CHRISTMAS AT CHRISTIANPARA, A SMALL LANE IN KOLKATA
@FLASH BACK 50 YEARS
December 20, 1966
It was a cold winter morning and Deep got up quite early. Deep was reflecting …yesterday was a mixed fare – Annual Exam Results were out and he got promoted to Class V alright, but as usual, did very badly in Maths. There was a loud knock at the wooden front door, and Deep jumped towards the door. Yes, like every year, Grandpa was there . Grandpa announced “This afternoon we are going to the New Market ! Oh, yes congrats, I heard that that you are promoted to the new Class“. Then he whispered, “And dont’ bother about the Maths number”. This was comforting enough for Deep. Deep’s mother came running and grumbled “Dad, you will spoil him with sheer pampering He did not prepare well for the exam and I am not surprised about his Maths score.” Grandpa did not reply, but disappeared with a loud laugh.
Deep was happy. Christmas was here again and as in every year, it would start with the visit to the New Market. Deep’s para (locality) was called Christian Para, though there were not too many Christians in the area, but some of the first families to move in into this locality were Christians and there was a small church here. But Christmas was a joint fare for all the communities that lived here and all participated enthusiastically in the events of the Christmas Day and enjoyed.
At 12 noon on the dot, Grandpa came to pick up Deep. Grandpa – John Solomon was known for his punctuality and discipline. After all he was a police officer. They walked up to Ballygunge Phari Tram stoppage. This trip always thrilled Deep though it had a very predictable itinerary. They would get down from the tram at the stoppage near the Wachel Mollah Stores. Grandpa would hold Deep’s hand tight for the rest of the trip. He would then tell the golden rule of the trip “ Remember, we are only the visitors to the market and not the buyers, only the Babus buy things here !”
Wachel Mollah was one of the oldest departmental stores and had large display shelves with wide windows facing the footpath leading to New Market. Inside the show-windows there were large life size dolls of men wearing suilts – several of them. Like every year, Deep and his grandpa began their walk towards New Market through this road. After a brief walk, crossing the red-coloured municipal building, a warm aroma of hot cakes hit the nose. Deep knew they have finally arrived at the New Market. Through the windows on both sides of this alley the stacks of colourful pastries were indeed a treat for the eyes -literally so, for he would remember the golden fule ‘we are only the visitors !’. The pastries had hard topping made of sugar icing, unlike the sticky type of present days. Halfway through the alley was Grandpa’s first stop-over : a cheese and butter shop. The older owner Mr. Bakuli came forward and personally greeted, “ Hello Daroga sahib, how are you? Your younger son came yesterday and ordered this white salt-less butter for your house-cake. Check this! I am sure you will like it”. Saying this he handed a bit of the butter to grandpa. Grandpa inspected the butter and nodded. Meanwhile a small slice of cheese with a thin red topping was placed on Deep’s palm by the younger r Bakuli – the owner’s son. “Taste this my boy… a real Bandel cheese! You will love it.” Deep looked at Grandpa for approval and once Grandpa let out a smile afermatively, the cheese piece found its rightful place. With cheese still in mouth, Deep noticed Grandpa stopping near a small shop opposite Nahoum’s Bakery store. Deep knew at onece, here a small purchase would be made -a few candy-sticks. These were about six inches long and very hard, coloured in red and white stripes, and very sticky. They were sold without any wrapper.
By now Deep was already tired of walking and after a few more rounds through the various alleys, they entered a small kiosk. It was a small ice-cream parlour with a small table and two sitting benches facing each other. On all sides there were large mirrors. Deep watched the multiple mirror images of themselves on the mirrors and like every year got amused. Like every year Grandpa ordered Strawberry milk shake with vanilla ice cream topping…. indeed a very delightful item…. no shop ever made them so tasty. On the return walk through the shops at the New Market, they stopped near Mullik’s Bakery.
Here Grandpa bought two hot chicken patties and a dozen heart-cakes. ereHere
Hereafter, like every year, they headed for the tram stoppage, munching the patties. Here Grandpa walked across to his usual Tobacco shop and the shop-keeper greeted them with a large smile “Your brand has just arrived”. He handed over a box of Havana Cigars packed in a box made of chestnut wood. (Once these boxes are empty, Deep would take them from Grandpa…. they were good to keep little knick knacks).
