Hot, oven-fresh bakes would lure us from behind the glass cases. The younger among us would press our nose against the glass case and try to venture into the kingdom of forbidden happiness.
“Don’t they look yummy?”
“Yummy and hot…..look at vapour coming out from the patties”.
“ Can we not buy just two or three and share amongst ourselves?”
The mention of sharing would bring us back to reality. Three pieces among sixteen of us would be too tiny a share. Leaving our mortal lures back in the glass case, we would rush to catch up with the rest of the troupe . John Solomon and sixteen of his grandchildren visiting the Hogg Market as a pre-Christmas ritual was a sight to behold. The old man, donning a colorful paper cap would lead the entourage , singing aloud ‘Oh come, all ye faithful’. The younger ones would join him in full fervour , while the just-teenagers would try to walk as slowly as possible, looking elsewhere, trying to avoid being identified as a part of the singing troupe. Hogg Market,being the hot and happening place those days, would be teeming with good looking Anglo-Indian boys and girls. Who would risk being avoided a glance just to be a part of a Christmas-happy and noisy gang!
Moss-green Christmas trees ,curly mistletoes, felt hats, rustle of American Georgette, freshly brewed coffee, vibrant hues of Christmas candies…..we gaped at all of those in star-struck wonder. We were free to look and admire , even the handsome men who resembled Elvis Presley, but we knew we wouldn’t buy a thing. The new-to-the-team young ones would obviously tug the old man’s coat and ask the never-to-be-asked question: “Dadamoshai, can we not buy some of the Christmas decors? A Christmas tree perhaps…..”. We all knew the answer to this question but we would still eagerly wait for Dadamoshai to give the answer. In his inimitable style, Dadasmoshai would stoop a little, look left and right as if to ensure that no one was listening to this gravest secret of all times and then whisper: “All these belong to the Babus. We are supposed to only look but not buy”. With the British having left the country, who the Babus were– the rich or the imaginary British- we had no idea but all we knew was that whoever they were, they had the right to buy while we didn’t! The only thing we were entitled to buy were home-made, hard candies that were sold in dozens and required special skills to bite into bits without risking damage to our teeth!
While we would go by public bus, we would return by tram – sitting in the second class compartment! Our legs would ache, our nose-tips would be ice-cold but oblivious to the discomforts we would pop our heads out of the tram window and savour the cold December evening . The tram would chug along the sleepy Calcutta roads while we would inhale the smell of Christmas!
As soon as we would reach our destination, Dadamoshai would cup his hands like a loudspeaker and announce: “Friends, with this we begin our Christmas festivities this year. From tomorrow would start our…..”, he would pause dramatically. No, we were not supposed to fill in. He would change the tempo of his voice and complete it for us:”……yes, we begin our rehearsals for the Annual Gala Christmas Show”. It was a cue for us. We would break into a mad frenzy of claps and whistles!
The Annual Gala Christmas Show was a special show that would be organized in the lawns of ‘Solomon Villa’. Apart from the numerous children belonging to the Solomon branches, the children from the neighbourhood would also join in. There would be Christmas carols, group songs and finally a spectacular drama – all with costumes and make-up. The stories would be heavily borrowed from popular tales and would have nothing to do with Christmas or nativity as such.
“ For that, we need to attend the Church”, was the old man’s firm dismissal.
So the rehearsals would be carried out under his total supervision. He would strategically place his arm-chair in the lawn so as to get the warmth of the sun on his aging back while watching us rehearse our lines. He would be watching us hawk-eyed from his seat of importance till the warmth of the sun would prompt him to close his eyes.
Placing her gentle arms around him, grandmother would whisper, “Ahem….they are practicing quite fine…You were almost sleeping.Why don’t you just get inside and rest for a while?”.
“Sleeping? Not at all! I was just concentrating on their dialogue delivery”, he would protest vehemently, till grandmother would coax him to just get inside and stretch his tired feet.
While we would struggle with our dialogues, the squirrels of the garden would pop their head’s from behind the Bougainvilea bushes and watch us in amusement. The older ones among us would generously twist and turn the ears of the younger ones at the miss of a dialogue or two and the mothers would be unfailing in the constant supply of drinking water and tit-bits of munchies.
