Among the rare childhood photographs of my mother is one in which she and her seven siblings wear ill-fitted overcoats and look at the camera with a twinkle in their eyes. The overcoat, my mother would tell me, was associated with several fond memories, including one about dipping her hand into the garment’s pockets and finding that it was filled with sultanas, nuts and candies.
That Christmas surprise carried over to the next generation. A day before the festival, when schools closed for the winter vacation, I too would put my hands into the pockets of my blazer by habit and find Father Christmas’s message that I had done well that year. Very soon, however, it would dawn on me that my sister and I were not the only recipients of his kindness. Somewhat inexplicably, the eldest member of the house, my grandmother, also seemed to have been bestowed with raisins, almonds and cashews. That was only too good. For my grandmother had a way of sharing her Christmas gifts.
On Christmas, we would wake up to an ineffable aroma — one produced when sugar and cardamom powder are added to milk and rice boiled to a thick consistency. Cooking payesh was my grandmother’s way of celebrating birthdays. Cakes and chocolates took second place to the milk-and-rice dessert in her scheme of things. And on Jishu’s birthday, the goodie acquired extra sweetness and crunch because my grandmother would lavish it with the nuts and raisins she had received the previous day.
The fragrance issuing from the payesh would be interrupted by the shrill whistle of the pressure cooker, repeating itself in a steady rhythm. Christmas was also the day when the matriarch of the house would relax one of her kitchen rules. My grandmother did not think too highly of chicken. Non-vegetarian food for almost the entire year would mean fish and mutton in our household. But on Jishu’s birthday, my grandmother’s turmeric-stained white saree would smell of murgir jhol, a runny chicken curry, infused with ginger, garlic and lots of coriander. Large chunks of potatoes cooked till they were fork tender made the jhol even more soul-satisfying.
Much as I loved my grandmother’s Christmas fare, in my early adolescence, however, I began to question her way of celebrating the festival. It was somewhat unusual — perhaps, even ordinary. Where were the buttery fruitcakes, creamy puddings, mince pies and meat roasts that my friend Patrick would tell me was the hallmark of the Christmas feast at their home? I did broach the question to my grandmother once. “We must celebrate the way our heart tells us,” she said.
Nevertheless, there were a few modifications to the Christmas spread. One year, the payesh acquired a delicate citrusy flavour: my grandmother had added orange pulp instead of cardamom to the milk and rice pudding.
However, it was only years later, when my world expanded beyond a comfortable middle-class existence, that I appreciated the message of my grandmother’s seemingly terse answer. There is no typical Christmas meal. In a village near Bolpur in West Bengal, a decade after my grandmother was no more, I was treated to patishaptas on Christmas eve. The family, who had converted to Christianity two generations ago, celebrates Christ’s birth by making thin crepes out of refined flour and semolina, to which a mixture of grated coconut and palm jaggery is added. About three weeks after the festival, the crepes would feature in another celebration the family shared with the rest of the village — Makar Sankranti.
For my friend Patrick, the Christmas meal was among the rare times in the year when the extended family would meet at the dinner table. The family would plan for the festival weeks, perhaps months, in advance. The plum would be soaked in wine; and the cumin, peppercorns, bay leaves put under the sun every day to make sure that the spices impart all their fragrance to the savories and meat dishes. But the Catholic family from Punjab, which made its home in Delhi decades ago, had another tradition: rice and meat in a rich tomato gravy would be slow cooked, and the grains and curry then combined in alternating layers. The two would then be steamed until they came together in a delicious harmony.
This was the dish that impressed my grandmother the most when my friend’s family sent us a platter on Christmas. She asked for the recipe and tried her hand at making this biryani. But grandmother continued celebrating Jishu’s birthday in the way her heart told her.