Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Fairytales of Christmas

The Asian Age.  | Palash Krishna Mehrotra

Opinion, Columnists

Christmas Echoes: A Melodic Blend of Nostalgia and Tradition, Harmonized with Shane MacGowan's 'Fairytale of New York.

“Fairytale of New York” is a Christmas classic that many music aficionados will turn to this year not least because it is by Shane MacGowan (above), the Irish singer-songwriter who died on November 30 this year. (Image by Arrangement)

Memories are not Googleable. What one remembers is both accurate and approximate, a blend of fact and fiction, triple distilled, like vodka, through layers of time. My first memory of Christmas is from when I was seven. I went to a Protestant school for boys. We didn’t have Fathers and Brothers who dressed in robes, nor did we have to carry hymn books. We did say the Lord’s Prayer every morning and around mid-December we put up a nativity play, recreating the scene of Jesus’ birth, and the Shepherds and Wise Men visiting Jesus and Mary.

I didn’t land a plum role. I was the sutradhaar who narrated the story. I’d read a few lines, which my classmates enacted. Timing was paramount. I remember there was a lot of red in the air. The sheet that I read from was pasted on thick red chart paper. Red is also the colour of Santa’s uniform, although he wasn’t around, or maybe he was, a teacher dressed as Father Christmas, and handing out toffees. Maybe it was Mr Ryder, who later emigrated to Australia. Mrs Massey, drenched in perfume, applied red lipstick on our lips. I remember my ruby lips being very sticky, which made my job challenging. Every time I tried opening my mouth, my lips wouldn’t budge.

My other memory is of groups of boys turning up at teachers’ homes to eat cake. It was a trophy ritual, with the bragging rights reserved for those who’d hogged maximum cake: “Let’s go to Mr Egbert’s, Mr Dacosta’s, Mr Rodericks’, Mr Maxwell’s, Mr Saunder’s...” Some teachers lived on campus, others in Muirabad, Allahabad’s Christian part of town. I lived next door to the Anglo Indian Colony, where electric stars appeared magically in December, adorning misty gates and foggy doorways.

Sometimes I’d be in Bombay, at my mother’s place in Vile Parle. Hand-crafted dioramas depicting the babe in the manger appeared at quiet suburban crossings. At thirteen, I’d look at ads for Christmas Eve celebrations, called “blasts”, in mid-day and be filled with a yearning for the good time. Our neighbour in Bombay was Christian; Aunty threw an annual terrace party, complete with booming speakers and blinking lights. I’d watch from my balcony and feel more yearning in a so-close-yet-so-far kind of way. Picking up on cues, my uncle, Alok Mama, would take me to his flat in Malad and we would dance till late, Bappi Da’s “Disco Station” playing on rewind-repeat on the smuggler’s market mono two-in-one.

My parents were friends with the poet Dom Moraes and his wife, Leela Naidu. They had proper Christmas feasts with roast turkey and wine and fancy folk, and where, at the age of sixteen, I wore a clip-on earring on the wrong ear, prompting an eminent art historian to ask my father if his son was gay.

As a university student in England, I realised that Christmas is one big shopping festival. It was drilled into me by the natives there that one could not be alone for bada din. I found this curious because I’d been alone one Diwali in my Delhi college and savoured being solitary king of the deserted campus. Later, when I did a summer internship with a London publisher, I figured that British publishing takes the longest Christmas sabbatical, starting mid-December and ending mid-January. No wonder that the cogs of publishing, like justice, move so slowly.

It was a good couple of authentic Christmases in the British Isles, one in London where a ninety-year-old grandpa wanted to drive home after one drink too many, and one in Dublin where I tasted black pudding for the first time. I learnt that no one here eats cake for Christmas. The other thing I remember about 1998 is that people were gifting the same books to each other: Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters and John Bayley’s first volume of the Iris trilogy. I ended up with multiple copies.

As I’m writing this, a not-so-old flame calls. She’s on a train going from Antwerp to Amsterdam. She tells me she will be spending Christmas with a friend in Belgium. She tries explaining Secret Santa to me, something she used to have at her convent school. I feel an old festive melancholy come over me. I need to listen to a song. No, not WHAM’s “Last Christmas”, because it reminds me of eating hamburgers at the Connaught Place Wimpy’s where the air-conditioning was always turned on high and the May temperature outside sizzled at forty-five. I want to listen to a song that is windy-cold and has a touch of sad.

I turn to Shane MacGowan, the Irish folk-punk-poet-bard who died on 30 November, and had a grander funeral than the queen. I turn to the song he hated the most because it was his most popular, the Christmas classic “Fairytale of New York”, which he sang with Kirsty MacColl. MacGowan injects the song with trademark dark realism, singing about the “scumbag’, the “bum”, the “junkie... lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed”, the outcasts he felt an affinity with, but at heart it’s a love song shot through with a downbeat optimism: “It was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank/An old man said to me, ‘Won’t see another one/ And then he sang a song, ‘The Rare Old Mountain Dew’/ I turned my face and dreamed about you./ Sinatra was swinging, all the drunks they were singing/ So, Happy Christmas, I love you, baby/ I can see a better time when our dreams come true./ The boys of the NYPD choir were singing, ‘Galway Bay’/And the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day.