A Christmas Story

Last Christmas we hosted the annual family potluck for the in-laws. Our home was decked out in luminescent LED lights and lit up with softly glowing candles to match the winter-wonder-fairyland theme we had going. Everyone found the chasing snowflake lights hung from our hallway arch spell-binding and mesmeric. There was magic in the air and an atmosphere that was so ethereally enchanting. Our Christmas tree stood twinkling and slightly askew under the weight of dozens of pale blue and silver balls. I’d spent half-a-day putting them up and a good two more taking them down!

We were well stocked on good food, an upbeat, indulgent –strictly holiday-bound – spirit, endless small talk and starved for stimulating conversation. Though some of us could hardly tell the difference. As hosts, the husband and I kept up a steady flow of alcohol 5 per cent breezers to buoy spirits and draw the crowd out of their straitjackets. Some of our teetotaller guests timorously wet their whistle, some chugged down bottles of alcopop in twos and still some preferred to stay in their straitjackets! I offered to hit them with something stronger, but they would not be tempted. So, the only real alcohol in sight – a tall bottle of red placed as part of the table décor – remained untouched and returned to the pantry when everyone went home.

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Still it was a good party; everyone did their best on the food, Christmas treats and presents. I pulled out a few new tricks from my chef’s hat with chevre stuffed bacon wrapped dates, roasted beet, walnut and feta salad, and bacon and chipotle stuffed roast chicken. Oh, and my dark fruit cake was the bomb; it was so heavily steeped in rum it accomplished what the breezers failed to  do – lower inhibitions! I also made – for the first time – chocolate truffles and learned all about tempering chocolate between multiple trials and errors; there was also chocolate fudge and gingerbread cookies from my oven.

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That was last year. This year we were home in India for Christmas. Now any Anglo-Indian expatriate holidaying in India knows that the Christmas season is accompanied by a good dose of drunken revelry, tombola parties, a string of weddings and badly catered food. Well, we obviously missed all this badly enough to hop on a plane and arrive smack dab in the middle of India’s Christmas season and – from the overcast sky during touchdown – in peek monsoon season too!

We scarcely had time to shake off the jet lag; with birthday and holiday celebrations lined back to back, weddings and after parties our social calendar was double-booked.

I was more than a little apprehensive as we got ready for our first party of the season. We were way past fashionably late and I was uncertain of the reception we’d get especially since I’d gone practically AWOL since leaving India, nearly 10 years ago. In that time, relatives and extended family fell by the way side as they so often do when time and distance come into play. I failed miserably at keeping in touch and deliberately avoided those perfunctory courtesy calls that virtually all overseas relatives made, passing out scrawny (or fat depending on how well-loved you are) parcels of goodies. And although the promise of good music and dancing lured me to a lot of family gatherings I wasn’t what you’d call social. So when I quit that scene it was easy for me to live the life of a recluse.

…Some of the thoughts going over in my head as we pulled up at party central – Uncle G’s house. We scrambled out of the car on to the patio; I inhaled deeply to draw in that belly flab – vanity after all always outweighs, well, just about anything – and thrust my best foot husband forward first just as he was protesting that I lead the family inside.

A loud cheer sounded as aunts, uncles, cousins and friends greeted us with hugs and hellos. And here I was worried for nothing. Backed by unrestrained reserves of liquid courage, conversation flowed fast, freely and incredibly loud, so much that it raised concerns with the neighbours. Thrilled that my long overdue visit didn’t cause much of a stir I proceeded to make friends with the newest addition to our boisterous clan – one-year-old M. Can’t say I got the same welcoming reception though. But that didn’t stop me from smooshing the cuteness out of the itty-bitty’s cheeks!

The following day, Christmas celebrations unfolded at my parents’. I tried to cobble together some last minute treats, not even remotely like the grand affair I attempted last year. My parents’ kitchen just wasn’t designed to accommodate a prospective family baker and chocolatier. Boo! Hoo! Blame the tools like a bad worker! Anyway I managed to accomplish something in the name of peanut butter cups only to later hear one of the party plaintively lament, “What’s this, I don’t like it.” Well, I didn’t either so, I saved her from eating the rest.

But I didn’t give up. We were clubbing Christmas with Dad’s birthday and I was determined to bake his cake. I’d so carefully packed my homemade cake mix and it still took me three tries and over a week past the actual day before I was able to get a decent birthday worthy chocolate cake on the table. Thankfully there was Dad’s awesome Doldol to help me through that situation.

My parent’s dining room was the makeshift bar and beyond that lay some of the city’s most mouth-watering biryani. It’s what we live for when we come home to India but it didn’t seem to sway the booze crew. Someone cracked a joke about cousin D still practising the liquid diet (read booze) and there was a burst of boisterous laughter. Our U.S. returned cousin D always made a big splash when he arrived – first into the Scotch bottle then into the Scotch again. We barely ever saw him eat, honestly. He told us that once he went an entire six days without food during a vacation in India.

Almost every Anglo Indian family had their own version of the overseas fairy-godmother and unofficially declared wealthy benefactor for kin in India. Some of them still clung to the notion that Anglo Indians in India couldn’t aspire to anything beyond a life of toil and drudgery so they made it their personal mission to fix that by doling out generous handouts and a tiny sampling of foreign luxury when they were in town.

In our family, that was Cousin D. He always arrived on what seemed like the Federal Reserve’s worth of the Dollar and was the godfather of good times, as a result. He had a large heart and an even larger wallet that didn’t discriminate in giving everybody who was anybody a taste of the ‘good life’. But after years of careless spending and doling out, he’d sobered up enough to recognise genuinely needy cases and is now much more loved by his family.

At the party I was surprised to see an uncle-in-law, something, long exiled from the rest of the family. Actually, it was not surprising to find him there; he always mysteriously turned up when D arrived – a faithful sidekick who made no secret of the fact that he was there only for the free food and booze.

Then there was Aunty S who went around with her infectious sunshiny smile, making sure everyone ‘had sufficient to eat’. If she was present at any party you attended, be prepared to get stuffed. She was like the omniscient food police, patrolling the party scene with heaped plates of food for those who were still nursing their drink.

Christmas celebrations led to wedding fever and a chance for us to show off some serious dance moves. We Anglo Indians are famous for hosting lively and entertaining wedding receptions that really are an excuse for us to do what we do best – dance and be merry! This was the one time that I silently fumed and kicked myself for not sticking to my fitness resolve. Yeah I had no illusions about my expanding waistline but the way it killed my buzz on the dance floor was a reality I couldn’t face.

Still I managed to score a fan, some twice or thrice removed cousin who couldn’t get over how ‘beautiful’ I’d ‘become’. But from the sound of her slurred speech and mislaid laugh I didn’t buy any of it.

Oh. My. God! This really has turned into an epistolary novel, hasn’t it? If you’ve stayed with me this far, thank you, and you will be overjoyed and relieved to know we are in the home stretch.

Later when we reconvened for another night of merry making mayhem, and I was sitting down vigilantly scanning the numbers on my tombola tickets and swatting mosquitoes, I took a few moments to look around our company. Nothing had changed, yet so much had happened – life, the inevitable, growing up… While it was something I acknowledged and accepted as part of, well, life, I felt nervously out of touch with all that was once part of me. There was a strange restlessness that settled in – a sense of belonging and not belonging simultaneously. But there was also comfort in knowing that we were the same boisterously life loving, warm-hearted bunch that pulled no punches when we talked and enjoyed simple fun. Grey hairs (not me, God no!) and parenthood or grandparent status had not slowed us down. And I still sucked at tombola! In the end, I decided to cut my losses on the game and drink a cold one.

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