Christmas in India: Past Perfect, Future Tense

A view of an illuminated Khan Market ahead of Christmas on December 24, 2018 in New Delhi. (Getty Images)

Across the canyons of my mind I hear echoes of Christmases past.

My family’s annual Christmas parties had Hindu and Muslim family friends at our table. I remember the biriyani, the cutlets, the salads and the cakes and puddings. Most of all I remember the fun and games – the word games, talent competitions and the mimicry shows my mother organized.

Our guests were exclusively Hindu and Muslim. They were our special guests to celebrate the refugee birth of a God under alien circumstances. On Christmas mornings my brother and I marched up and down the streets delivering trays with Christmas delicacies to our Hindu and Muslim neighbors who waited with eagerness and merriment. ‘Merry Christmas!’, ‘Happy New Year!’, ‘Thank you!’ ‘Take your tray back,’ they would say. Some even rushed to send us back with a snack or two as a token measure.

We awaited our reception of their holiday shares when their time came.  Id, Diwali, Onam would arrive. There was great anticipation and appreciation among all of us for one another’s seasons. We exchanged more than holiday hospitality. 

Routinely, we found each other emulsified in our arts, architecture, cuisines, clothing, language, religion, and much more.  Our particularities made us all rich and richer. It was the actuality of these experiences that led me to despair over the news of this week.

Like a hard rain out of nowhere the New York Times headlines came this week. "As Protests Rage on Citizenship Bill, Is India becoming a Hindu Nation?" "India Adopts the Tactic of Authoritarians, Shutting Down the Internet." "Why People are Protesting in India?"

My recollections now have a forbidden and fugitive quality to them. Dare I remember!

In my high school and college there were momentary mentions in our history books of reservations for ‘Red Indians’ in America, Hitler and his concentration camps in Europe, and apartheid and its homelands in South Africa.  But these were long ago and far away occurrences swept into the brume of time and distance.

Our commitment to a secular state was a matter of longstanding national pride. Indian secularism was about the open flourishing of multiple faiths, not their diminishment. We coalesced as Muslims, Hindus and Christians across the land under the generous and capacious tent of secularism giving no quarter to any particular religion.

But beneath this canopy of jolly cosmopolitanism, we were bound by hidden lines that marked our elect and special status.  Each of us hailed our purity without being gauche about it. The evidence was on our side as we mythologized our stories; our origins, our gods, our lineage, our land, our manhoods, our complexions, our money, our education, our travels, our children, or our command of the English language and its particular intonations.  We went to great lengths to convey these intergenerational fabrications of our truths.

Each group claimed exceptions and exemptions. I know.

We were a rarefied group. I was aware that while our institutions cultivated a secular disposition in us, we kept our loyalties in our tribal redoubts. It was a fine balance. Now it appears to be tipping. 

The secular identity, as foundational for democracy remains a cherished ideal worth striving for even as it is under threat everywhere.  These days as the protests rage across the Indian subcontinent, I hear that one state stands as a beacon to this ideal of mutuality across differences — Kerala. It is a state that stands tall celebrating the richness of its diversity for over two thousand years. A place that knows well that its very survival depends on the coexistence of its multiple peoples.

I had a charmed childhood.  My peers were from all over India and beyond. We got close traversing one another’s ethnic and religious tracks with great facility.  But I was well aware that the celebration and circulation of our cultures took place in a highly constrained space. Our house servants did not get invited to our parties.  They were part of the undergrowth for our cosmopolitan canopy in our drawing rooms. I remember.

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Ivy George is a Professor of Sociology at Gordon College, MA

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