon you accumulate a huge mass of people to accompany you. And most of them are middle aged to old... and all of them know each other. The level of networking back home is terrifying. There was this time when I quickly had a fag after class in a local park in 12th. This was in Thrissur, 18 kilometers away from home. Around nine in the evening while the family was wrapping up daily prayers, my dad called from Abu Dhabi, and wanted to know why I was smoking in Nehru Park after class. Imagine, one fag, one person, huge park, and my dad across the Arabian Sea gets to know in 4 hours.
The service itself is actually quite boring. For seasoned veterans atleast. Our local church was built with just one aim in mind, CAPACITY. No Gothic vaulted cielings here. It would put most warehouses to shame. A HUGE people container, wedge shaped, with no pillars any where in it.. and a high corrugated sheet ceiling. And from 10 to 1 in the morning it will be full of passionate housewives, irritating sleep deprived children, men who cant stay awake, old men who sing and pray out of sync, and teenagers who sit and fantasize about the amazing breakfast waiting for them in the morning. More on food later.
Once in a while we get a good priest who will give a rousing sermon. In that case you wont hear snoring. Otherwise its a chorus of guttural utterance by 12 in the morning. Once the service is done the congregation goes to the cemetary, to wish the departed, followed by the regular interpersonal wishing. Interestingly, people wish each other in English. I guess thats because there is no mallu for "Christmas". And I am sure if it is there, it will take a
mouthful to say it.
The trip back home. The social lecture I was telling you about. There are a number of sites and sounds to be gathered in: old women reading newspapers, the radio news in the background, the non-Christian homes, some of whom have Christmas trees in front even, wishing neighbours, and most importantly, the resounding voice of Marykutty talking to her husband Babymon in Qatar, with the WHOLE neighbourhood waiting in line for the phone. The telephone lines will be CLOGGED. Jampacked. My dad often never gets a call through. All this for a place that went straight from a three digit telephone number with no hope of new connections, to one with its OWN telephone exchange in 15 years. And hundreds of such NRI calls. As I walk back home, I know who got promoted, who is coming for vacation, whether the Visa for the wife will come, if Biju want to get married in the next break and so on.... Oh I love malluland....
Back home its time for the quick phone calls and off to bed to conserve energy for the huge eating festival ahead. Morning signifies bread and a non veg gravy based dish. What you have for meals on Xmas day is a matter of local stature. Breakfast is massacre, though how bread came into the menu noone really remembers. And its unsliced bread in chunks, with some appams for the orthodox. Lunch is a full 3 to 4 course meal. Rice, bread, fish, chicken, assorted meats, FISH!!, an onion based Raitha, pappadums. Dinner is the same but with maybe a little something for desert. And of course the sweets and cakes friends bring along. Meals always mean the oldest and children sit first, then the men, and finally, the architects of 4 to 5 hours of wholesome digestion: the cooks. Somethings never change, the chicken will always be salty, the rice undercooked, there are not enough poppadums, and the dahi in the raitha will be so fermented you need to guzzle water to keep yourself sober. And the grandmother always blames the wives. Always, in my case, is over 25 years, and every year like clockwork, its "Annie, you are a lousy cook..." and aunt grumbles, walks to a corner, waves me aside... "That old woman is senile...." Every year...
Hell I think I will stop now. Christmas is indeed a time of good cheer and consumption. As you have seen there are no stockings, not even gifts, and no Christmas Trees. Instead we have small replicas of the manger with Jesus and the parents and the animals and all. The "Best Crib/Manger in the local family association" is a keenly fought event mind you. I have a cousin who is so keen, he modelled one a few years ago on the Pulse Floyd album. Instead of a warm christmas scene, we had a psychadelic light and show spectacular with Jesus Christ bathed in a divine purple green light, surrounded by blue cows. But before the judges could come the waterfall lost its way, shorted out the lighting, and took the house supply with it. Darkness. The judges couldnt see anything, my cousin went wild. He was deftly pacified with bread chunks and seer fish gravy.
It was next to one of these cribs that I asked my grandpa why we didn't do all the gifting and pageantry and stuff. He said, "Back then three meals WAS the gift. Life was uncomplicated, expectations meant a good rice harvest and good rains. You wont understand what it means to live without running around for all these small things, we worked hard all day, everyday till Christmas eve. We prayed for small things, and ate like animals. That was Christmas... The family ate together, the one day when you could ask for second helpings and get them. You "modern" people wont understand, you have too many things to worry about..."
Whats Christmas without a message eh? Heres wishing you all a very Merry and "uncomplicated" Christmas and wonderful New Year. May the year ahead bring only
the best. And pardon if I rambled on... but then you get a double helping... and I dont worry about small issues... just like Christmas should be....