Partly because of its colonial hangover, and partly because it was a cosmopolitan cultural melting pot, the Calcutta I remember had a Pickwickian zest for Christmas.
The sumptuous dalis presented to the gora sahibs by those who would be wished well by them, and the wandering bands of carol singers who mazed a melody as uncertain as a murky and potholed Park Circus gulli, may have been consigned to a foggy past. But despite the diversions it had to take, Christmas in Calcutta was still a red-letter day that reduced circumstances had failed to dislodge. The mainstay of Calcutta’s Christmas tradition was the Anglo-Indian household, to which an invitation had to be inveigled if one wanted the true savour of the season.
Come the first week of December and shopping forays were launched from the back alleys of Wellesley and Eliot Road, Park Lane and Ripon Street to buy the ingredients for a festal reunion when aunts and cousins and friends and in-laws would descend from upcountry railway colonies—or the more distant environs of Australian or Canadian suburbia—in an annual rite of passage.
Little old women in clattering rickshaws converged on the New Market to haggle with salesmen who sat amid peaks of dried fruits whose towering summits graphically represented the ascent of soaring prices. Grudging bargains were struck for candied peel and preserved pumpkin, sugared cherries and wrinkled raisins. Better forget the almonds this year and make do with walnuts or cashews, expensive enough as they are.
Despite such makeshift substitutions, the jealously guarded recipe that each household had worked its alchemy as the ingredients were soaked in rum and sun and mixed into the batter which was dispatched to the clay ovens of the local baker, on whom a sharp eye had to be kept lest he winkle out from the uncooked mixture a particularly tempting cherry or plump sultana.
Appetising aromas wreathed the backlanes like mist and the cakes emerged, golden brown and faintly hissing, to be cooled and enclosed in greaseproof paper and left to mature till the big day, when according to yearly custom they would be unwrapped and exclaimed on and unanimously declared incomparably better than the one that Auntie Mabel, bless her, had sent last year from Marks and Sparks, or was it Sparks and Marks?
Those not fortunate enough to have access to a homemade cake (or even one from Sparks and Marks) could do fairly well for themselves by getting one from Nahum’s in the New Market, considered by many to do the best commercially made fruit cakes in the city. For plum puddings, however, connoisseurs went next door to MXD Gama’s, or Maxo’s as it was popularly known. The one complaint that a purist might make about Maxo’s plum puds was that they did not have embedded in their rich, gooey interiors the local equivalent of sixpence bits which genial hosts delighted in fishing out for favoured guests.
Those in the know did their shopping early. Not only did most Christmas confectionery improve with keeping and the addition of a few judicious tablespoons of rum or brandy, but also advance buying helped one avoid the frantic rush that built up closer to the big day when the narrow lanes of the market were clogged with customers determined, in this season at least, to follow the royalist prescription of eating cake in the absence of bread.
With the eclectic gusto that he displays for other exotic items of mental and culinary consumption, the Bengali made at least this aspect of Christmas as much a part of indigenous gastronomic tradition as nolen gurer sandesh and often a heated debate would be generated by such finer points of doctrine as to whether crystallised ginger in a plum cake was an ideologically sound proposition or a revisionist aberration.
Even as the mixed fruit was maturing in glass jars on shelves, safely out of the reach of marauding young hands, the meat shops in several of the city’s markets were busy preparing salt beef, pickled in brine, lime juice and saltpetre. Though clubs and the larger restaurants continued to serve the traditional British Christmas dinner of turkey with all the trimmings, a more authentic local alternative was the Anglo-Indian speciality known as haas and baas, or duck with bamboo shoots, and poultry shops were loud with the quack and flutter of the birds.
Despite hard times, a number of families, not all of them Christian, kept an open house all day, with guests dropping in to exchange greetings, eat a slice of cake, drink a glass of sweet homemade raisin wine (available in a New Market confectionery in a seasonal indulgence to which the excise department turned a benevolently blind eye), and swap reminiscences of seasons past and friends remembered, while children scampered, for once unscolded, around tables crowded with plates and presents, and the afternoon drowsily curled up on itself like the cat by the rocking chair, too replete with titbits even to dream of chasing mice.
It was the ember glow of a long-ago Christmas, in a long-ago Calcutta.