The Ledlies have been hosting an open house on Christmas Day since the days of pre-Independence. It all started with Conrad Ledlie, who was the jailor of Cawnpore (as Kanpur was referred to in the more loquacious days of the Raj). Apart from maintaining the town’s law and order, Conrad and his wife ran the Golden Bakery, a culinary bastion. The quaint bakery not only supplied Cawnpore’s citizenry its daily bread, it would also rustle up a panoply of Christmas treats during the holidays. There would be Christmas cakes and puddings, all manner of cookies and meat loafs, but the real culinary extravaganza was held at their residence in the cantonment on Christmas day, when Conrad threw his home open to friends and family, inviting them to feast.
“We didn’t really get turkeys in India those days. We had wild boar, venison, duck and other wild fowl. So there would be boar and duck curry, roasted whole wild boar, venison from various breeds of deer, grilled partridge and duck pate,” says Henry, Conrad’s grandson, recalling a bygone era when hunting was kosher. The entire Police Band would come to the house with their bagpipes and other instruments and play martial and Christmas tunes.
Apart from all the game meat, there were sausages made in-house, various cold cuts, and an Anglo-Indian version of gujiya called kalkal, besides the usual cakes, puddings and sweets. Carolling was done two days prior to Christmas, when children were encouraged to visit all the houses in the cantonment, carrying their tunes with them.
Henry — who retired in 2008 as the CEO of a Gurgaon-based Australian educational organisation — didn’t participate in the carolling; he had an important business to take care of. “I used to dress up as Santa Claus. When I was younger, my parents would do it. As I grew older, I took on the responsibility, tying pillows around my midriff to give myself a big gut,” says the 60-year-old. While he still dresses up as Santa and visits schools, children’s homes and orphanages, he observes with a chuckle that he no longer needs the pillows.
The open house, meanwhile, continues to flourish. “When I had my first open house in Gurgaon, we had between 30-40 friends and relations over. Since then, the number has swelled to 200-215 people over the years. We don’t have wild game anymore, but we do have turkey, ham, puddings, cakes and of course a lot of alcohol and mulled wine. We have an open house from 10.30 am to 6 pm,” says Henry.
While both his children are in the US, Henry is fairly confident that his children, particularly daughter Natasha, will carry forward the family tradition.
Do the dwindling numbers of Anglo-Indians worry him? He pauses for a minute before he responds. “My mother, who is 84, is still in touch with her friends in Kanpur. Almost every week, she laments the loss of an old friend. So yes, our numbers are dwindling. But the younger generation, including my children, don’t want to be labelled as Anglo-Indians or be associated with a particular faith. They are Indian, and that’s enough for them. Besides, the community is spread all over the world. We remain connected, exchange stories and memories. What more could one want?” he says.