Deep was dreaming of the different goodies he would put in the box , when he suddenly woke up at a gentle shake by Grandpa .“Wake up.. it is Ballygunge Phari”. Invariably at the return tram trip Deep fell asleep like every year!
December 21, 1966
Deep was playing cricket with local boys with rubber ball when he saw Aziz chacha coming this way with another man, with a large wooden crate on his head. Two huge earthen bowls were visible lying on the crate. He ran to home to announce “ Aziz chacha is coming.”
Aziz chacha was their baker for many years. Mom took out the bags which had several small packets, inside – each had the ingredients for making cakes. Deep crawled underneath the cot and took out the bucket which had the eggs. “This is Abbas, my helping hand” Aziz chacha introduced his assistant.
Chacha placed the larger bowl near him, the smaller one was kept near Abbas. Sugar was poured in Chacha’s bowl. Chacha broke an egg, took the yoke into his bowl and placed the white portion of the egg into the smaller bowl. This feat was repeated for all the 50 odd eggs. While Chacha was sifting the yokes with his hands, Abbas was using a bamboo- made beater for beating the white portion of the eggs. Then one by one butter, flour, nuts, finely chopped dry fruits were added to Chacha’s bowl. Abbas made a huge egg froth which was then added and finally a bottle of essence of vanilla was put. Aziz chacha placed this dough into several small paper wrappped tin-moulds. Those days thick brown paper or newspaper was used for cakes. Small paper slips as name tags were pasted on top of each mould. Then all moulds were carefully kept on the wooden crate and Aziz chacha was ready to go to his place where he had an earthen oven. Like every year Deep accompanied Chacha. After reaching the place Chacha opened the Tandoor (fire-wood run oven) to check temperature by placing his hand, and placed a few more fire-woods. Once he was sure that the Tandoor emanated the right kind of heat, he placed the moulds inside the tandoor. Meanwhile Chacha handed over a handful of freshly baked biscuits to Deep which was crispy and hot !
That evening Deep, all his cousins and several of local boys and girls were called at a meeting at the Grandpa’s house. This was to decide about the Cultural Programmes to be held on the New Year eve which was a regular event taking place at Grandpa’s spacious portico. Normally the main attraction would be a Bengali popular drama. The first rehersal would be held on the same day, after the meeting, and, thereafter every evening the rehersal would be on, for a couple hours. So Deep, his cousins and gang of friends geared up for the rehearsals.
Late evening Deep came back home around 8 p.m. Mom was making paste with a palm-full of wheat and water which she boiled for some time in an old pot till it became sticky. Mom took out three old card-boxes from an old tin trunk. Deep enthusiastically opened each of them, which is an annual affair. These boxes contains Christmas Decorations items, neatly preserved year after year. (This tradition is still followed, even after five odd decades!) She also took out the old news paper wrapped Christmas tree. Then Mom herself climbed on top of a table, tied strings on all four sides of the front room walls, quite high – beyond Deep’s reach. Then Deep took out those ribbon-like colour papers, placed a bit of the paste at one end and passed on to Mom. Then one by one Mom pasted these paper end on the strings. Once work on all the sides are over, the other end of all the papers would be tied together with a little thicker paper and then this end would be pasted right on the centre of the ceiling fan ! ( The fan indeed looked awesome with bits of papers stuck after the festival is over) Then other boxes would be opened to take out those glittering colour balls, small stars of various colours. By around 10 p.m. once all the decorations are done , the room surely wore a sheer magical look, Deep now indeed felt that the Christmas is here again !
December 24, 1966
In the morning Deep’s friend Bhomlu came in with a bundle of bamboo pieces, fine sliced into equal sizes – about two feet each. “Are you sure you will be able to craft it”, Deep asked nervously. Bhomlu nodded and also showed him the colour paper cut into different sizes. Soon Bhomlu, with the helping hand of Deep, pieced together those bamboo sticks, by tying with strings, to make a big star and started pasting the colour paper. Within an hour the star was ready . The next step was to fix a bulb, which was done with permission from Mom. With Bhomlu’s help this was hoisted on the room’s window upstairs.
