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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Of Kennedy and Christmas in Karnataka, 1963

In view of the season I thought I'd add this thing I wrote a while back. It's about a time before any of us had the Internet, and experiencing another culture was a truly radical experience...

Until 1963, Christmas for me had always meant being with my parents, brothers and sisters, aunt, uncle, and grandmother in our Fair Oaks, California home. Lots of fun, but all very predictable. Then in 1963, when I was 16, my parents, two of my siblings, and I found ourselves living in a beautiful college town in Karnataka (then called Mysore), South India, and had to rethink the whole thing.

Our problem was that here, there seemed to be nonstop festivals year-round, while we white-bread Americans only had the Four Big Ones (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and the Fourth of July). And because President Kennedy had been assassinated just a month earlier, we were still reeling from that shock. So we probably didn't have a Thanksgiving dinner that year (and there would have been no turkey, in any case).

Everyone old enough to remember the day Kennedy was shot can tell you where they were when they heard about it. As I remember it, on that day we heard of it first from Gopi, a very bright young boy who had befriended my younger brother and served as a very helpful informant and guide for us. As it happened, just a few days earlier he'd said to us "Kennedy died" and it threw us into confusion, but it turned out he was referring to Mrs. Kennedy's miscarriage. So when he came running in on the day Kennedy was shot to announce that Kennedy was killed, we thought he was talking about the lost baby again. It took a while to sort it out, but eventually we found a BBC channel on the short wave radio with a news report. So that's how we found out about it. We were in shock. Unlike most Americans who were united through the next few days through shared news broadcasts, our experience was very different.

For days after Kennedy died, lines of people waited patiently outside our house, coming in one at a time or in small groups to express their condolences to us. Several “functions” were held too, all well attended. At one, where it was my turn in the family to say a few words to the gathering, a local artist unveiled a beautiful portrait he'd painted of the young president. Seen through his Indian eyes, Kennedy was recognizable as himself, yet looked Indian too. My mother wrote a newspaper article about it for the San Francisco Chronicle (maybe her article, and the photo, are on the Internet somewhere now). As the sole Americans in the area, we were the go-to location, for people to say how much they loved Kennedy and his Peace Corps, and to tell America that they felt the loss too. People were amazingly generous, and made us feel at home with them at that sad time, even though we'd come from far away and would be gone again in a few months. We were still accepting occasional condolence visits even as Christmas approached.

With the assassination still such a recent memory, we weren't really thinking much about Christmas. Then we caught a rumor that our neighbors were eager to see our American way of celebrating the upcoming holiday. After all, we'd been there several months already, and observed their festivals, yet not a single American celebration had been seen. It was time we shared something with them. We looked around and realized it would be impossible to reproduce anything like our customary Christmas. In a town whose college was named for the sacred coconut tree, there were no suitable evergreen trees to use for a Christmas tree, no mistletoe, and of course we hadn't thought to bring Christmas decorations to India with us. We would have to improvise.

Luckily our neighbors didn't know what to expect in the way of a Christmas holday, so we didn't have to be perfect. (Not that we ever did - people were amazingly tolerant of our ignorance and gaffes throughout our stay.) We rooted around for anything red and green, and decorated the house with it. On the veranda, for visitors, we placed a table with a large potted plant and then we went to the market in search of possible ornaments and refreshments.

We found a number of small wooden toys, little birds and Hindu gods and goddesses and various shiny things, and figured out ways to hang them from our “tree.” Pretty soon our Christmas tree was looking nicely festive, though small and more than a bit strange to our eyes. The only other thing we could think of doing for our festival, besides offering sweets, was to sing carols, because people there loved music. So we practiced the carols we always sang, in hopes of showing off our harmonies.

Chennakeshava temple in Belur,
not far from where we lived
Then we ran into another snag. We heard that the local Christian community expected us to attend service. It was assumed by everyone there that we were Christians, but actually we weren't a religious family and we hadn't even thought of going to church in India; we were much more interested in seeing beautifully carved Hindu temples. But it was an unfortunate oversight, and it had been thoughtless of us.

My father sought out the town's Catholic priest and asked him if we could come to the Christmas Eve service. As I remember that, it was pretty much like a Catholic church service I'd seen once in California, except that it was spoken in Kannada -- or was it Kannada-inflected Latin? How would we know? (Happily, after that, the priest and my father developed a friendly relationship, conversing amiably about politics, social reform, and, probably, my father's atheistic convictions.)

On Christmas, we woke to the sight of a long line of well-wishers waiting outside our door. Some were friends, but we didn't recognize most of the others; they were just folks from the town, happily chatting and come to celebrate with us, as we'd celebrated their events in town and temples with them. We opened the door and it was as if the world had turned around. No longer condolence visitors, they now had happy faces, eagerly looking around and taking in the sights and exuding good cheer. We invited them all in and handed out a kind of punch, to those brave enough to try it, and candy and snacks from the market. And we sang our carols -- to their great amusement (our music obviously sounded as strange to them as theirs did to us).

Finally the crowd thinned out in the house and the veranda, and we no longer had a line of people waiting outside. We caught our breath, just the family together again. But as we put the house back to normal, we realized that our "Christmas tree" was nearly bare of  ornaments.

What could have happened? Our first reaction was dismay: after all, the "tree" was the closest thing we had to what was, to us, a "real" Christmas. Without that, we thought our celebration had been pretty pathetic and our visitors must have been disappointed. Our second reaction was to wonder what had become of the ornaments. My mother's friend explained that people knew Christmas was about giving gifts; visitors had accepted the ornaments as gifts, and taken them home. We were happy to hear that, since we hadn't thought of giving people presents --another oversight, but it had turned out all right.

And so a dreadful November morphed into a very different December. Crowds of mourners at our door became, overnight, crowds of happy celebrants. Our new community closed around us and smiled, carrying us with them to the next thing. That was their gift to us then: showing us that whatever dreadful thing might happen in November, the wheel of the year rolls on, and we must remember to celebrate, with joy, the next month's holiday.

Some notes: The illos here are all from Google image search.

 The temple is the Chennakeshava temple in Belur, not far from where we lived, and we visited it more than once. It's from the Hoysala period, and fabulously beautiful. Here are two of the sculptures up close; the whole temple is covered with these and many are still intact. Wiki says "The salabhanjika concept stems from ancient symbolism linking a chaste maiden with the sala tree or the asoka tree through the ritual called dohada, or the fertilisation of plants through contact with a young woman."
For more see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chennakesava_Temple

The coconut plantation photo was taken from a train, maybe the train to Bangalore. Not sure where the others are from but I sure did love those picnics at a coconut plantations with our friends, and my mouth still waters at the memory of tender coconuts. Truly a sacred plant.

The Indian Christmas ornament is from  ultrabrown.com/posts/laras-theme

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