Christmas with the Kumars

2008-01-07 00:00

It was Christmas in Delhi and the street urchins were selling Santa hats at the intersections, and the leaves were covered in a light layer of not snow, but dust. The poppers of popcorn and the roasters of peanuts were doing a brisk streetside trade. With every degree the temperature dropped, the tastier the gulab jamuns in their vats of warm treacle looked. The nightwatchman’s dog, Basanti, wore her winter plumage: a red jacket with a paw-print design.

The landlady’s mali (gardener) comes at dusk to water the plants on our rooftop but I’ve never seen him. Yet pots are weeded and sown, and rearranged. Plants flourish. Because of his stealth, and in the spirit of the season, we have nicknamed him Mali’s Ghost.

Since last year, the Congolese Embassy next door has become the High Commission of Cyprus. Security arrangements remain unchanged: at the gate is a cabin housing a single guard who is armed … with a clipboard. “Step any closer and I’ll take down your name!”

At Chandni Chowk Town Hall, near Old Delhi’s moonlight bazaar, we went to watch a performance by ghazal singers. We emerged from the Metro station into a Dickensian world. It was pitch dark, there was the sound of someone spitting and squatting figures clustered around smoky fires. Bicycle rickshaws appeared out of nowhere and quickly receded into the blackness down the rutted street. Vagrants shrouded in blankets lay on the pavements.

In the gardens of the impressively restored town hall was a pure white, brilliantly lit marquee. Gas heaters warded of the worst of the chill and the stage was festooned with flowers. As with many a Delhi event, the “felicitations” — executed by one luminary and aimed at mentioning as many others as possible — rivalled the actual performance in length.

On Christmas morning we ventured to the Cathedral Church of the Redemption, close to the presidential palace. More proof of Delhi’s cheek-by-jowl multiculturalism, the church is across the road from a Muslim shrine and not far from one of the city’s most prominent Sikh temples.

Congregants trickled in through a side door. The interior was lit by strings of 100-watt lightbulbs which fizzed and popped and finally went out, leaving only the altar candles burning amid a forest of white gladioli. Behind us a man said in a stage whisper, “Bertie Jackson will sit in the front pew on the right. He always does.” And later, when an Indian man appeared with his non-Indian wife: “They’re brave; the world does not accept them.”

A trio of Sikhs in turbans came in to inspect the wiring.

The priest, Father Weatherall, seemed as old as the cathedral and had certainly weathered all. Although he looked like he had left 80 way behind him, he sang with a pure and steady voice. A younger priest delivered the sermon using the classic sermon template of vaguely amusing story plus heart-warming family anecdote plus urban myth, rounded off with an appeal for us all to “make a difference in our own small way”.

Two lepers at the church gates begged with fingerless hands.

A stone’s throw (if one were allowed) from the unwelcoming bulk of the American Embassy is an informal settlement, where our friends the Kumars have taken a temporary room. Bejinder and his wife, Munesh, and their sons Rahul and Mohit welcomed us for Christmas lunch: a vegetable curry and chapatis washed down with apple juice. Dessert was Kheer, a sweet rice pudding.

The Kumars’ room is three metres square and this Christmas they are sharing it with Bejinder’s brother, his wife and baby son. There is a single plug point and water must be collected from communal taps. The neighbours’ two-year-old recently recovered from typhoid.

The Khan Market, one of Delhi’s upmarket bazaars had cashed in on the season; shops were open throughout Christmas Day, with tinsel, candy canes and musical Santas prominently displayed.

Sadly, the market’s rising rents — comparable to prime shopping districts in Europe and the United States — are forcing out mom-and-pop stores, making way for character-free branded outlets. Happily, there remain some interesting hole-in-the-wall merchants and quirky eateries.

At the Turtle Café, I met my friend Nitin, who is a director of an outsourcing company. He spoke with enthusiasm about how the company now employs 60 people and has had to move to larger premises. We talked of our families and wished each other well for the festive season but a message on his cellphone brought the light conversation to an end: Benazir Bhutto is dead.

Later we met friends at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club where a huge television showed the same footage of Bhutto’s motorcade over and over. She had been dead for three hours but there seemed to be little interest in the event as patrons bent over their rum-and-Cokes and fish tikkas.

“They’d be more interested if [Bollywood superstar] Shahrukh Khan fell down a flight of steps,” quipped a local sports journalist cynically. “Let’s switch to the cricket channel.”

The next day I bought five newspapers: “Daughter of the East dead”, “Pakistan erupts in flames”, “Another chapter in a blood-soaked history”, “Bhutto killed, Pak erupts”. But at the restaurant where I ate lunch, the TV was tuned to the sports channel and Harbhajan Singh was bowling to the Australians.

On New Year’s Day, on a bridge crossing the Yamuna (Jumna) River, a group of farmers protested the lack of water that the building of the Commonwealth Games village on the flood plain will cause. But the dust obscured their banners and the traffic drowned their shouts.

In the Lodi botanical gardens, families picnicked and played cricket on the lawns. The malis tended the beds of chrysanthemums and the mynahs and parakeets squawked in the trees. The domed tombs of Delhi’s former Turk and Afghan rulers stood where they have for more than five centuries, the afternoon sun picking out their cobalt-blue tiles.

• Former Witness journalist Marina Bang is an art director for the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading English language daily newspaper. She is a frequent visitor to Delhi, where her husband lives.

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