RAGI in the manger

IT IS common knowledge that the quickest way to get a manger ready in time for Christmas is to sow ragi in it. The seeds sprout in a couple of weeks, the succulent green is more appealing to the eye (and presumably to the toy cows) than biscuit-coloured hay, and baby Jesus gets a soft bed to lie in. The Nativity with a native touch — now, if only the Mother would wear a silk sari...

Growing up amid paddy fields, I dreamed of a white Christmas. My convent school days were brimful with alien associations, chief among which were Xmas cards with holly, jolly snowmen, and striped candy canes. I was fascinated by snow. Sweating in ounces, I read storybooks with pictures of skates, sledges, snowballs, snow queens, and children with thick woollen mittens. I followed instructions in the Children's Book of Knowledge to create an Arctic scene with cotton wool floating on water in a steel plate, and igloos made of eggshells. Our eighth standard Radiant Reader had a lesson called Lost in the blizzard and when the teacher asked us what a blizzard was, I confidently raised my hand although I had never known temperatures below 30 Celsius. I even wrote a poem on winter, wherein I described, in soaring verse, how misty snowflakes softly fall to cover the earth with a silver shawl. This, in a land where the only time you wore a sweater (and a sleeveless one at that) was when you caught a fever.

If I had wanted a whiff of Christmas, a very Indian Christmas, all I needed to have done was walk into my neighbour's house right next door!

This season, when I chose books for my little nephews and nieces I balanced snow-laden landscapes with monkeys in banyan trees. Thank god we have a choice now, of tales that speak of our own lives. I distinctly remember a book from my childhood about a boy climbing a coconut tree. I could have related to it. Unfortunately, it was about an African boy named Sambo (that old stereotype) and at the crest of the palm grew five, brown, neatly de-husked coconuts! The western illustrator had clearly never laid eyes on a coconut in its rudimental form.

Our view has shifted from the Eurocentric to the US-centric. Christmas has been reduced to Santa Claus who, by the way, is as American as apple pie. The name is a US modification of the Dutch Sinterklaas, or Sint Nikolaas. Countries such as Russia and Greece too have traditions centring on Saint Nicholas who did not come riding from the North Pole on a sleigh driven by reindeer but was a fourth century bishop of Myra in Lycia (Asia Minor) who became the patron saint of children.

Santa comes to town riding on the back of a marketing monster. In this city he sometimes rides a motorbike, wearing branded sneakers and sunglasses. A clothing store promises you "the Christmas spirit" with a Santa Grotto; it also offers face painting which, you might have noticed, is a fad among the young at rock concerts and cricket matches. Outside a chain store on M.G. Road stand two female Santas, or would you call them Santeenas? They're dressed in elegant red gowns with white trimming. No grey whiskers mar their lipstick and make-up. No hoods obscure their shampooed and set hair. A pedestrian says to his friend with a snort: "What's this? PC?" And they both laugh. It has nothing to do with political correctness, my dear chaps. Just the time-tested concept of using young women to attract customers. Any resemblance to Santa Claus is purely coincidental.

The man (or woman) in the red outfit is mere bait to hook buyers. And buying is the highest common factor of all festivals, if you go by what the media images convey. The moment the calendar page turns to December, ads begin to urge us to buy, buy, buy. And eat, eat, eat. In what way is Christmas different from, say, Ugadi? Plum cake instead of obbattu, I suppose. And fewer exhortations to buy silk, gold, and white goods. More personal gifts. You buy your wife a watch instead of a washing machine — that kind of thing.

I was listening to an RJ this Deepavali, admonishing a caller for not being in a festive mood. The caller had mentioned that he was Christian. "You must celebrate all festivals," preached the RJ. "I celebrate Christmas, man. I really party with my friends." He evidently believed that the true meaning of all festivals, Christmas included, lay in stuffing his face and getting sozzled out of his wits. I yearned to call up the fathead and ask him whether he had, perchance, heard of midnight mass. Or whether he knew the name of a certain someone who was born on December 25, 1 A.D.

Christmas isn't about bellowing "Ho ho ho". It's not about snow, good heavens, no. It could be about kalkals and ginger wine and annual family gatherings. It could be about adorning mangers with lawns of ragi. But most of all, it's about remembering the Birthday Boy.


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