Long back, in his youth days, Ronu Kaka had by-chance picked up a song in the old family violin. From then on he was a constant fixture in our plays; playing his bit in the interlude of our plays. Be it an adventure story or a hilarious one, his violin would break into the same tone of pathos while we would try hard to suppress our laughter.
But if there was someone who hated these plays, it was Inu Maasi. Every year she had to sacrifice a lock or two of her luscious hair to the whims of an over-enthusiastic make-up man. John Solomon wouldn’t trust anyone else with that department other than himself. And he would insist on curling out mustaches out of snippets of Inu Maasi’s hair.
“But Baba why don’t you try other things – wool, eye-brow pencils, threads….just anything, other than my hair ?”, she would howl.
“ They would not look authentic”.
“Then, for a change, why don’t you take from Bela Didi, Moni Didi, Jumki Didi…..Why me ?”
“Because your coarse hair would look fine as a mustache. Moreover I have observed that your hair grows quite fast”.
Saying this he would take out his sharp scissors and hand it to Inu Maasi who would then snip off little locks from her long hair, grumbling all the while.
That year we zeroed in on “Alibaba and forty thieves”.
“But we cannot have forty children on stage”, one among us protested.
Dadamoshai gave a know-it-all smile and added, “ Stupid! I wonder, with such chicken-brain how you landed up being my grandson! We would show only a few thieves, the rest would be done through cut-outs using shadow effect”.
Cries of protest emerged from two persons this time – Dhiru Kaka and Inu Maasi.
“I have too much work at office Baba. I cannot spend so much time making cut-outs”, protested Dhiru Kaka- the unofficial art director.
“No way…..there are too many male characters”, protested Inu Maasi, who had by then calculated that the number of male characters were directly proportional to the number of her hair locks under the chopper!
But John Solomon always had the last word in matters such as these and so “Alibaba and forty thieves’ it was!
We rehearsed for days to perfection until the D-day arrived.
The night of 24th of December had finally arrived! Dhiru Kaka and his friends erected the make-shift stage with two wobbly cots. Dadamoshai supervised the make-up. Grandmother boiled liters of milk in the mammoth caldron for the late-night coffee after the programme. The married girls of the house decorated the adjoining church with flowers for the Christmas service on the morning of 25th December. We glanced through the script one last time in nervous frenzy.
The play was a grand success! The entire crowd broke into impromptu applause as soon as the curtains were drawn. We hugged each other in genuine happiness. But where was Dadamoshai ? We wanted to rush to him to take his blessings like every year . His arm chair was placed where it always was placed – behind the stage! But the chair was empty and our grandfather was missing from his seat.
We rushed inside our home, only to be told that Dadamoshai was in his room – resting for a while since he was feeling unwell.
We wanted to go by his bedside but grandmother stopped us.
“ Let the poor man rest a bit dearies! His aging bones can hardly bear so much excitement. He will be fine. Unless he sleeps now he will not be able to attend the morning church service”.
Being young that we were, we soon became engrossed in our coffee cups and the freshly baked cookies.
Twelve of us slept in the same room for a full month during Christmas; with the very young ones being pushed to their mothers.
And that year, like every Christmas morning the younger ones shoved their hands below their pillows to find their respective gifts from Santa Claus. We, who were beyond the Santa-age sniggered at their enthusiasm. Though this did not refrain us from pulling away their gifts and opening the wrappers out of curiosity!
Christmas mornings always had a signature smell – the aroma of mixed fruit cakes and the strong coffee tickled our nose, even before we were fully up! But somehow the aroma of coffee and fruit cake seemed missing that day. We were about to wonder aloud about this when Inu Maasi came in rushing. Her eyes were moist with tears and she looked visibly distraught.
“ Children,your Dadamoshai is very sick ”.
The simple sentence sounded unbelievably untrue but we all rushed to his room nevertheless.
There in his room, Dadamoshai sat in his chair – his head resting on the head-rest and eyes closed. His lips looked purple and his breathing was heavy.
Our mothers sobbed in silence while our fathers tried to talk with him.
“Baba! We are calling Doctor uncle. He will be here soon.”, they tried to reason.
