White Christmas Brown
The leaves were rusting around the edges when we moved to England. Our first autumn. A season hitherto read about in books, seen in Hollywood films in which lives run amok in Central Park or on aerial photographs of Canada with its autumn spreading like forest fire. Autumn seemed like an appropriate season to start life in this new country – the sky was blue, the air cold, the trees wore more gold than brides in India. Nature was obviously throwing us a party.
We moved in – my husband and I – with our Indian lives folded into two large suitcases. We moved in without expectations or anxiousness. Young and eager to explore a land that was inextricably connected to India, and hence familiar in many ways; like an old house that has been described, and its rooms told and retold to you, since you were a child. After their two-hundred-year camping trip, the British left us an odd mishmash of a country, especially evident in Kolkata where I grew up, always a little British in its ways. My grandfather in his starched white dhoti having buttered toast and scrambled eggs for breakfast, my father quoting Shakespeare while sitting in the balcony his body glistening with mustard oil, warming himself and his bucket of bath water in the winter sun. A mulligatawny culture.
And so, in England, this foreign yet familiar country, we settled in like print on paper.
identity /ʌɪˈdɛntɪti/ n. the characteristics determining who or what a person or thing is.
I studied in a convent school in Kolkata, run by Keralite-Christian nuns, with a chapel above the classrooms. The school sat in a largely Muslim neighbourhood with a mosque just around the corner. I am Hindu by birth.
At the start of our school day, we would all line up for our morning assembly in the school’s inner courtyard in order of height, and in a squashed concertina of faiths – Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs. We would recite Our Father in Heaven, crossing our hands in front of our solemn little faces: “In the name of the father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” To us, it was much like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
Our ambi-religious lives had two compartments – there was life in school and life at home – and they never contradicted each other, they were never at war. They simply co-existed. You would kneel at the school chapel praying for an exam to be cancelled as easily as you would accompany your parents to the temple on the odd weekend. You grew up with no sense of religion. Religion was a sum of its festivals. Something to participate in, to partake of. And so you visited your Muslim friends on Eid to eat homecooked biryani, you waited breathlessly for the frenetic days of Durga Puja, and you hung up stockings at Christmas.
There was no idealistic purpose to this, no lofty cause. We certainly didn’t get a pat on the back for being accepting of differences. The differences just didn’t occur to us, that’s all. Maybe because there was so much of it.
Identity. I, dent. An oddly self-fulfilling beginning to a word that is a fragile concept. A word easily dented by its definition: the characteristics determining who or what a person or thing is. The invisible fine print: characteristics visible to the naked eye. That is, the characteristics made up of gene and geography. A convenient grid, unnuanced by life, personality or experience.
In Kolkata, Christmas Eve meant a walk down Park Street. A road more than a street, much like high streets in the UK but without the sense of déjà vu and the well-behaved traffic. We went there to look at the Christmas lights, hammocked across the street, from one building to another, a shamiana of stars over a river of honk-happy cars. A large Santa moved its motorised arm in a jerky wave, and a giant Christmas tree glittered next to a bar called Trinca’s. Before taking the taxi back home, we would stop at Flury’s, one of the city’s oldest tearooms, its menu caught in a colonial time-warp, to buy a rich, moist fruitcake. I don’t like fruitcake, but that was the ritual. Christmas wasn’t complete without it.
Soon after our move to England, and before we knew it, autumn had passed. The trees had gone from brown to bare, and we were onto our first English Christmas. To us, it looked like the Christmas found in books, a beautiful cliché straight out of Dickens. There it was – the frosted pavements and bare trees, chestnuts, mulled wine and mistletoe. How exciting it all was! Everything was exactly as I’d imagined it to be. Complete with carol singers knocking on doors, standing in their huddle, their beautiful songs wafting out in puffs of synchronised fog under yellow lamplight. This seemed like the best part of my new Christmas; in this foreign land, a group of singers singing all the songs I’d sung in school, and knew by heart. In India, I’d had the Christmas trees, the fairy lights, I’d written letters to Santa when I was little, but we’d never had carol singers in woolly hats and long coats come knocking on our door.
