A Christmas story, in a Sal forest

Image Courtesy: John Dayal

Let me tell you a Christmas story about a little baby boy. In fact, two little baby boys.
They were born in a forest, watched perhaps from the shadows by birds and  animals. This virgin Sal forest in the hills of Kandhamal in central Orissa had everything all the way up to elephants, bears and tigers, watching from the shadows that cold evening. It could have been a scene straight out of a cinema reinterpretation of the Nativity in the Gospels of the New Testament.
The four Gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John document the life and times of Emmanuel, God with us, but more universally known as Jesus the Christ. Jesus, as every child has been told, was born in a Manger, the wooden or earthen tub in which fodder is kept for cows in the shed, or gowshala, in the town of Bethlehem where his parents had to stop suddenly because of Mother’s labour pains. Mary and her betrothed Joseph were on their way to Jerusalem, their ancestral town, to register themselves in a government census ordered by Cesar, the Emperor of what was then known of Western civilisation. But for these orders, Jesus could well have been born in the town of Nazareth, some distance away, where Joseph worked as a skilled carpenter.
Circumstances ordered by the government,  and dictated by nature, has made Bethlehem famous in history. Jesus was born there one winter, fixed rather arbitrarily by later kings and their astronomers as the night of December 24 of the Gregorian calendar. All very complicated. There are no reindeers in Bethlehem. It never really snows in December, but there are all sorts of trees, also sheep and shepherds, even now. Alas, too many soldiers, policemen too, the occasional battle tank, and all too much barbered wire in the otherwise rolling countryside.
The Kandhamal forests are now well known in the Christian history of India. This history began in Kerala a few years after the crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem. Kandhamal, too sees lots of policemen and their military vehicles, hunting not for animals, but for political extremists who too are armed. They kill each other all too often.
Other people also kill, and burn houses, and hunt for men, women and children, even on Christmas Eve.
This is what happened on the eve of Christmas 2007 when targeted violence against the Christians broke out. I was there within a few days to record and report, but this is not the time to speak of the violence.[1] One can always “google” for the details, though the judicial commission headed by Justice Panigrahi appointed to investigate the violence is still a long way from finalising its report. Ironically, Justice Naidu, who filled in for Justice Mahapatra who was asked to probe the large scale targeted violence against Christians in August 2008, but who died before he could write his document, filed his report this week. This sort of thing happens.
This is just a story of the two children who share a birthday with Jesus the Christ. Close to the outskirts of the Kandhamal district is the village of Ulisadar, a part of Bamnigaon, inconsequential and insignificant as most villages in backward Orissa are. In this village lived two women who had come here on their marriage. Both were heavily pregnant, and were expecting a safe delivery at home or a small dispensary and clinic some kilometres away. The clinic is run by Catholic nuns.
But the violent mob reached them before the labour pains started. The village folk ran into the forests to save their lives, these two pregnant young women among them, helped by others who half carried them up the hills. Back in the village, the mob pillaged and burnt the houses.
The two babies were born soon thereafter. The desperate run to save their lives had perhaps triggered the labour. Later, they told me there was no cloth to wipe the babies clean. The mother’s dhotis were torn in half, one half for the woman, the other half to swaddle the newborn. Quite out of the Gospels, where the Magi and the Kings of the East were to find the Baby swaddled in clothes.  On a second visit later, I saw the babies, healthy and smiling. Both had been given names, which could roughly mean beloved of Jesus, or bhaktas of Jesus, to use a very popular word. The children are growing well, I am happy to report. Justice for the victims of the violence is another thing altogether.
Christmas in India means many things, and like language, micro culture and folk art, changes every hundred kilometres or so. And it is a heady, ever changing mixture of the local, vernacular folklore and food and dress habits and imports of the last thousand years, from the west and the east.
There was Christmas in India before the Portuguese came and brought in the new songs of the Birth and the Joy and Hope of the Salvation it promised. The Jingle Bells and carols came later, with the Dutch, the French and British, the generic term used as a coverall for soldiers and civilians from England, Scotland, Wales and north Ireland. There is also a dash in the hot pot from Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Armenia, and a huge dollop from countries of the Mid East and the Far East, from Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, a hint of Egypt, and just a trace of China. Born of southern stock, I grew up in the extreme north, in Srinagar, Shimla and Dehradun, the hills and foothills of the mighty Himalayas, before coming to Delhi. My wife grew up in Travancore, in what is now Kerala.

This is just a story of the two children who share a birthday with Jesus the Christ. Close to the outskirts of the Kandhamal district is the village of Ulisadar, a part of Bamnigaon.
We celebrate Christmas in a complex, but lively mix or traditions that trace roots in the Syrian oriental ritual tradition as well as in the more anglicised way seen in films and on television shows. Gujarati Christmas will be incomplete without the Christmas Garba dance by the beautiful girls and women. We know that the Christians of the North eastern States, the many tribes in their homes in the Hills of Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya dip deep into their own culture and folk traditions, while accepting the best of the music that the West has to offer. Some daring young one will have an occasional choir number, which could reflect something they heard of Bhangra pop. It is the joy that is important.
So it can be a mix of plum pudding, and walnut cake, roast pork and fried beef as much as it can be pilaf and biryani, kebabs and gujiyas, shakar paras and appams and stew, often at the same feast – what with these cross cultural and cross denominational marriages that the young so love and often, the bishop decries.
The midnight Mass may not be entirely traditional, and is certainly more popular among the Catholics, the High church Protestant Episcopalians and the Oriental or Syrian Orthodox traditions, some more urban than rural. This may have something to do with issues of illumination and transport. But there is always a Sunday morning service for the laggards and those who go to bed early in the cold. The wine, the mulled beer, the eggnogs or the single malts are optional. Alcohol can be a strict ‘No-No’ for several (Christian) denominations.
But Christmas is not really to be celebrated in five star hotels or in the large dhabas that have sprouted up in the last 30 years or so along highways and low ways. It is time for family, and friends. And to marvel that a little baby means so much to so many, so many millennia later.
As a prince of Peace;
Christmas is about peace, and love.
And the hope that no one has to be born in a forest to a young, very frightened woman fleeing for her life, because the government failed her. Or to a fleeing refugee in a tiny boat far away from home.
And it not spelled as X-Mas. It is Christmas.
Merry Christmas, my friends





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