The old man’s lips quivered a bit, then it broke into an impish grin. “I am not yet dead son! And today is Christmas!”
“So what!”, Dhiru Kaka lost his cool. “ Don’t be childish Baba! We can all see how unwell you are”.
“ I will not die on Christmas Day, I can guarantee that”, Dadamoshai spoke slowly, amidst pants. Then he opened his eyes with great difficulty and turned his head to look at grandma.
“Pramila, what time is it ?”
“Ten minutes to eight”, grandma answered, with strange calmness in her voice.
“ Ten minutes from now the church bell must ring. My death can wait but Christmas service can’t”. Saying this he closed his eyes again.
It was the strangest Christmas service ever. Holding our hymn books we sang “Joy to the world, the Lord is come”, but all of us had tears streaming down our eyes. The pastor choked his voice while giving his Christmas message and the organ player missed a beat or two.
The news spread like wildfire and one by one people came to see our grandfather after the service. While they meekly inquired about his health, he extended his shaky hands towards them .
“Merry Christmas”, he whispered in his barely audible voice.
Taken aback, the visitors had no other option but to return his wish with a smile.
True to his words, he did not die on Christmas Day. The next morning we found him sleeping peacefully, wearing his new Christmas dress. John Solomon had made his final journey to meet his Lord.
Normally we never dared to clean Dadamoshai’s room. And we would have not dared do so if grandmother hadn’t reminded us of the ritual to clean the rooms after a person’s death. It was while cleaning his bed that Dhiru Kaka discovered two envelopes under his pillow.
Opening the first one he sat motionless on the chair. No amount of coaxing would prompt him to come out of his trance. Perplexed, Ronu Kaka pulled away the paper from his hand.
“ What is this ? An ECG report ? “, Ronu Kaka seemed equally surprised.
“Myocardial Infarction ? What does it mean Dada?”, he asked Dhiru Kaka.
“Heart Attack. And the report is six months old. All this while the old man knew he was so unwell and did not give an inkling of information to us”, Dhiru Kaka finally spoke up.
“He did not want to ruin Christmas. Moreover, he wanted to spend his final days surrounded by his children and grandchildren. Not in the hospital bed.”. We turned to look. Grandma was in the room.
“ So all this while you too knew it?”, I asked.
“Yes. He had told me not to inform anyone. There is one more envelope. He wanted you all to read it after his death”.
Dhiru Kaka picked up the second envelope . On the big brown envelope, in turquoise blue ink were words that read: John Solomon’s Will.
All of us assembled at the main drawing room while Dhiru Kaka read out the contents of the will. The 14 page ‘will’ was nothing but a hand-written note. The entire contents were divided into paragraphs with weird sub-headings: “ The lights for church decoration”, “How to ring the church bell”, “Number of packets of Christmas goodies for distribution”, “Recipe for perfect Christmas Pot-Roast”, “Supplier to be contacted for purchase of dry fruits” etc. Each of the children and grand-children were assigned duties to make each Christmas perfect – the John Solomon way!
Silence followed this long reading session.
“Is that all ?”, Inus Maasi asked.
“No, there is a bit called ‘Final Note’ “
“ And ?”
“ It says: ’ As to the rest of my property – do whatever you want, distribute it amongst yourselves the way you think it to be perfect. All my life I’ve believed in one simple fact, that whole-hearted celebration is a form of prayer. And a family that prays together, stays together – forever’.”
The squirrels pop out their heads in surprise and the tailor bird makes a quick survey of the noise around. We sit with our back to the sun. The warmth of the sun really does give comfort to our aging bones.
Kyra forgets her lines once again. Nimmi gives a mild spank on her back.
“Stupid girl! Why don’t you memories your lines well!”
“This is difficult Didi…..we should have opted for something like Harry Potter”.
“ The entire book ? Crazy girl!”
We lovingly look at our grandchildren and laugh out loudly. We were sixteen and they are forty two. Every Christmas they assemble from all over the world – just to celebrate Christmas – the John Solomon way!
I look around the garden. I discover Dadamoshai standing amidst the Nightqueen shrub – smiling in his own inimitable style. ……His words seem to resonate throughout ‘Solomon Villa’ – a family that prays together, stays together- forever!