It’s 6.40 on a wintry evening. Despite the evening chill, Adwin Anthony, who is leading a group of carolers in a parish dominated by Christian institutions in Bhopal’s Arera Colony, has a spring in his step. Tonight is the last evening before Christmas of carol singing for the 25-member group, most of them girls living in the parish. Giggling, they realise that not all of them remember they had named themselves ‘Friends of Jesus’ this year. It’s an informal group, like several who come together around this time every year.
With a pair of big headphones around his neck, Anthony, a dance teacher in his 20s, takes a look around at the couple of disinterested onlookers, and wonders if they had made a mistake by not including a ‘Santa Claus’ in the group.
“It used to be fun, with more dancing, noise and frolic. It seems the parish priest does not like too much of it,” he says with a wistful smile, flipping his cap and whispering loud enough for others to hear but perhaps not Fr Anthonius Toppo, who is at the head of the group.
Even if he has heard Anthony, the priest chooses not to respond. Later, he says, “The presence of Santa Claus distracts people and takes focus away from Jesus.” He also emphasises that the carolers do not visit homes of people of other faiths, unless invited, like by the Hindu teachers working at institutions run by Christian groups.
Toppo doesn’t specifically say so, but the Satna episode hangs in the air. In the district more than 450 km away, a group of carol singers were attacked on December 14, allegedly by right-wing Hindu activists, who accused them of religious conversion. A car belonging to the group was burnt and 40 seminarians and priests were detained at the Civil Lines Police Station. Later, while a Bajrang Dal activist was arrested for torching the car, a priest was arrested for allegedly offering money to a villager to convert to Christianity.
In this Bhopal parish, the fourth largest in the city, there are 160-odd houses of Catholic Christians. It also houses a number of Christian institutions, including schools, hospitals, convents, seminaries and a pastoral centre. As the carolers move along, visiting these institutions and accepting offers of cake, toffees, wafers, soup and rose cookies — the last a clear favourite — their singing and dancing get more lively and vibrant.
They sing in Hindi, songs such as “Ishwar insan ban gaya, ek naya itihas ban gaya/ Aaj hua ek milan jag mein naya, swarg se sari duniya ka (God has become human, a new history has been created/ Today there is a new union, of Heaven with entire Earth)”; or “Oh ho pyari raat, oh ho nyari raat, puneet he aagman/ Oh ho shanti raat, khushi ki raat, hamari raat aayi hai (The glorious, dear night is here/ Peaceful and happy, our night is here)”; and “Naman naman Balak Yesu, naman tumhein mera/ Mahan ho tum shishu raja, amar tumhari mahanta (I bow to you Infant Jesus/ You are great, your greatness is forever)”.
The roles in the group are defined, with one person carrying a statue of Infant Jesus, two lugging drums, one reading out a message on the impending “birth of Jesus”, and another reading a prayer from a paper and wishing a happy new year. Wherever they make a halt, each member shakes hands with the hosts. The Infant Jesus is placed down and prayers are offered.
The carolers, all volunteers, are drawn from the Christian institutions they attend in the area. They know each other well, and practise in the days leading up to Christmas. Around 7.15 pm, the group heads towards a convent, their singing now more in tune. Many have by now begun to tap their feet and clap in chorus. At the convent, they manage to coax some senior sisters to dance around a centre-table, holding hands. Sister Philo talks about how the Archbishop of Bhopal, Leo Cornelio, is often a guest of Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. That is reassuring, she admits. “Developments like the one in Satna are scary, but we feel safe here. The CM invites our Archbishop often to make us feel protected.”
The carolers spend around 10 minutes there, before going to a nursing institution. In a large courtyard, some young nursing students join the singing, with Fr Toppo standing a little distance away and watching solemnly. A nun rebukes him jokingly for not shaking hands properly as he wishes them merry Christmas.
Sister Christopher, the founder of this institution for the mentally challenged, is introduced as an Irish woman who has spent nearly 65 years in India. As a fellow sister jokes, “She is more Indian than you”, Sister Christopher says, “Christmas is an occasion of joy. We seek and pray for peace.” About incidents such as Satna and reports of attacks on Christian celebrations, she adds, “Why should someone be attacked for singing carols?”
Pointing out that the institution also celebrates Hindu festivals such as Ganeshotsav and Diwali, Sister Christopher adds that Satna kind of episodes are an exception. “There are fanatics in every country… (But) the number of such fanatics is very less. We have faced no problem whatsoever. I don’t think Prime Minister Modi likes all this.” Anthony is at his energetic best at the Asha Niketan School for the Deaf and Asha
Niketan Hostel for Deaf, for speech and hearing impaired children, 20 minutes later. As he urges them on, the children excitedly follow his every move, caring little for the message or prayer. A nun smiles at their enthusiasm, as one by one, they also bow before the statue of Infant Jesus, before making a beeline for the toffees and rose cookies on offer.
Next up are two seminaries, with around hundred inmates studying to become priests. With the clock inching towards 9.45 pm, the group is beginning to show some signs of weariness. “Please write down our names too or else you will forget us,” urge Puneet Ekka, 13, and Sumeet Tigga, 14, who occasionally play drums.
Vijay Vishal is reminded of similar celebrations back home in Punjab. The 20-year-old joined the Khrist Premalaya Regional Philosophate seminary, which has 72 students, a few months ago. Caroling in Punjab involved bhangra as well as more energetic dancing, he smiles.
At 10.15 pm, the group reaches the house of Fr Toppo, their last destination for the night before they head home. The singing, dancing and the walk have taken their toll, and the group flops into chairs as soon as the priest heads inside to get cake. Taking a seat directly facing a mounted television, Anthony shouts out, “Arre koi Big Boss lagao yaar (Somebody tune into Big Boss, please)… I like Big Boss, I love Hina Khan.”