As we approach the end of the year, the pandemic rages on, the weather is appalling, and prospects for post-Brexit UK are not yet looking too bright. But all is not doom and gloom. On Christmas Eve, we went for a walk from Knightsbridge to St James Park. As we reached Hyde Park Corner and the Wellington Arch, an ever present reminder of the days when ‘England ruled the waves’ and a great deal more, we heard the sound of horse’s hooves behind us. We turned to look back at the arch and saw a line of mounted soldiers with shining helmets adorned with red tassels emerging from beneath the arch.as they have been doing several days a week for very many years, if not for several centuries. Seeing this age-old tradition being enacted in front of us reminded me that although much has been disrupted since the covid19 virus began ruling the waves, life goes on.
Crown’d with thatch
Wov-en together with skill
And lo, you find a good wall
WILL BAXTER WAS a teacher at the University of Cape Town, whilst my late father was studying for a BComm degree before WW2. Will, recognising my father’s academic excellence, persuaded my father’s mother that she and her family would do well to subsidize my father continuing his studies in London. When he presented his case to Dad’s mother, my grandmother was at first surprised and said that my father’s siblings were even brighter than him. By all accounts, my father and his three siblings were well-endowed with brain power. My grandmother agreed, but before Dad was able to set off for London, there was another hurdle. Dad had become articled to an accountancy firm in Cape Town. Leaving this would have involved breaking a legal contract between him and the firm. Will spoke to the senior partners and managed to get Dad released from his contract. Then, the year before WW2 started, Dad sailed to England and enrolled for higher studies at the London School of Economics (‘LSE’). With the exception of a few of the war years and one year in Montreal (Canada), Dad spent the rest of his life in London, where I was born.
Will Baxter returned to the UK and taught at the LSE and became a firm family friend. My earliest reminiscences of him were at Christmas time. Until I was in my mid-teens, we used to visit Will and his wife at his home in the Ridgeway in Golders Green on Christmas morning. We used to have warm drinks in the living room in which there was always a large, decorated Christmas tree. Will always had wrapped presents ready for my sister and me, always books. I cannot remember which books I was given, but I do recall that every year my sister always received a beautiful hardback edition of one of the classic British novels by authors such as Jane Austen or one of the Bronte sisters.
The Baxters’ front garden had a gate supported by brick pillars. When I was about 3 or 4, we visited the Baxters one morning (not on Christmas Day), soon after the mortar between the bricks had been renewed. It was still wet, and Will inscribed a small ‘A’ in the mortar to record how high I was on that day. Year after year when we visited the Baxters, the letter was there in the set mortar, but my height had increased considerably. After many years, several decades, it disappeared after Will and his second wife, his first having died many years previously, had had the pillars refurbished.
Always after our Christmas morning visit to the Baxters, we walked or drove over to my mother’s sisters’s home, where we ate a festive lunch, often featuring roast goose. In addition to my close family and my aunts, other people attended this party. These included my aunt’s in-laws, various people we knew who had no close family in London, and my uncle Felix, my mother’s brother.
Felix, more than many of the other adults, truly enjoyed our Christmas lunches. He entertained us kids, my two cousins, my sister, and me, by tales of ‘Turkey Lurky’, ‘Goosey Lucy’, ‘Ducky Lucky’, and similarly named fowl. However, as we grew older, he failed to realise that we had become a little more sophisticated and blasé to enjoy this type of entertainment. At the end of the main course, he used to interrupt the adults’ conversation by standing up, thumping the table, and singing a song about bringing us some ‘figgy pudding’. I noticed that it always annoyed the adults and especially my aunt who was already stressed enough already, having produced a magnificent meal for 15 or more people.
After lunch, we retired to the living room to open presents, and always enjoyed. Felix always felt it necessary to entertain us, his nieces, and nephews, after lunch. To this end, he brought along packets of coloured inflatable balloons. He inflated them and asked one of us to hold them at their necks whilst he knotted them. Next, he twisted and tied the balloons together to make sculptures of animals. I hated these balloons because I could not tolerate the goose-pimples that the squeaking of the balloons set off in me, and still do today. One of my cousins did not enjoy this balloon experience because of the risk that a balloon might pop noisily. It is probably to our credit that none of us, his nephews, ever told him how much we disliked the balloons that Felix always brought with him.
Christmas lunches at my aunt’s house ceased many years ago. For many years, I spent Christmas enjoyably with the family of my PhD supervisor and his wife, with whom I became close friends. Then later, we often spent Christmas in India, in Bangalore where my in-laws live. This year, we had planned to do the same, but, in common with everyone else, this plan had to be abandoned for reasons that need no explanation.
