Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

Christmas in India: Part eight

January 22, 2011

With Boxing Day just an hour away, I had one last thing to do before my Christmas would be complete.

But that last thing was the most important of them all.

Minutes after arriving home, I called my mom just as I’d promised. I was disappointed to hear the familiar greeting and beep of the answering machine, but far from dismayed. She was likely en route to my grandma’s place, picking her up for the traditional Christmas family dinner at my aunt’s house. I’d be calling my aunt’s house that afternoon, so I could talk to her then. I left a one-minute message anyway.

I’d coordinated things with my aunt via email beforehand. If everything went according to plan, Christmas dinner would follow the usual schedule, and everyone’s plates would be cleared by two in the afternoon. I planned to call as the gifts were being opened, just as everyone was settling into their post-meal routine. That way, I’d be able to talk to everyone at the dinner table without hanging up the phone.

But I still faced a two and a half hour gap between my last phone call and my next one. So I spent that time talking to some other people I cared about. I had a good conversation with my host parents before they went to bed, and I wished some of my friends Merry Christmas through Facebook Chat. But mostly I was just waiting for the clock to strike 1:30 local time. Thanks to the 11.5-hour time difference, sleep once again fell low on my priority list.

Nearly two hours after midnight, I punched in the thirteen digits that would create a direct link between Nagpur, Maharashtra, India, and Champaign, Illinois, USA.

My aunt told me beforehand to prepare to be homesick, and I know why she said that. I missed my family. I missed my younger cousins Claire, Henry and John, and I missed their parents, my older cousins Dawn, Cyrus, Chris and Lisa. I missed my Aunt Julie, who always does such a good job hosting Christmas dinner each year, and I missed my Uncle Larry, who always cooks up a scrumptious meal. I missed my grandma, with whom I hadn’t yet talked from India, and I missed my mom, with whom I’d talked several times from India, but was still anxious to speak with all the same.

Was I homesick? No. But before calling, the gap between my family and me was larger than it had ever been.

I picked up the phone, and it was as if I was entering another world.

My aunt’s “Hello” was the first thing I heard. In the background I could hear wrapping paper being torn and exhilarated voices shouting out. Familiar voices. Voices I hadn’t heard in months…

As the phone made its way around my aunt’s house, I exchanged Christmas greetings with almost everybody there. Everyone had something nice to say, and almost everyone had questions about my life in India. People seemed particularly interested in the balmy weather here, and given the climate they described to me there, I can understand why.

Champaign is the kind of city that gets more than its fair share of winter weather. Several deposits of snow fall each winter without fail, sometimes of the knee-deep variety. In spite of this, I hadn’t experienced a white Christmas in Champaign in years – either the snow would melt in time for the holiday or it would wait until January to fall. So as person after person recounted the scene out the window – six inches of fresh powdery snow covering everything in sight – I wasn’t shocked, but I understood the significance of the moment. It was certainly nothing like Nagpur.

All of us were getting used to temperatures in the 20s. I just happened to be the only one using Celsius.

For over 90 minutes, I painted a picture of Indian life to the eight people I talked with. Our conversations bounced from topic to topic, from how I was enjoying cricket to how I was living without meat. Time slows down when you’re enjoying yourself, and when my uncle asked me what time it was in India, I looked down at my watch and told him: 3:30 a.m.

What is it about absence, they say, that makes the heart grow stronger? Of the eight people I talked to, I hadn’t heard the voices of seven in five months, and I hadn’t seen any of them since leaving for India.

It’s precisely because of that absence that the phone call I made that night was life-changing.

I’d always taken my family for granted. That’s not a rude statement, or an offensive one. It’s just a fact. Christmas dinner with my family was always a given, as predictable as the fireworks that shoot off each New Years at midnight. They were always with me in the same area code, or at least usually within driving distance. I grew up incredibly fortunate to live so close to the people I love, and I grew content with them being there, whether I needed them or not.

Now I was in India for Christmas, and I could no longer take my family for granted. Sure, they were all still there at the table, quite solid in their seats. But for the first time in nearly two decades, I wasn’t. There’s just something about being halfway around the world that makes Christmas different. Quirks and petty disagreements don’t matter when you’re 8,000 miles away.

