Crisp winters and feasts

COMMUNITY

Crisp winters and feasts

The party’s tonight: Celebrations at Bow Barrack.  Photo by author

The dingy back alley of Nawab Abdul Rehman Street in central Kolkata has nothing in common with neighbouring Park Street or Lindsay Street. It has none of the glow of the city’s mid-December warmth that clings to the streetlights and brings with it thoughts of Christmas. You begin to think that the early intimations of the festivities-to-come have given this dreary, ramshackle little lane a miss. Till you approach a non-descript two-storeyed house, Number 19, on the street. Which is when the combined flavours of butter, vanilla, caramelised brown sugar and dry fruits soaked in rum fill up your senses and draw you inside the rather shabby interiors of the house. They remind you richly, unmistakably about the time of the year.

For Christmas is drawing near and the 80-year-old Saldanha bakery, housed in a home that also functions as a bread and cake production unit, is flush with orders for seasonal favourites such as rich plum cake and walnut cake. Even in the midst of unforeseen price rise and attendant gloom, the telephone hardly stops trilling at the bakery. “We are now producing about 2,000 lbs of cake a day,” says 70-year-old Denzil Saldanha between answering umpteen phone calls and supervising the cake mixing all around him. He is the present owner of the production-cum-retail outfit complete with an enormous old-fashioned wood-fire oven and a living room where the cakes are packed into boxes and kept ready for delivery. 

Till a few decades ago almost every Christian home in the city baked its own Christmas cake with grandma’s patented recipe. “But increasingly people are shifting to ordering with professionals like us,” informs Denzil. His clientele includes Anglo-Indians, south Indian and Bengali Christians and a very sizeable population of Hindu Bengalis who, partly in keeping with the city’s Anglophile heritage and partly due to its unbridled love for fun and festivity under any pretext, must have its share of the Christmas revelry.

Says homemaker Sharmistha Ghatak, a mother of two little boys, “We’ve always bought mince pies and rich fruit cake from Nahoum’s at New Market at this time. The children decorate a Christmas tree at home and write letters to Santa Claus. They make sure the old man is as good as his word.”

It is this inclusive spirit of the city’s Christmas that makes it no less a festival than Durga Puja or Diwali. The scrubbed blue skies and the soft wispy winter help the celebrations along. Park Street, the forever-swinging entertainment hub of up-market Kolkata, dresses up in the prettiest fairy lights for the last 10 days of the year and the rest of the city turns to it with a lively, touristy interest.

Sandhya Ghosh, a homemaker who moved from Kolkata to Delhi about seven years ago, is nostalgic about Park Street and New Marker’s Jewish bakers Nahoum’s with its plum pudding. “When it comes to Christmas celebrations there’s no city quite like Kolkata,” she says, her wistful eyes no doubt conjuring up images of the doggedly old-world Nahoum’s bakery and resting fondly on its still-in-use cash-till from a forgotten era.

Time hasn’t changed much around Bow Barracks on Bow Street either. A stone’s throw from the perceptible glitz and glamour of New Market stand the six dilapidated blocks of the Bow Barracks, a home to a hundred-odd Anglo-Indian families since World War I. The streams of light cascading down their striking red brick walls, a huge bejewelled Christmas tree standing as the pièce de resistance in a spacious courtyard, uphold some of the oldest values that Christmas stands for. “Bow Fest begins on December 22 and includes a concert, a Christmas party and dinner for all residents and friends and ends with a community dance on December 31. We organise evenings for senior citizens and poor people and another for underprivileged children in keeping with the spirit of giving,” explains Bruce Eric Lindsay, a member of the Bow United Organisation that puts together the series of events.

“The spirit of Christmas is timeless,” declares Ronald Thomas, a 70-year-old resident of Bow Barracks. “We prepare the ingredients for our Christmas cake and take them to the neighbourhood baker’s. Many still make fruit wine at home. A special meal of pulao and chicken curry (duck’s out of the question; where’s the bird? Where’s the baker who’ll roast it?) is cooked in every home for lunch. Dinner, of course, is a shared experience as we all eat together, irrespective of religion or community.”

Shared dining is, as Charles Dickens’ 1843 masterpiece A Christmas Carol made us so acutely and sentimentally aware, an important part of the romance of Christmas. “Many houses still make ale for the occasion and it is customary to have family and guests over for a Christmas meal. Delicacies such as kulkul are prepared at home, in addition to cakes and cookies,” says Melvyn Brown, the redoubtable publisher of a monthly newsletter called ‘The Anglo-Indian’ for the past 18 years and quite the chronicler of the community.

And so, even as the Anglo-Indians have stepped out of their traditional bastions of central Kolkata, to make their homes in other parts of the city (the middle-class Bengali locality of Picnic Garden in particular), as well as the world, Christmas is the time for many of them to come home. “You see, for the Anglo-Indian, the family is at the centre of everything. I think it is also the tremendous drawing power of Kolkata that brings back many of the immigrants every year,” observes Brown.
It must be this drawing power, then, that makes non-Christian former Kolkatans like Ghosh long for the chime of the church bells here.

And those that are here and can afford the (rather expensive) Christmas fare do not skimp on the stuffed roast turkey with cranberry sauce, making sure that nothing but a few bones remain on the plate. After all it’s the world’s grandest birthday party and the gregarious Kolkatan, with an unerring sense of occasion, must wine and dine at the magnificent feast.

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