Down Memory Lane Faith

The memory of the Italian crib

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Christians believe that three Wise Men visited Jesus on his birth, the day of the Epiphany

If you went past the Sacred Heart Cathedral any time between Christmas and January 6, known as Epiphany day and celebrated by Shakespeare in his play Twelfth Night, you are sure to have seen the crib depicting the manger in which Christ was born. Along with this would have been small statues of the Magi or three Wise Men from the East who went to worship him. It was a bright star which led them on their journey. The Nativity scene brings to mind a grander crib which was brought from Italy by the Greek merchant John’s family and presented to the Cathedral in Agra before the Cathedral in Delhi was built.

The life-size statues of Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Wise Men, shepherds and their sheep have been maintained with great care for many decades. The cracked arms and crowns of the magi have been taped and so also the horn of the shepherd. Incidentally three men, probably from the Russian Embassy stopped by the church to see the crib which reminded them of their Orthodox Church. For them, Christmas, fell on January 7, and they must have missed the three midwives who, according to their belief came for Jesus’ delivery.

Now there hangs a tale from the Italian crib dating back to 1938 and one is reminded of it year after year on January 6th, as it also marks the birthday of this scribe and is well worth repeating: It was a Thursday with the sweet aroma of joss-sticks lingering in the winter air and the parting kick of Christmas. The church bells had just pealed the Angelus, and the old Archbishop crossed himself thrice while a young woman, who was just 18 years old, tried to control her pangs of labour.

“Thursday’s child is weeping and gnashing”, says the old rhyme and Ruby wanted to prolong her labour so that the birth of her first-born could be delayed until after midnight. Evening marks the end of day and the advent of night. It was the time when the lamplighter came running into the gullies over 80 years ago.

He came again that day, lighting the lamps which had lain barren from cock-crow to twilight. His lamps flickered in the frosty air much like the stars overhead and in the nearby house a young poet echoed the memorable lines: “Shama jalao bahut udaas hai sham”, for the evening was indeed sad and needed a lamp to brighten it.

As if infected by the mood, a baker, tired after the day’s work, came and stood at the shrine of the Sayyid Baba outside Ruby’s house. He had bought joss-sticks, batasas, candles and flowers. It was Thursday and the aroma of this ritual day hung heavy over Azam Khan’s locality. Ruby watched it all from the window upstairs. She wondered what blessings the man sought, perhaps riches, an end to worry, recovery from an illness, or the welfare of his wife and children.

Two streets away evening was being ushered in to the sound of the tabla and the harmonium and the beat of ghungroos on tender feet as the courtesans of the city got into stride after sundown. The Lotharios were aware of this as they made their way to them. They had garlands in their hands, kaajal in their eyes and the sweet scent of Hina pervaded their person.

Just then Ruby’s husband Tom hurried by on his bicycle. One of the Lotharios recognised him and winked in greeting. He knew this young acquaintance was not one of those who spent their evenings above the marketplace where the courtesans had their quarters. He was a sincere sort of person, wise beyond his years and one who worked hard for a living. He had a big family to support: brothers, an unmarried sister and a paranoid mother. His first wife had died in childbirth two years ago. He had to marry again because of domestic compulsions. It was his second wife who was now in labour. Tom cycled on. Meanwhile, Ruby clung to her quilt, bit her lip and gripped the hand of the midwife tight while her sister-in-law stroked her curly hair. The door chain clanged, somebody opened it and in walked Tom, tired and breathless. Ruby could hold herself no longer. She delivered there and then on the cot.

Tom tiptoed into the room and peered at his wife. She smiled weakly and pointed towards the little figure beside her: “It’s the feast of the Three Kings”, she said. Tom put his hand on the baby’s brow. “The gift of the Magi”, he replied as he blew a kiss to Ruby and walked out beaming with delight. They are both dead now but the much repaired Italian crib is still there as a reminder.

The writer is a seasoned chronicler of Delhi

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2020 11:34:18 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/faith/the-memory-of-the-italian-crib/article30574261.ece

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