It’s still my family, no matter what.

And that’s all that matters.



Christmas in India: Part seven

January 20, 2011

I have no idea what parades in India are supposed to be like, but I have a feeling they’re nothing like the one we were a part of Christmas night.

We’d just finished dinner, having eaten whilst someone else was putting on a mega-performance, this also a dance in front of hundreds of people. It was nice to watch casually, the pressure of performing having been transferred from our shoulders to theirs. We ambled away towards the bus after dessert, ready to ride back to Modern School and call it a night.

That’s when we were interrupted by the parade.

Actually its resemblance to a parade was minimal, but I can’t think of any other pithy word to describe the scene. A single flatbed truck was being led by a car with a power generator, its escort required so several large amps could blare Jingle Bells into the night on a continuous loop. A couple dozen Indians were standing on the back, dancing and handing out sweets quite generously to passerby. The truck itself was covered in Christmas-colored streamers, and decorated so that it no longer resembled something you’d find on a highway.

We got on board.

I hadn’t planned to see a parade this Christmas, let alone to be in one. But little about this Christmas had gone according to plan. Why plan when the enjoyable things always come on short notice? Despite the challenges of staying balanced on a moving vehicle (albeit a very slow one), we joined the spontaneous dance party, huddled together to keep each other from falling off. My mouth full of candy, my ears full of music, and my limbs doing everything possible to stay afloat the float, India had once again successfully overwhelmed my senses.

Music has been inseparable from and invaluable to our memories from this holiday. The songs from our performance set the tune for our Christmas Eve practice. The songs on Jakob’s laptop set the tune for our party at his house. Christmas carols set the tune for our ride to CP Club, and Christmas karaoke set the tune once we were there. Slow, nostalgic organ music set the tune for Midnight Mass, and fast, familiar music set the tune en route to Surabardi. Whenever, wherever, music was always with us to set the mood.

And now our mood was being set by an ear-assaulting, heart-pumping rendition of Jingle Bells. On a parade float. In India.

That ten-minute ride wasn’t the last we’d take that night, as the bus that would take us back to Modern School still awaited us. But it’s the one I’ll remember the most.


Christmas in India: Part six

January 18, 2011

I wish I could tell you our performance was a rousing success.

I wish I could tell you all the dance steps I’d forgotten came back to me as I performed. I wish I could tell you our yoga demonstration went off without a glitch. I wish I could tell you our musical performance was so mesmerizing the audience gave us a standing ovation.

Unfortunately, none of those wishes came true.

But we did get a curtain call.

Had you been backstage during our performance, unable to see the action on the other side of the curtain, you might have expected something catastrophic to happen during our performance. Maybe an overhead light would give way, and topple down onto the stage. Perhaps a pack of monkeys would be released, and chase us into the crowd. Minutes before our performance, we were clearly paying the price for our procrastination.

For all I knew, maybe a monkey had looted my bag – the red sash vital to my first costume was nowhere to be found. The Bengali dance was the second item on our program, and some changes to our costumes would have to be made if we were to perform as planned. I ran around desperately, searching for the sash backstage, but I didn’t run into any good luck.

The reason for my wardrobe malfunction had to do with my misunderstanding of the order of events. I’d wrongly assumed my other dance would be performed first, so I removed the dhoti-kurta I’d been wearing over the Maharashtran dance costume. When I realized the order was reversed, I put it back on. Somewhere in that costume shuffle, the sash was lost, and our group had no choice but to improvise.

I walked onstage about ten minutes before the performance to put our instruments in place. I couldn’t help but notice that with ten minutes until showtime, the gazebo was far from full, with over two-thirds of the 1500 seats still empty. So as I made my way onstage the second time – my hands on my hips and my feet in step with the music – it was with mild surprise that I found the room filled to capacity.

It’s a shame we didn’t give those people a better performance.

Unlike the inaugural kathak dance, which by all accounts went smoothly, our Bengali dance left significant room for improvement. Perhaps the audience didn’t notice our many errors, but we certainly did. In one particularly embarrassing stretch, my mind went blank for several seconds, and I could do little more than tap my feet in tune to the music. Often I found myself a half-second behind, perceptive to but not assured of the steps I was to take.

