India: Joy to the world

By Liz Light

Liz Light celebrates Christmas day in Kolkata.

The Maidan is a green expanse in Kolkata. Photo / Supplied
The Maidan is a green expanse in Kolkata. Photo / Supplied

It's not the pitter-patter of reindeer's feet that wake me on Christmas morning but the trumpeting of elephants. The Taj Bengal, my hotel, backs on to the Kolkata zoo. Having arrived 10 hours ago in the dark, and feeling weirdly jetlagged, this echoing roar is exotically appropriate. There is no doubt I'm in India.

St Paul's Cathedral, a short walk away, has an English service at 10.30am. The Cathedral, built in 1847, is a gothic revival building that looks as if it has been dropped in from Sussex. It seems packed when Laura, my niece, and I arrive at 10.15 but an usher finds us a seat. By the time the service begins the congregation, now standing in the aisles and vestibule, has swelled to a thousand or more. Ours are two of the five white faces.

It's dark and tranquil inside. St Paul's has its original finely carved mahogany pews, frescoes on the walls showing the life of St Paul and, I note for art buffs, an Edward Burne-Jones stained glass window. The jewel colours in the windows blend beautifully with the women in the congregation who are dressed in their best and brightest silk saris and salwar kameez.

The choir leads the hymns; a selection of old favourite Christmas carols. The vicar delivers a brief but charming sermon about compassion, peace and love and when the time comes for me to shake hands with my neighbours I'm so emotional that I'm teary.

We file out the back door while thousands more file in the front for the Bengali service that follows. I love that in the life-sized nativity scene in the garden, baby Jesus has dark skin and black curly hair, Mary is a dusky maiden wearing a sari and the three wise men, with their camels, look like Rajasthan camel herders.

The Maidan, the park across the road is 5km long and half as wide. It was designed into the cityscape by visionary English surveyors 300 years ago, and is full of Kolkatans enjoying the public holiday. There are hundreds of cricket games under way, with teams playing both parallel to and across each other. Fielders face all directions and it's not clear to me who is on which team.

Around the edge of this cricket-muddle families picnic and play badminton. Chai and coconut sellers, a monkey man and vendors of snacks and balloons walk from group to group. The chai, brewed in a massive teapot over a portable pump-up kerosene cooker is spicy, rich and sweet; just the energy blast we need. A cricket ball whizzes past our heads. It's time to move on and Victoria Memorial is nearby.

Victoria Memorial, a pearly architectural extravaganza with echoes of the Taj Mahal, is Lord Curzon's homage to Queen Victoria, Empress of India. It's a sumptuous marble building with domes, columns, maidens in draped gowns and snarling stone lions. And to ensure its association there is a statue of the Queen in front of the main doors.

It's surrounded by hectares of gardens crowded with picnicking families, village groups touring the city for the day and courting couples in leafy glades. Victoria Memorial, for all its over-the-top details, is a magnificent building, one that Kolkatans are rightly proud of, and it's heart-warming to be part of the day-off festivities going on around it.

Part of the fun is the horse-drawn carriage-rides on offer at the gate. The old-time carriages have wooden-spoke wheels, are decked out like fancy chariots and are pulled by high-stepping horses. Kolkatans with spare rupees, and there seem to be many, hire these for a fast trot around exterior of The Maidan. A coach ride is tempting but Mother Teresa is calling.

Mother Teresa's Home of Compassion is three kilometres across town so we grab an auto-rickshaw. There is, because it's Christmas, Joy to the World written in flower petals across the top of her tomb. Novice nuns file in to pray, kneeling with their foreheads resting on the cool marble. We attend, for a while, a Christmas service in the adjoining chapel and enjoy more of the traditional Christmas carols that I know and love including Joy to the World which seems to be the catch phrase here.

Mother Teresa spent 68 of her 87 years devoted to helping the poor of Kolkata. Her story, told in a photographic display in the library, is one of wisdom, selfless-service and faith. She, who described herself as a 'pencil in the hands of the Lord', would not allow anyone to die on the streets; 'Someone, somewhere will bring him to us'. The power of this one small woman to do so much good is humbling.

We mere mortals with rumbling tummies after a long and lunch-less day, go to a restaurant just off Park St, the main shopping zone, and settle-in for a delicious spicy meal.

It's dark when we finish dinner and Park St is crazy in a good way; millions of blinking fairy lights are strung across and along the road, polystyrene Santas sit on the pavement, and there is a gridlock of pedestrians, cars, taxis, motorbikes and buses. Crowds have come here to enjoy the Christmas lights. Never mind that this is a city short of electricity, where blackouts and brown outs are a regular thing - Christmas must be celebrated.

Where Park St joins The Maidan there is a statue of Mahatma Ghandi backlit by bright lights so it looks as if he is still striding, leading a protest march against British colonialism. We've paid homage to Jesus and Mother Teresa so we stop for a moment and admire Mahatma as well.

Back at the hotel a kind person has put two little Christmas puddings in our room.
They're rich, spicy, gooey, sweet and delicious; not Christmas pudding as we know it but an Indian version. They sum up the day. Kolkata was a British city for 200 years - London on the Hooghly - and British ways and rituals linger, modified by the irrepressible essence of India.

Getting there: Cathay Pacific offers twice daily flights from Auckland to Hong Kong and onward connections to Kolkata four times a week with its sister airline Dragonair.
Where to stay: Taj Bengal, a luxury hotel in central Kolkata, is walking distance to the commercial centre and many heritage attractions.

* Liz Light paid her own way to India.

- Herald on Sunday

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