I have celebrated Christmas Day at my aunt’s house, in Paris, in Méribel-les-Allues, in Manhattan, in Bangalore, in Stoke Poges, in Belgrade, in Wrocław, on a ‘plane to Sri Lanka, in Cornwall, and in Cochin, but until this year, never at home. So, this year is a first for me: Christmas at home.
This tale is based on a true story related to me
Life has not treated Zafar well. Even his wife Zubeida feels that her burqa is barely sufficient to hide her shame. The couple scrimped and saved to pay to educate their daughter Rubina so that she was qualified sufficiently to be able to enter a college in Ahmedabad.
And, what made their beloved daughter do what she has done? And, why did she run off with her Hindu neighbour’s son Rajesh? And, what came over her to marry Rajesh, who is little more than a dunce with no prospects whatsoever? Did she not trust her parents to choose a suitable grroom for her? Only He above might possibly know.
By choosing a ‘love marriage’, that selfish Rubina has not only shunned her parents but has also caused her family to be ostracised by the rest of their community. And, there is more woe to relate. The imam of Zafar’s community has instigated a case against his family, a case to be tried under Shariah law. Zafar is already facing a hefty fine imposed by his community and, even worse, he has already had to pay the hospital’s huge fees required to recover his wife from a paralysis brought on by Rubina’s selfish act of folly.
And, with sorrow, there is yet more to relate. Zafar has since lost his good job. Who would want to employ a man who has lost control of his daughter, you might well ask. Ask you might, but whatever the answer might be, life has not treated Zafar well.
Hide with toes upward curl’d
The ending of the old year and beginning of the new one is celebrated all over the world in a variety of ways and at different times of the modern calendar. For example, the Chinese, the Gujaratis, the Parsis, the Jewish people, and the Russian Orthodox all celebrate the start of a new year on different dates. People, whatever their personal beliefs, also celebrate the end of the year on the 31st of December.
Cochin, which is a historic port in the southern Indian state of Kerala, was a Portuguese colony for a while in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Papaanji (spelling varies!) is named after a Portuguese word meaning ‘old man’.
Every year, a giant Papaanji is erected in a centrally located open space in historic Fort Cochin. During the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, the Papaanji is stuffed full of dry straw and fireworks. The roads around the open space are closed to motorised traffic. Despite this, a few youths on motor bikes manage to enter illegally.
After sunset and during the evening of the 31st of December, the area around the Papaanji fills with vendors and ever increasing numbers of people. Some of these merrymakers wear masks and others wear glowing red devil’s horns.
During the few minutes before midnight on the 31st, unbelievable numbers of people gather. The strong tide of people resembles a powerful surge of water such as you might expect if a large dam has just been breached. The crowd adds much noise to the cacophony of sound being relayed over various loudspeakers. Several times, I was almost knocked over by this human tsunami.
At midnight, the crowd became even noisier when flames began leaping from the ignited Papaanji. First, I could only see billowing clouds of smoke. Soon, frightening flames became visible. Then, bursts of stars appeared as the fireworks exploded.
Within minutes, the conflagration and fireworks ended. The old year, represented by the Papaanji, had been burnt out to make way for the new one. The crowds began to thin out a little, but despite that, it was quite hazardous trying to leave the area.
For an hour or two after midnight, boisterous revellers created much noise in the streets. The whole affair seemed to be generally good natured.
I am glad that I have seen the Papaanji aflame, but once in a lifetime is enough for me.
Until I was about fifteen, our family usually ate Christmas lunch at my aunt’s home with other relatives and friends. The centrepiece of the meal was often roast goose. My mother’s brother Felix used to try to entertain us youngsters with a story about Turkey Lurkey and his chums Goosey Loosey, Ducky Lucky, and Chicken Licken. He meant well, but his story, repeated annually, elicited groans from young and old alike.
One year, 1963, I was in Manhattan with my sister and parents on Christmas Day. That Christmas, I ate sirloin steak for lunch.
Many times during my late twenties and throughout my thirties, I spent Christmas in the English countryside with my PhD supervisor, his wife, and family. They served turkey for evening dinner on Christmas Day. They used to cook enormous birds capable of generously feeding twenty or more folk, yet there was never more than about ten or eleven of us around the festive table.
Everyone except me preferred white meat. One year, when I was asked my preference, I chose brown meat. My host cut off and then placed a whole turkey leg on my plate. It looked like an enormous club, such as might have been used by Fred Flintstone.