It wasn’t quite a debacle, but even the polite applause we received seemed too gracious. It was obvious that we’d learned the dance in three days.

Although I assume the ensuing Eastern dance in which five girls performed went well, I wouldn’t know. My mindset had been switched to the coming Maharashtran dance, my mediocre showing in the Bengali dance already forgotten. So it came as a surprise when I learned our musical performance was next on the program, not the final of our four dances. I removed my triangular dance hat and made my way on stage again, reassured that at least my second performance would be better than my first.

I have nothing memorable to report of our brief concert. The first few seconds of the tabla part were marked by volume trouble, but the sound was soon turned up accordingly. A tuned ear would have noticed split second differences in our coordination, and perhaps the crowd would rather have seen us play longer, but I can offer no complaints. The audience was our pacemaker, clapping along as we played tabla, and they were appreciative of our performance.

And the Maharashtran folk dance went even better. So much better, in fact, that the audience called for an encore. This required me to rush my props across the backstage as the girls began their bit and yell “Jordan!Jordan!Jordan!Jordan!Jordan!Jordan!” at the person closest to the entrance on stage left. My double-backstage-sprint was for naught, however, as the music faded out and the encore ended before I had the chance to come on stage once more.

But my sprints were just beginning, and so was our yoga demonstration. Once I ran to discard my costume, which I wouldn’t need for yoga, once I ran to stage right in the erroneous belief that was where I’d be entering, and once I ran back to stage left, realizing my mistake about two seconds too late.

It was a hectic start to a performance that left a lot to be desired.

We entered the stage without the plates that were to hold the petals, although that hardly mattered when we could just hold the flowers in our palms. After our initial “om”, a silence prevailed that had little to do with meditation. For about a minute, the accompanying music had nothing to accompany, and we could do little but softly chant “om” two or three times more. Until someone backstage found a microphone for Brii, she could say nothing, and even then, it took several seconds to get the volume turned on.

I can’t comment on the rest of the demonstration, because I had my eyes closed until my part at the end. It seemed to go well, though.

And then it was over. That was it. The end. Bas.

We couldn’t really celebrate until we were back in the cottage, our costumes un-costumed, our bangles-unbangled, the mess awaiting us inside un-made. But we’d made it through our performance unscarred and unfazed. All the mistakes we’d made were now in the past. At last, we had nothing to worry about except how to enjoy the evening ahead.

Back at the cottage, I decided to look through my backpack again.

You’ll never guess what red piece of fabric I found inside.


Christmas in India: Part five

January 16, 2011

After two hours in the sun at Suraburdi Meadows, it’s safe to say I was warmer than I’d ever been on Christmas Day.

In spite of the relentless December heat, the complex where we spent the day was the nicest I’d seen in Nagpur. Nowhere else in India had I seen a place like Suraburdi, with acres of closely mowed, cleanly manicured green grass. As our bus drove in around noon, a beautiful blue lake sprawled out before us. Beyond the main compound, dozens of cottages sat spaced far apart, one in which we would be staying in the hours before our performance.

Christmas dinner was remarkably unremarkable. Other than some chicken biryani for which I was not tempted to take seconds, nothing on my plate resembled anything that would be there for the American version. In fact, nothing about our meal resembled the cozy American version. Instead of gathering around a table in a well-heated home, we sat bunched in a row, our legs dangling over the edge of a makeshift veranda. The enemy wasn’t bitter cold, but searing heat. Unlike our Thanksgiving dinner in Coimbatore, there was nothing emotional about our Christmas Day buffet. The ice cream was good though.

You’d think with our performance so imminent, we’d be harried to practice at the first available opportunity. But India had turned us into professional procrastinators. As we entered our cottage after lunch, it was with four hours and about 1000 square feet to spare. With no supervision, we had no intention of getting to work anytime soon.

