I grew up in Calcutta, a city inhabited mostly by people who are Hindu, like me. It may seem strange, then, that some of my most vivid childhood memories involve Christmas. But the holiday holds a special meaning for me.
Calcutta–halfway around the world from Texas, where I live now–celebrated Christmas in its own way. Poinsettia trees and colored lights on Chowringhee Street. Afternoon skies above Maidan Park, filled with moon-shaped kites. The nuns at school teaching us “Away in a Manger” and rapping our knuckles if we got the words wrong. The Anglo-Indian store windows decorated with homemade Christmas scenes: fat Santas, oval mirrors laid flat to simulate a frozen lake, miniature sleighs nestled in a clump of cotton wool, which was all I knew of snow and cold until I came to America. In my native language, Bengali, we even had a different word for Christmas: Baradin, which means “big day.”
But my favorite part of the holiday was the trip my grandfather and I would make together every year on December 24, to Firpo’s Bakery.
My grandfather did not live with us in Calcutta. He was a doctor in Gurap, our ancestral village in the Bengal countryside. He was a very busy man, helping the poor farmers of his district. But as the holidays drew near, he would take the Bardhaman train and come visit his grandchildren for a few days during our winter vacation. In defiance of popular sentiment, he had decided that I–the girl–was to be his favorite. I loved him for that.
I knew, from eavesdropping on grown-up conversations, that when my grandfather was younger, he was considered something of a terror. A retired army captain, he had disowned two of his sons for actions he felt had shamed the family. Even now, when he entered a room, my parents stood to show him respect.
Grandfather was the first one in his town to own a radio, a large box made of polished mahogany. He kept it in the Outer House, a separate, one-room structure where he saw patients and, after hours, chatted with friends. When events of magnitude occurred in the country or in the world, he would send word, and villagers were welcome to come to the Outer House to hear about it. My grandfather’s radio was how the village learned of the second World War and of India’s independence.
He was also the first one to send a daughter (my mother) to college in Calcutta, an act that scandalized the whole village. For this mason, he was the one person I could ask about anything. My father was impatient with my questions; my mother was often too busy with household chores. My older brother couldn’t be trusted; for years he had me believing that, as a baby, I’d been left on our terrace by a black-faced baboon. But my grandfather knew everything–from the name of the capital of Ethiopia to how fish were able to breathe under the water to who was going to win the next Mohun Bagan-East Bengal football game.
I didn’t know how to reconcile Grandfather’s different faces, and I didn’t try. It was enough that when I ran to him, a smile broke across his face, and he gathered me to his chest in an embrace that smelled like cloves.
This particular December 24, as we walked together to Firpo’s, we took turns twirling his umbrella, which was a wonderful device. Large and shiny black, it could be unfurled to protect him (and me) from sun or rain. It could be leaned on if you were tired. It was a good weapon of defense against aggressive street dogs, and its curved handle was excellent for pulling down things that were out of reach. (Grandfather also said he used it to rout bands of robbers in the countryside, but his eyes twinkled when he told me this.)
As we walked, we discussed what to buy at Firpo’s. The store was very expensive, and since Grandfather’s patients paid mostly in vegetables and gratitude, he lived on just his modest army pension, so we had to choose our treats carefully. Should we go for the familiar, and therefore certain, pleasures of the red and green sugar cookies shaped like fir trees? Or the fruitcake studded with the sweetest cherries I’d ever tasted? (Actually, the only cherries I’d ever tasted.) Or should we try some of those little pastel-colored pastries that sat, each in its own frilled paper container, on the top shelf, filled with exotic creams and fudges? Grandfather urged me to be adventurous, but I wasn’t sure.
We ended up buying the fruitcake, same as last year. As a bonus, Grandfather got me a cookie to eat on the way back, and gave me the change: two 25-paisa coins. Rarely did I find myself in possession of extra money, and I was elated. Why, with 50 paise, I could buy three packets of Chiclets chewing gum, two Qwality pistachio ice sticks, or a helping of gol-guppa from the snack man across the street. I resolved to hide the money in my shoes as soon as I got home, until I figured out how best to spend it.
On the tram, my mouth crammed with crunchy sugar, I asked Grandfather a question that i’d been mulling over for some time now. Why was Christmas called the Big Day?
Grandfather was silent for a whole minute. I started to get worried. I knew he was a devout Hindu, and though not a templegoer, he meditated in his room and read from the Bhagavad Gita every morning. Had I committed a terrible faux pas by asking him about the birthday of a foreign god he did not believe in?
But Grandfather wasn’t mad–he’d merely been thinking. When he finally spoke, his voice was slow and considering, as though I were the same age as he. Christmas–the birthday of a very special soul–was a day to grow big, he said. Not physically, not even in the way of riches and fame, but in the truest way, in our hearts.
This sounded interesting. “And how do you grow big in your heart, Grandfather?” I asked.
“You do it by thinking of other people, shona,” he replied. “By doing something you think will make them happy. Something you don’t have to do. By putting their needs before yours at least once for this day. It’s a good start for trying to live a big life.”
Satisfied with his answer, I turned my attention to all the interesting things I could observe from the tram window. I spotted a monkey-dance man, his animal perched on his shoulder in a red satin jacket. There was a vendor with wares of spicy potato chaat and puffed rice. Next came a white bull, standing majestic and intractable in the middle of the road. At the corner of Shakespeare Sarani, I saw a madwoman armed with a broom, squatting in the dirt. She wore a torn sari and a battered motorcycle helmet–who knows where she had picked it up. I watched her carefully. She was known to swipe at passersby with her broom, and I didn’t want to miss any of the action. But today, she just stared listlessly at the pavement. When the tram stopped in front of her, I was shocked to see she was shivering.
Beggars were everyday sights in Calcutta, and like others who must survive in the city, I had learned not to think too much about the details of their lives. But perhaps because of what Grandfather had just said, I took one of my 25-paisa coins and threw it surreptitiously from the window. It landed with a loud clink in front of the madwoman. I cringed at the sound, but I was worried for nothing–my grandfather did not notice what I had done.
Neither, apparently, had the crazy woman. She was staring down at her fingernails now, muttering something, rocking a little from side to side. There was a big purple bruise on her cheekbone. The coin lay in front of her, its lonely shine against the dirty asphalt. The tram picked up speed. Take the money, take the money, I ordered her desperately inside my head. But she didn’t do it. The tram turned a corner and she was gone. I burst into tears.
Grandfather asked, concerned, “Do you have a tummyache? Do you need to go to the bathroom?”
Hot with embarrassment, I stopped crying long enough to shake my head. Did he think I was a baby, to need to go to the bathroom in the middle of a tram trip?
“Do you feel sick? Tell me why you’re crying, shona.”
Somehow, though I wanted to, I could not say anything. This, too, distressed me. It was the first time I’d kept a secret from my grandfather, and it felt like a betrayal. But what if he got angry that I’d so casually thrown away the money he’d given me? I was upset, too, at the waste–I could still see the small, glittery disk lying on the ground next to a pile of street garbage, l thought of all the things that my one remaining coin would not buy me and wept harder.
“Oh, dear!” said Grandfather. “I shouldn’t have given you that cookie. So many times your mother has warned me that you get carsick easily. Wait!” He rummaged in his kurta pocket and pulled out a small bottle in triumph.
“Churan,” he told me as he shook out a tiny brown ball. “Try one. It’s really good for nausea.”
I sucked on the spicy-sour ball while he launched into a complicated fairy tale to distract me. The rest of the day’s diversions–my mother’s feast, the silly jokes we told over dinner, the Christmas poem I’d learned in class and recited–kept me from thinking about the beggar woman.