So, we waited for them to knock. It was Christmas Eve. I’d peeped out of the upstairs window and had seen them singing at a house further up the street. Ours was a short street of old, terraced houses, not many in a row. I ran downstairs and switched on the light to make sure they knew we were home. The sound of the carols crept closer, one house at a time. I had chocolates and a ‘Merry Christmas!’ ready. When they knocked, my husband and I opened the door with a big smile.
They were a group from the local church. Old and young. Red-faced from the cold, gloved, smiling. When they saw us, their smiles turned awkward. It was a smile I would come to know well. The English Smile. Not a stretching-out of the corners of the mouth, but a pushing-up of firmly closed lips, so that what you get is a fine balance between Polite Greeting and Apologetic Grimace. A spasm of facial muscles with infinite uses; to say hello, to say thank you, to cope with any unforseen eye-contact, to acknowledge someone you’d rather not stop and talk to, to apologise for things that require no apology, like when you come out of a public toilet and encounter the person who’s been waiting outside to use it after you.
Our carol singers smiled that smile, and then shuffled a step back from the door. ‘Oh, we’re sorry,’ one of them said. The others echoed in; more muffled apologies: Sorry, sorry. And before we knew it, they had moved on to the next house.
We stood there holding the door, looking at each other. The same confused question on our faces. What happened? Sorry for what? And then almost immediately realisation followed. We’d forgotten we looked different, different from the other families on our street who’d opened their doors to their songs.
To that group out singing on a winter evening, we were just two brown faces. And to them, brown was outside the bounds of Christmas. Outside the bounds of the Christmas they knew.
The characteristics determining who or what a person or thing is. Damned things, definitions. Flat. Singular. Handed down like old clothes.
The carol singers did not know of the crazy cauldron that is India. They did not know of all the Anglo-Indian friends I’d grown up with; very brown, and very Christian. They knew nothing of all the Silent Nights I’d sung in school. They had apologised because they didn’t want to offend us, didn’t want to force us into a Christmas they assumed wasn’t ours.
But that evening, their apologies only reminded us of how far we were from home. Their sensitivity to our differences only showed us that we were different. It was a difference we’d once again forgotten to notice.
In their hurried leaving, the carol singers had made a beautiful pattern of trails in the snow; it would turn to muddy slush by next morning. We closed the door and went inside with our chocolates and our unspoken Merry Christmas. And an odd awareness. Of having been put in our place through an act of misplaced courtesy. Of being made to feel like outsiders by the British sense of good manners, which can create distance quicker than a rude word.
We quickly laughed it off lest it spoil our Christmas Eve. We took the roast out of the oven, sat next to our fake Christmas tree next to our fake fireplace, sipped our wine and listened to the carol singers singing a few houses away: Joy to the world.
Identity in an ideal world would be colour blind. And blind to every other parameter that bends our perception like puppets. It would not be stamped on by sight, but determined, if it must be, through a slow simmer of action and conversation. And till then, left alone. Without definition.
It’s been quite a few years since that December evening; we’ve just crossed another Christmas, our ninth in this country. It looks less like Dickens’ Christmas now. It’s my Christmas. England is as much home as India is, it’s where our daughter was born. We ignore the differences, we celebrate the differences. The stuffing in our roast is flavoured with cumin and fresh coriander leaves. Our daughter waits for Diwali just as she does for Christmas. Christmas might even be winning, what with flying reindeers and jingly bells and a jolly old man who slips down chimneys with gifts.
Now, when the lady at the supermarket till wishes the man before me on Christmas day but doesn’t wish me, careful in her manners, mindful of culture, of the brown skin I wear under my coat, I wish her. ‘Happy Christmas,’ I say cheerily. Immediately, I see her face relax, it breaks into a big smile, not The English Smile this time. ‘Happy Christmas, love!’ she wishes me right back. And in an instant, for an instant, we’re both eased, and somehow connected.
Pia Ghosh Roy grew up in India and now lives in Cambridge (UK). Her fiction and essays have been published in the UK and US. She was shortlisted for the 2015 Brighton Prize, longlisted for the 2015 Bath Short Story Award, and highly commended at the 2014 Words and Women Competition. She has worked in advertising as a copywriter in Kolkata, Mumbai, Bangalore and London. Pia is currently working on her first novel.
Blog: Peppercorns in my Pocket / Twitter: @piaghoshroy