You can never return,” says Ruth Chakravarty, as she assorts the samagri (ingredients) of her Christmas cake — orange peels, cherries, petha (candied ash gourd), candied ginger — into small bags. The washed raisins are set to dry in a steel pan before they can make their way into a bag.
“This is how we used to do it back in Akbarpur Chitauri,” says Chakravarty, of the Christmas preparation in her ancestral village in Sambhal, western Uttar Pradesh. The Christmas cake is “always a family recipe, passed down generations,” she says.
At her home in Sarojini Nagar, Lucknow, Chakravarty, 63, attempts to recreate Akbarpur Chitauri. Her living room has a vintage brass paan-daan, a nickel roti-daan to store bread, golden brass plates, rusted table tops and a silver table lamp. Chakravarty brought the artefacts, over 100 years old, from her ancestral home which was “completely dilapidated and was sold in 1986”. A painting in her living room provides a glimpse of its past glory — a grand white building with Hellenic pillars and a garden in the front.
“Christmas was a big affair at home and preparations would begin in the first week of December,” she says with nostalgic enthusiasm. The family had a fleet of domestic helps who would be sent to buy and chop the ingredients for the cake — the “most complicated dish” of the festival. The women of the house would prepare the “pakwaans”, which included gujiya, namakpaare, shakkarpaare, bajre ki tikki, mathri and khajoor. A day before the festival, the children of the large joint family would get together to rehearse their lines for a Christmas-themed play. “My aunt wrote the play and the lines were in Hindi.” As there was no electricity, the play would be conducted under lanterns, and other children of the village would gather to watch it. Each child would be served a helping of chai, pakwaans and cake. There was no typical Christmas pine tree with all its colourful paraphernalia. “We would decorate the two big Raat ki rani trees in our garden with paper buntings and silver wraps of chocolates. That was our Christmas tree,” she says.
Chakravarty, the first in her family to study in English medium, moved to Lucknow in 1971 to enrol at the prestigious Loreto Convent school. Over the next 47 years, she would make the city her home, completing a PhD in English literature from Lucknow University and teaching at the iconic Isabella Thoburn College for 37 years before retiring last year.
As her son works in Gurugram, Chakravarty lives alone in her sprawling home, with seven dogs for company. On Christmas, she will drape the pets with woollen coats, that are being stitched at a tailor’s shop. For now, she sits with her domestic help to prepare and assort the ingredients for the cake. A day before the festival, they would place the ingredients inside a box and take it to a bakery. There, they will be mixed, placed in moulds and baked in a clay oven. Unlike most Christmas cakes, Chakravarty’s family recipe does not include liquor.
As with the Christians of Uttar Pradesh, the majority of them converts from Hinduism, the Christmas pakwaans at Chakravarty’s home consist of gujiyas, namakpaaras and shakkarpaaras.
Christmas in Lucknow, though, she says, is “much simpler than it was in the village.” “Here, people just buy the pakwaans from the market. I do that, too,” she says.
“You can never return,” she repeats.
In Lucknow, she now cooks the biryani instead of the yakhni pulao of her village. “In the Aligarh (western) side of UP, yakhni pulao is the centrepiece of the Christmas meal. In Lucknow, it’s always the biryani,” she says. Her festive menu also includes qorma and shami kebabs. Mutton, not chicken, is the meat of the day. “You see, I have been completely Lucknowised,” she says in crisp Hindustani.
There is no typical pine tree at her home. Her entire garden is lit with small lights and colourful lanterns on the big day — reminiscent of the Raat ki rani at Akbarpur Chitauri. Her home inside will be done up with rajnigandha, gladioli and roses — the way her “village home would be”.
For Chakravarty, Christmas celebrations are “muted”, never flashy, with “emphasis on its spiritual value”. For example, a large part of the Christmas cake is distributed among the underprivileged who can’t celebrate the festival. For one week after Christmas, friends and families — Chakravarty’s extended family also moved to Lucknow — meet each other and share gifts. “Giving alms to the poor, and bonding with family and friends are an important element of the festival. Christmas is an occasion of giving love, of spreading harmony and peace, the reason why Jesus Christ was sent to this world,” she says.