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STILL NIGHT, HOLY NIGHT

Though somewhat belated, I wish all my readers a merry Christmas and a very happy new year. Christmas is the only religious festival I celebrate in my home, but without any religious overtone. It meant nothing to me in my school and college years in India. Though some of my teachers in school were Bengali Christians, and I went to a Christian college, all I knew about Christmas was that it was the Baraa Deen (big day) for the Christians and that they went to church at midnight.

It was in England, in Welwyn Garden city, with an entirely white Christian population that I got attached to Christmas. I had to take a train every morning to London. I often found myself in the compartments with five or six English men and women who spent the hour in train to practise Christmas carols. Their leader played a flute to give the notes, and others had to follow. I soon picked up some carols, notably “Stilly night, holy night”, “Holly and the ivy”, “Jingle bells” and some others. I began to sing with them. They invited me to join them on Christmas eve to do the rounds of homes. I became the black man with a lantern who brought good luck. So we went from door to door, sang a carol or two, were invited indoors and given a glass of wine and some money. After my return home to India, I began to celebrate Christmas with recorded carols, Christmas turkey and pudding. None of my guests were Christians. One reason I chose to spend my Christmas vacations in Goa was the Christmas atmosphere of the Bogmalo beach where I stayed. Bogmalo is a Christian village with its own small church. The mornings begin with a pealing of church bells. When the faithful are gathered in the church, they sing Christian hymns. In the evenings, the hotel loudspeakers relay Christmas carols while the guests are busy taking in the gentle sea breeze. Boys and girls from some school come to the hotel to sing carols. The songs ring in one’s ears while one sleeps.

I don’t go to Goa any more as I am too old to travel. But I keep the tradition of celebrating Christmas, as I have been doing for the past half-a-century or more. So I end my Christmas greetings to you with the “Beggar’s Rhyme”:

Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat;
Please put a penny inthe Old Man’s hat;
If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do,
If you haven’t got a ha’penny, God bless you.

The year gone by was perhaps the most eventful since we became an independent nation; it determined the shape of things to come for our future generations. The choice was clear: either we become a Hindu rashtra because over 80 per cent of us are Hindu, or we remain a secular State as envisaged by M.K. Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Azad and others, a nation where all religious communities feel at home. This was the most contentious issue in the general elections that took place this year. On May 16, the people of India gave their verdict: they wanted the Gandhi-Nehru legacy to continue. They threw the main opponents — the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies that had gained strength on mandir-masjid disputes — in the dustbin of history.

With love

Heidi is a well-to-do German lady living in a farmhouse in the suburbs of Hamburg. She is passionately fond of horses. She has three, which she exercises herself. You can see it in her looks and frame: blonde, tall, bosomy and as strong as any man of her size. To give foreign visitors a taste of Germany, she took them around the city, its landmarks, eateries and taverns. That is how I first met Heidi, when she came to the airport to receive my wife and me. That is over 25 years ago. Since then, she has been coming to India every winter, escorting chosen groups of German tourists.

Although Heidi has been all over India, she has given her heart to Rajasthan. Some winters, she hired the Mewar breed of horses and rode across the desert, stopping in remote villages for the night, right up to Delhi. Tourists spots such as Delhi, Benaras, Agra, Ajanta, Ellora and the south Indian temples were too touristy for her taste. Of the many places I suggested to her, the only one which passed her test was Orcha in Madhya Pradesh.

This year, Heidi has further involved herself in Rajasthan. She organized a ravanbhata music competition at the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur. The chief performers of ravanbhata — a two-stringed sarangi — are the Bhopas who sing the epic tale of Pabuji, a 14th century Rajput warrior. How can a German be more Indian than this?

Caring and sharing

For 10 years, Jarnail Singh and Karnail Singh had been the best of friends. They passed their matric together from a village high school in Amritsar. After passing matric, Jarnail joined the army and Karnail joined the Punjab police. They met after 15 long years, when, coincidentally, both had come on leave to their village. Karnail took Jarnail to his house, and they talked their hearts out over many bottles of desi liquor and big chunks of lamb legs. The party ended long after midnight when Jarnail asked Karnail to give him agya (permission to leave) — “Hun mainu agya bhi deo”.

Karnail suddenly jumped menacingly at Jarnail Singh with a big kirpan in his hand. To his horror Jarnail learnt that Agya (Kaur) was the name of Karnail’s wife.

(Contributed by Jaidev Bajaj, Pathankot)

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