Of the 34 Christmases I have celebrated, 15 were in Muscat, the home of my childhood. The remaining in Bombay, a city after my own heart. My family moved back from the Gulf in 2003, a time of great change and uncertainty in my own life. 16 as I was – fighting obesity, hormones, and the vacuum that came with the loss of old friends – there was also so much newness to embrace. I had coloured my hair (for the first and last time), got my eyebrows done, put myself through the pain of a full-body wax, shed 15 kilos (the magic of Mumbai’s air), and enrolled at the illustrious St Xavier’s College in Mumbai.
It was a beautiful mess.
Nearly six years earlier, in 1997, my parents had bought a quaint home in a Catholic pocket in South Mumbai – the neighbourhood of Cavel that I would end up eulogising in my debut novel, Bombay Balchão, several decades on. Like most middle-class families that hesitated to take bank loans, my parents chose to pour their life-savings as initial instalments for the home, selling a flat in far-flung Vasai, a sleepy cousin of Mumbai, and borrowing from relatives, to pay up for the rest.
When we arrived in Mumbai, dad was still saving up so that he could be debt-free. He had quit his job in Muscat, a move that had raised eyeballs. Admittedly, he did not have a plan. In hindsight, it would have been great if he had one, but that would make the lived experiences of our family very different. And to be honest, I would not trade that life for anything else in the world.
The shift was tough, and the financial constraints did not make it any easier on us. Christmas of 2003 was going to be a humble affair.
A few traditions continued nonetheless. Like the making of sweets. Our family has roots in Karnataka and Goa, and the sweets reflect the best of both these worlds. I vaguely remember my parents going to the nearby Crawford Market, and picking up bagsful of maida, self-rising flour, semolina, dry fruits,
butter, cocoa powder and sugar from Lobos, the kirana store, where all of Bombay visits to shop before Christmas. The flour would be kneaded, the butter melted and cocoa mixed with rum, soaked raisins and nuts, to make the delicious kuswar platter (a plate of traditional treats comprising neureos, kalkals, chakris, doce, guava cheese, marzipan and rum cake). My mum is also a genius wine- maker. A month before Christmas, she starts working her magic with grapes, orange, pineapple, and ginger. That year, she only fermented grapes.
We spent the next few days unpacking our Christmas boxes, putting together remnants of the life we had left behind, into the new one we were building, brick by brick. The seven-foot-long tree was the first to come up. Its branches fanned out wide enough, leaving little room to walk in and out of the door adjacent to it. Dad opened the plastic tubs brimming with tiny Christmas ornaments, bubble-wrapped to prevent breakage. We sat around him, in a little circle, carefully hanging one ornament at
a time, recalling stories about how we had found them on our tree – the big Santa head that we picked up from a fancy mall, the many candy canes of which we had a set of 20, the glittery baubles that a late friend had gifted us, and the golden star dad had bought the year my youngest brother was born.
Muscat was no longer home...it had become a story.
Moving countries can be emotionally crushing. For me and my brothers, Muscat was the only place we had ever known. For my parents, it was the city that helped redeem them from the inadequacies of their middle-class lives in Bombay. We were all back now, reclaiming a past that was still a part of us.
A sweet memory from that Christmas season was the carollers, guitar and tambourine in tow, who visited our building compound and belted out carols. It was my first time in a predominantly Goan Catholic neighbourhood. Back in Muscat, our immediate neighbours were Pakistanis, Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis, so our idea of belonging came from shared food, cricket, and Bollywood. Here, surrounded by the Colacos, D’Costas, D’Souzas, Duckworths and Chaves, I was becoming fully aware of my Catholic identity.
Excerpted with permission from Indian Christmas: Essays, Memories, Hymns, edited by Jerry Pinto and Madhulika Liddle, Speaking Tiger Books.