We found different ways to enjoy each others company before our instructors arrived. Some of us broke out our Christmas presents, wasting no time in putting them to use. Jakob and I attempted to play (American!) football with one of the many water bottles we’d taken from lunch. Eventually I made my way to the back room with five others and plopped myself in a cozy-looking chair. It was no use resisting the downward pull of my increasingly heavy upper eyelids…

I don’t think I ever fell asleep, although my eyes stayed closed for the better part of an hour. Before four p.m., just a couple hours before show time, I was roused from my half-conscious state.

It was time for our final practice to begin.


I’d been in two plays my senior year of high school, so I knew the atmosphere from the hours before a performance. People pacing, muttering lines under their breath. Makeup being made up. Dance steps being re-stepped. An omnipresent, transparent nervous anxiety as the clock cruelly ticks closer to show time.

Everything was there but the last one as we rehearsed in the cottage together, the imminence of our performance at last upon us. But any tension, if present, was minimal, and the distance between our practice and performance sites was palpable in both distance and time. We had no set to construct, few props to assemble, and Brii was the only one with lines to rehearse. But given the amount of information we’d learned but had yet to commit to memory, I was surprised those final hours weren’t more hectic.

I had two costumes. One was a plain white pajama-kurta with red trim and a triangle-shaped hat that I’d be wearing for the Maharashtran dance. The other was a white dhoti-kurta with a red sash and a white headband for the Bengali dance I’d learned just days before. The pajama-kurta would suffice for the yoga and music portions. I’d wear one kurta over another, and my in-performance costume changes would take seconds. It seemed simple.

Actually, everything we were asked to do seemed simple on its own. It was just when everything came together that everything fell apart.

Our tabla part gave us little trouble, but the copy we’d been promised still hadn’t been given to us. The flutes and drums were still having troubles synchronizing, and our teacher had decided to replace one of Brii’s drums with a porcelain orange sphere, which would change the sound of the drum solo significantly.

And my dances were still a mess – particularly the Bengali dance. Our practice was better than that from the day before, but only marginally. It was lucky I’d be entering the stage behind Jakob and Jordan, as I was far from qualified to lead in this situation. With the three girls still busy applying makeup and jewelry, we rehearsed anyway, but we just couldn’t get our legs, arms and torsos in the right rhythm.

And just like that, it was time to go. With our costumes still in flux, our makeup half-applied, and our dances more demonstrations of disarray than delight, we were rushed out of the cottage and into our cars. My tabla in the trunk and my backpack in hand, we set off for the performance center.

Ready or not, we were coming.


Christmas in India: Part four

January 15, 2011

Four hours after falling asleep, the alarm on my watch woke me around seven on Christmas morning. There was no rush downstairs towards a thickly ornamented Christmas tree, no pile of presents off which to rip red wrapping paper, no cold cocoa left half-sipped on the dining table next to a thank you note from Kris Kringle.

But why focus on what this Christmas didn’t offer when there was so much more that it did?

The product of the past day’s media coverage had been manifested in the morning’s paper. I was pictured posing with the others, my palms together over my head for no reason but the aesthetics of the photo. Two other pictures were shown with the accompanying article, but the highlight was the given caption. France, Germany and Canada had apparently been forgotten; according to the caption, the performing Rotary students apparently hail not only from the USA, but also from Sweden and Japan.

So what was it? Did we get new exchange students overnight, or had there been some secret cross-continental emigrations courtesy Santa’s sleigh?

Journalistic inaccuracies laughed aside, we said goodbye and began our search for separate autos home. Amanda, Anaïs, Nisha and I decided to share a ride, given the proximity of our homes. With activity on the streets this time of day scarce, finding an auto was proving to be a challenge. Rarely did anything pass us on the street, let alone an auto. The few our eyes could catch were just taunting us, full and unable to accommodate us. It was a solid ten minutes before we flagged down an auto driver that would give us a reasonable rate for a ride home.

Halfway home, that is.

The rickshaw came to a stop on an empty street, and I knew as soon as the driver turned to us and said “No petrol” that I had another signature moment in my already memorable holiday. I doubt I’ll ever again be stranded in a rickshaw on Christmas, and as the situation resolved itself minutes later when another rickshaw came by, I was slightly disappointed. Couldn’t there be some unexpected twist or epic encounter, like our ride getting stuck in quicksand or chased by a horde of wild elephants?

