By Swapan Dasgupta
For a very long time--indeed, till I was well into my 20s--I was fanatical in my insistence that Burra Din, the way we natives used to refer to the festival the burra sahibs called Christmas, was best spent in the city we knew as Calcutta. The reason was actually absurdly simple: Christmas in Calcutta was not a private or even family occasion (as it is in the West, for example); and it was only perfunctorily a religious occasion that began and ended with Christmas Carols of uneven rendition and the midnight mass at St Paul's Cathedral. Burra Din in Calcutta was, above all, a good natured festival of drink and gluttony and possibly the only time its residents tacitly celebrated the good old days--a euphemism for the time Calcutta had not lost sight of its European moorings.
As a member of the ever-growing club of the bred-in-Calcutta individuals who bought a one-way ticket out of Bengal, I no longer yearn to be jostled in New Market in the final days of December. Including this year, I have spent only four Burra Dins in the city of my birth in the past 25 years. Yet, each year, wherever I am in the world, my thoughts invariably drift to Christmas in Kolkata and which cousin is doing what.
Actually, as things go, the options aren't all that great. Christmas in Kolkata is, and has been for as long as I can care to remember, all about deciding which club to go to. There was a time when each of the clubs had their own distinctive character and attracted distinct individuals. Bengal Club was for the European boxwallahs, Calcutta Club was for the Bengali professionals, Saturday Club appealed to younger, sporty types in the corporate world; the Calcutta Cricket & Football Club boasted the liveliest bar and a perfunctory interest in team sports; and the Tollygunge Club, situated on the southern outskirts, was quite definitely for weekend recreation. Yes, there were other clubs too including the Dalhousie Institute, an Anglo-Indian institution that, until the 1980s at least, served food that was so reminiscent of the old Bengal Nagpur Railway Hotel in Puri.
Regretably, it is difficult to distinguish between the clubs these days because most well-heeled Kolkata residents are members of multiple institutions. My most enterprising cousin who hasn't lived away from the city in his 60 years is, for example, a member of Calcutta Club--a family tradition stretching back three generations, Saturday Club, CC&FC, Tollygunge Club and, as I discovered to my surprise this visit, the Royal Calcutta Turf Club which boasts the best view of the city across the maidan. Another cousin is this year's President of the Saturday Club. And a third cousin, a retired tea planter who once spent a harrowing fortnight in the captivity of Bodo insurgents, combines his Tolly and CCF&C cards with membership of the Royal Calcutta Golf Club.
There is a certain class of Kolkata that spends the bulk of its leisure hours in their clubs. Predictably, since I happen to have been born into such a class, the question of a family Christmas lunch boiled down to spirited disagreements over which club was most agreeable. And, as usually happens in Bengali families where there is too much leisure and too much boredom, there was no question of unanimity. The eldest cousin, a grand dame of the tea gardens, chose the rarefied splendour of the Bengal Club; my planter cousin chose CC&FC because he hated crowds; and my cousin with multiple memberships, into whose safe hands I had entrusted myself, booked us in the Tolly.
It's a choice that I had absolutely no reason to regret. Having been away from the city for so long, I knew few people and could afford to concentrate single-mindedly on the wonderfully old-fashioned food. I call it old-fashioned because where in today's health-conscious environment are you going to get glazed ham where the fat hasn't been discarded or non-lean bacon? Or Shepherd's Pie where the oil from the keema rose above the potato mash? To people like me, this was a Christmas lunch that doubled up as comfort food--and particularly the soufflé and trifle puddings.
This is not the way Europeans eat their Christmas lunch these days. Maybe they never did. But in the collective memory of Calcutta, particularly the kitchens that were dominated by the "Mug" cooks from the Chittagong Hill Tracts, this is what must be served for Christmas--at least in the clubs.
It is so different from the family Christmas lunches. Three years ago, I was invited to an open house of a well-known Anglo-Indian family of the city. I had just returned from a club Christmas at the Tolly (where the fare was exactly the same as this year's spread) and expected to find a few roasted birds being delicately carved. Banish the thought. The Christmas lunch of this Anglo-Indian family, who may even have a superior claim on the city's European pedigree, was home-made chicken biryani and chicken curry. The only concession to the Occident was the ubiquitous plum cake or what the sahibs called Christmas Pudding.
I loved the mismatch. It encapsulated the charming absurdity of our lives, the orphans of Macaulay who had clung on tenaciously to our few fragile certitudes. On December 25, there are tiny corners of the old imperial city that are forever draped in a mythical flag of nostalgia. There's no need to send in the bulldozers: in a few decades we will be nothing more than memory. Yet, for many like me on Christmas Day, it was good the Empire lasted as long as it did.
Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, December 27,2013