After 1994, I often spent Christmas in India. One Christmas Day, I fancied French onion soup rather than festive fare. A couple of years running, we ate Christmas lunch at Sunnies restaurant, which blazed the trail for fine dining with European food in Bangalore. The Christmas menu included the best turkeys I have ever eaten; they were juicy and very tasty. The turkeys at Sunnies were Butterballs specially imported from the USA.
Finally, I will tell you about an unusual Christmas Day ingredient, which I encountered at a place in Bangalore , which I will not name to save causing embarrassment. Several large roasted turkeys were being served at a buffet lunch. After I had enjoyed a serving of turkey, a friend of mine brought me his daughter’s plate, which contained a sizeable piece of uneaten Turkey meat and … a perfectly roasted large cockroach.
MERRY CHRISTMAS TO YOU ALL!
In India, I prefer to wear sandals because in so many places it is necessary to remove footwear, and putting on and off sandals is so much easier than doing the same for lace up shoes.
Just in case you are wondering why there is the requirement to bare one’s feet, the reason is to prevent bringing dirt from outside into the place being entered. It is also a mark of respect when entering a religious place such as a mosque, church, temple, or gurdwara.
In some homes, footwear is left by the entrance. This is also the case for some homes that I have visited in the UK. When I went to a junior school in London’s Belsize Park, The Hall School, we left the shoes we had arrived in at the entrance and then replaced them by another pair reserved for use within the school.
When we visited Gulbarga (in North Karnataka, India) recently, we visited what purported to be an Arabic restaurant, Al Makki by name. Its floor was covered with carpets, and guests had to sit on cushions that surrounded very low tables. The owner took one look at my wife and me, and took pity on us. He provided us with a normal height table and chairs. The food was delicious. We ate a mutton “handi”, which is a pilaff flavoured with dried fruit, fried onions, nuts, and mild spices. By now, if you are still reading this, you might well be thinking that I have strayed from my topic. But, you are mistaken. We were not allowed to enter Al Makki until we had removed our footwear.
To conclude, my advice to people visiting India is: wear footwear that is easy to remove and replace.
Death is a morbid but fascinating topic, as is disposal of the dead. Many people living outside India, including myself, believe that the corpses of Hindus are only cremated. At least, I believed this until about 15 years ago, when I visited a Hindu burial ground in Bangalore.
I have visited two Hindu cemeteries in Bangalore, one of them being next door to a major electric crematorium in the city centre. When I have asked about Hindu burials, I have been told that some sects of Hindus favour burial rather than cremation.
Recently, I read an article about Hindu burials (in Calcutta) by A Acharya and S Sanyal in the “Mint” newspaper (Bangalore), dated 24 Nov 2018. Here is a brief digest of the points contained within it.
1. Certain groups of Hindus are traditionally immersed or buried.
2. These groups include:
A. Saddhus or ascetics who perform their own mortuary rites when they become saddhus, and are considered to be dead to the social world, living ghosts one might say.
B. Some young children, especially those who have not yet developed visible teeth. Also, some parents prefer to bury their dead offspring, rather than watching them being cremated.
C. Lepers. It used to be feared that a leper’s body might release an infectious vapour during cremation.
D. Some members of the following communities prefer to bury their dead to avoid the dominating behaviour of the Hinduism of the Brahmins: dalits, Vaishnav, Hela, and Kaburpanthi.
3. Sometimes, burial is cheaper than cremation. In Calcutta, burial can cost half of the charge of cremation.
4. Burial of Marwaris and Vaishnavites is more costly than for others because these two groups bury their dead with lots of salt, which they believe speeds disolving the flesh off the bones.
This newspaper piece has helped me to understand the existence of cemeteries where Hindus are buried. I assume that at least some of what has been written about Calcutta also applies to Bangalore.
On a parting note, I used to believe that the traditional method of corpse disposal amongst the Parsis was to feed their dead to the vultures. A Parsi friend of ours died in Bangalore, which has Towers of Silence for the corpses of Parsis, was buried in a Parsi cemetery in Bangalore. I have visited that cemetery, which is located in the district if Malleswaram and is for Parsis only.
All of this goes to show that making generalisations about India is inadvisable. So, before you assert that Hindus do not eat beef, hold your tongue! Some sects of Hindus have eaten beef since time immemorial. If the present government in India bans the consumption of beef, it will not be only Christians and Muslims who will be affected, but also several million Hindus.