Thursday, December 7, 2017

A Childhood Christmas in India: Guest Post by Sujata Massey

Sujata Massey is the Macavity and Agatha-winning author of many mystery novels. A childhood Christmas in India partially inspired her short mystery story in The Usual Santas: a Soho Collection of Soho Crime Christmas Capers. Sujata’s first historical mystery novel featuring Indian lawyer Perveen Mistry is titled The Widows of Malabar Hill and releases in January 2018.

Sujata Massey:
A Childhood Christmas in India

Just how far will Santa fly his sleigh? And will he cross borders of religion and nationality? I suspect this conversation goes on across the world in millions—if not billions--of homes. It happened for my sisters and me in 1973, when we were informed our upcoming holiday would be spent not in Minnesota but in Calcutta, India. Furthermore, we’d be staying in a Hindu monastery dedicated to disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, the patron saint of the Vedantic spiritual movement. Disclaimer: we were not going for reasons of religion, but for the reasonably priced guest rooms and a location within walking distance of our Indian relatives.

Calcutta, the base for my father’s family, was the first long stop on a three-month sabbatical trip to India. Missing Christmas wasn’t a huge deal for my father, who was a rational geophysicist and had grown up as a Hindu in India. My German mother, though, has Christmas in her DNA—and we’d inherited a love for chocolate, snow, decorated trees and the rest. My mother organized a small Christmas celebration before leaving for India, so we would be able to travel to India with new, unwrapped toys. I wasn’t quite a believer in Santa anymore, but I was trying hard for my sisters’ sake, and this early gifting just felt different.

I liked India right away—it was beautiful, warm, friendly. We hit it off with our relatives and were captivated by monkeys scampering through the streets, glittering stacks of bangles in the bazaar, and ice cream fantasies at the Kwality CafĂ©. However, our month-long stay at the Rama Krishna Mission, a monastery and learning center built in the 1930s, had its challenges.

First and foremost, this was a monastery dating from the waning years of the British Raj. It was meant as a peaceful home for devotees and scholars. Few children were staying on the premises, and there were constant calls for us to quiet our giggling and shouting. Of course there was no television; but I was an avid reader, and there was a small library onsite that we could use. We girls played independently throughout the mission’s courtyard and garden. The food wasn’t a hit: either plain Indian vegetarian fare or bland Anglo-Indian dishes. There were no holiday cookies, and certainly no Christmas trees.

A few days before Christmas, I took my sisters into the mission library and discovered an exciting-looking old book. It was printed in an elegant copperplate on delicate paper; I don’t remember the book’s theme, because I was quickly stopped from being allowed to check it out. A stern Canadian monk on duty chastised me for breaking the rules and leaving the children’s section.

From that point on, I was too humiliated to return to the library. All I had left to occupy myself was chasing after the monkeys who always jumped out of reach and recording the day’s events in my journal.

On Christmas Eve, my mother produced the same Christmas stockings from home and hung tinsel around the rooms that she’d found at a bazaar. My parents told us that in England, children hung stockings at the foot of their beds. India was occupied by the British until just a quarter century before our trip. Father Christmas—as they called him here--would find his way past the mission’s bougainvillea covered walls and through the tall shutters on the bedroom windows. But it would only happen if we went to bed, closed our eyes, and didn’t open them! 

I was already skeptical, and when I heard rustling in the darkness, I tried to see what was going on. But it was very dark, and the long mosquito net tucked around the bed barred me from getting out to investigate. Christmas morning, my stocking did hold something—a Five Star chocolate bar, wooden animals, colored pens and pencils, and some colorful bangles. At the breakfast table, my mother broke out a jar of Skippy Peanut Butter we didn’t know she’d brought, and we spread that thickly on toast. There were a few more gifts bought in India: pretty Indian clothes and Enid Blyton children’s novels. The monks wished us Happy Christmas and produced a fruitcake at tea time. Also, to our surprise, a family with two daughters in our age range checked in!

Decades later, I spent Christmas in Calcutta again, staying with relatives and with my six-month old daughter. This time, I saw more evidence of Christmas decoration in shops, though most people worked that day. On my walk to St. Paul’s cathedral, scores of beggars greeted me, for Christmas was known as the most generous day for giving. I wondered what Christmas was like during the British rule of India, and how people of various faiths—Hindu, Muslim, Zoroastrian, Jewish, Sikh—felt about the conquerer’s holiday.

 I revisited the idea of an old-fashioned Indian Christmas in my story, “Hairpin Holiday,” that appears in The Usual Santas, an anthology of stories by 18 Soho Press authors. My short mystery story is set in Bombay, which like Calcutta, had a grand, British department store. In Calcutta, that venue was Whiteaway’s, which is now Cottage Industries, a government-sponsored handicrafts store. In Mumbai, the former Army-Navy Store is now occupied over by an Indian retailer, Westside.

Last year, as I gazed at a family of mannequins dressed in trendy Indian clothing in the Army-Navy/Westside window last year, I imagined what the displays would have been like in 1921, when the department stores were mostly shopped in by the British and Anglo-Indians. I imagined a red-suited Father Christmas surrounded by glittering gifts. The lavish display would have satisfied nostalgic Britishers and intrigued Indian children, too. From there, my story was launched.

The story’s heroine is a 23-year-old Indian woman named Perveen Mistry with a giant challenge: she is the city’s first female lawyer, and she only has her job because her father hired her to join his practice. The Mistrys are Parsis, Indian-born followers of an ancient Persian religion known as Zoroastrians. While Parsis are a tiny minority within India, they make up one third of Bombay’s lawyers and served clients of all faiths. In Hairpin Holiday, she assists a Jewish hotel owner who’s frantic about a controversial spiritual leader staying in the hotel. The Widows of Malabar Hill, the first full-length Perveen Mistry novel, gives Perveen an opportunity to help three Muslim widows she thinks are at risk of losing everything. But while Perveen knows plenty about the law and how it affects women of all faiths, it turns out the widows teach her a lot about herself.

When I was spending my first months in India, I journaled almost every day. It was my first experience regularly writing. It seems sweetly ironic now that the child prohibited from reading old books about India wound up writing many such books later on.


chrissey said...

Loved this! I can’t wait to read The Windows of Malabar Hill!!

chrissey said...


Memarge said...

Sujata writes the loveliest books!