It was in relative peace that I jogged home from where the second rickshaw dropped us. I could have walked, but it seemed more prudent to run as quickly as possible. Once again I became self-conscious, wondering what the few locals on the street were thinking of the blue-jean clad foreigner jogging through Nagpur on Christmas morning. Patches of sun made their way through the trees and cool air blew softly across my face. Normally caught in a tangled mass of pillows, blankets and dreams this time of day, the morning’s atmosphere was another blatant, refreshing contrast to my ordinary life.

Most members of my host family were not yet awake, but I wished Merry Christmas to those who were. Running on four hours of sleep, the double bed in my room tantalized me with its comfort, but I sat on it quite upright and finished wrapping my gift.

I was Nisha’s Secret Santa. The idea of Secret Santa had been pitched during the South Tour, and the names had been drawn on a train ride in the waning days of the trip. This way, everyone would be sure to give and get at least one Christmas gift. Pandora’s box had been opened slightly, and the identities of some Secret Santas no longer remained secret. But as of Christmas morning, Nisha didn’t know I’d drawn her name, and I didn’t know who’d drawn mine.

Just the way I wanted it.

As all my other Christmas gifts would have to be shipped halfway around the world (or had been already) I put some serious thought into Nisha’s gift. Ultimately I decided on a book entitled Awesome Facts, which I’d found with surprising ease whilst returning home from practice some days earlier; driving to the bookstore required me to make a detour of about three feet, and the book was featured at the front of the store.

After finishing the accompanying note, wrapping the gift proved to be more of a challenge than I’d expected. Unable to find any suitable wrapping paper, I’d used an old Marathi newspaper – the thinness and fragility of which made taping a delicate, tedious task. By the time I’d finished applying the “bow” – an orange lanyard from my hometown and a purple ribbon – there was no time left for my mid-morning nap.

All of us were to meet at Modern School one last time before a bus would drive us to Suraburdi Meadows, where the conference was being held. And our tablas and drums weren’t the only equipment we’d be taking from Modern School.

A small Christmas tree, courtesy of the Khatris, was being kept in the back room. No matter that it was just over four feet tall. No matter that the needles felt nothing like those of pine. No matter that the branches stuck out like a skinny seven-year old measuring his wingspan.

It wasn’t a traditional Christmas tree, but since when had this been a traditional Christmas?

Two days before, I’d stolen from Brii an unused pizza box and cut a lumpy white cardboard star using a pen cap and an uneven slit in the ground. Only Dascha’s scissors skills salvaged my atrocious artwork. Placed atop our tree was probably the ugliest ornament to ever adorn a Christmas tree, but at least it was decorated.

When all 13 of us had arrived, we took the tree aboard the bus and drove off, late as usual. We placed our presents around the tree, forming a surprisingly sizeable pile at its base. One at a time, the gifts were distributed, unwrapped and opened.

The most exciting part of Christmas had begun!

The opening of my gifts had always been the climax of my holiday season. The gifts I gave out were usually afterthoughts, and my involvement included little more than wrapping them the night before. Even the “Candygrams” I sent to my friends at school were just notes with a candy cane attached, about the size of an iPod and about 1/1000 the cost. The focus of my holiday was always on what I would be getting back. Its success hinged on the quantity and quality of the parcels and notes I’d get back.

So why was it the opposite this Christmas? Why didn’t I care which of the parcels under our makeshift tree was mine, or what was in it?

Jordan, my Secret Santa, had bought me a notebook and pen – probably the two nicest I’ve ever had the privilege to call mine. I recall a conversation with him on the South Tour about wanting better writing utensils for the North Tour. Considering the amount of time I’d spent on South India with a pen and notebook in hand, his gifts had personal meaning that went far beyond any listed price.

I can’t speak for Nisha, but I think she was satisfied with her gift. And so was almost everyone on the bus. Giving these gifts did more than complete an unfinished Christmas Day task. Even though each of us received just one gift, getting something meaningful makes it all the more memorable. And it makes the smiles even harder to suppress.

It took 18 years, but I think I’d finally realized something about my favorite holiday.

Giving, not getting, is what Christmas is really about.