In the afternoon a test-cake was tasted at Deep’s house. Like every year, the cake tasted heavenly.
Soon it was evening. Bhomlu came down and the star was lit – together they went out to a great to find out the visibility of the star, and, they were amazed that it was clearly visible from quite a distance . Around this time Deep and other elder cousins and uncles gathered at the local church for decorating it with coloured papers and flowers. Grandpa’s younger brother too assembled there. His work was to encourage these volunteers with live organ rendition.
The church was made of mud walls, mud floor and had a tiled roof. The organ was very old, the pedals were worn out and made quite a noise unless you really pumped hard to submerge the noise. But Deep and all the children loved everything about the church.
December 25, 1966 : Boro Din (Chrismas Day)
Deep and the entire family got up early and he was happy that Santa never forgot to put the gift packet under his pillow – a cricket bat! When he came out, he was amazed to see that the entire para was decorated with colour papers tied with strings on the municipal lamp posts. Young people of the locality from different communities did this every year with their own effort and money. Deep was very happy and visibly excited.
The Christmas church service was held at 7.30 in the morning which lasted for an hour. Once he came out of the church, his many friends, who were not Christians, greeted him “Happy Christmas”. Deep invited all of them to his home for the tea party.
It was around 12 noon and the boys and girls from neighbourhood- like Hajipara, Bamanpara, Picnic Garden started gathering at the small ground in the locality. Today was the Great Annual Sports – a tradition born many years ago and which had become synonymous with Christmas. Children or parents would come the previous day and enquire “Will you have Borodin (Christmas) this year ?”
But of course there was this gala family lunch to precede the Christmas Sports. Deep heartily dug into the variety of food that was on offer. He and his cousins ate fast as they knew that by 1 p.m. the sports would start. The benches were spread around the fences of the ground. Grandpa, as usual, occupied the central seat wearing a coloured festival hat. Elder boys of the locality were there to manage the show. Deep knew he would take part in all events, be it sprint, spoon and marble or orange race (in which an orange piece would be hidden underneath a handful of wheat-flour and one had to blow the wheat-flour and take the orange piece in the mouth and run to the finishing line.) Deep invariably came fourth or fifth and never won a prize. But that never could dampen his spirit and he lined up for the next event. Grandpa saved coins throughout the year from his monthly pension and that formed the Prizes. First Prize was 4 Annas, Second Prize was 2 Annas, and, Third Prize was 1 Anna. Since there were many events, so were the number of prizes. The two finale events of the Great Annual Sports were Breaking the Earthen Pot with Eyes Blind Folded, and, Go As You Like. These two events were open for older boys and girls, and the Prizes for the events were Re. 1.
After the sports, it was the time for Christmas Tree. Over 100 children were on queue and each had to pull out a token from a bowl of rice. A tall christmas tree was made with colour paper wrapped on a dry guava tree. This tree was decorated with many toys. One of the locality uncles matched the token number and cut down string of the toy attached to the tree and handed them to the children.
Once all the events were over, like every year, Grandpa stood up and shouted“3 cheers for Great Christmas Sports”. Deep and his friends joined in unison, “ Hip hip hurray!” . Deep knew that that was the end of Christmas for them.
At the end of the day, all the volunteers, a large number of Para Kakas and Dadas (elders of the locality whom the children would address as Uncles or Big Brothers), were invited to the tea party at grandpa’s house. There were cake pieces, biscuits, mixtures and coffee served personally by grandma. Coffee would be poured out in large porcelain cups. (Those days paper cups were not available, and hence a good number of cups were stored at Grandpa’s crockeries almirah).
But Deep was reluctant to believe that Christmas was finally over. For Deep it was just the beginning of a wait for another Christmas !
PS: At present most of the nostalgic memoirs do not exist any more: The old mud walled and tiled roof church was replaced by a little better structure with concrete walls, with tiled roof remodeled. In this form it survived for some more years.
And finally the church was shifted to a new location, of course shaped in a modern structure. Only the benches survived the test of times.
Grandpa’s house was eventually replaced by a multi-storied building.
Published by Diptendu Mukerji