Christmas from another age

In the 1960s my family lived in a small town, Naya Nangal (“new” Nangal).  It was contiguous to the older and more established Bhakra Nangal town, which took its name and identity from Bhakra Dam, the first hydro-electric power generation plant in India.  The dam was conceived in pre-partition India but its construction started in the 1950s.  The first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru proudly declared it a “new temple of resurgent India.”  The dam is located upstream the river Sutlej, which is one of the five prominent rivers of the state of Punjab (literal meaning, the “five waters”).  Bhakra Nangal town is situated at the foot of the Shivalik Hills on the eastern banks of the Sutlej river with Naya Nangal township spread along its western bank.

My father was then working for the Fertilizer Corporation of India (later reconstituted as National Fertilizers Ltd., and the township was a veritable mini-India, with factory staff (possibly, around 2,000 – 3,000 strong in those days) and their families representing practically every state of the country.  As a senior executive of the organization, my father was looked upon as a “father figure” and expected to lead the many community and family events.  Participating in a religious celebration, blessing a newborn or a new wedded couple, comforting a sick person or condoling with a bereaved family, my father and mother were readily and wholeheartedly engaged in anything that needed their attention.  In turn, they actively encouraged the involvement of my brother and I in all community activities and events.  Junior/middle school and later the high school allowed children from diverse social, religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds to intermingle.  This afforded me an early exposure to cultural pluralism.  Little did I know at the time how valuable these early life lessons would prove three decades later as I arrived to settle in Canada!

We looked forward to quite a few celebrations in our close-knit community – Vaisakhi, Lohri, Holi, Gurpurab, Eid, Diwali and of course, Christmas.  My grandmother referred to Christmas as the “waderah din” (literally the “big day.”  In India, Christmas is colloquially referred to as the “Bada Din” or Big Day).   Depending on the singing prowess, some of us would be chosen to go around singing Christmas carols, not just to spread Christmas cheer but also help raise funds for special causes.  The “Ladies Club” would organize special events and “high tea” at the local church to collect donations for presents to be delivered to patients too sick to leave the hospital and for children of less affluent families who could not afford gifts.

We also had a small number of expatriate officers from international collaborators like Saint Gobain (France), Mitsubishi (Japan) and Snamprogetti (Italy) etc.  Most of these officers were in Nangal on short-term assignments and eagerly looked forward to their family’s arrival from the home country specially for Christmas.  A large tree would go up in the local “Officers’ Club” and be the focal point of many “merry” parties.  We would gather around the tree in the evenings to start our carol singing in English, Hindi, Punjabi (yes!), French and one year, even in Polish!  I also remember receiving a croquet set from a young French boy one Christmas but never figured out the rules, as the instructions were in French and my friend could not speak English.  It gave me the opportunity however, to dictate my own rules when playing croquet with my Indian friends, who rightly felt this was an unfair sport!

There was a common theme to these celebrations that I fondly recall.  My father had a favorite gunmetal grey colored Italian suit and any time he wore it, we knew he was going out for a special event.  My grandmother knew better.  She would presciently remark, “Aj phir botlaan khadkan geeyaan!” (“Again, the bottles will be clinking today!”  When our father and mother came home after an evening of celebration we would hear our father happily humming, “Chal chal re naujawaan” (“March on, young man”) a then-popular song from an old Indian movie.  It reassured us that all was well in the world and that the Christmas celebration was indeed Merry!

While I cannot recall my childhood Punjabi carols, here is a close proxy of Jingle Bells the way it would be sung in the Punjab.

4 Replies to “Christmas from another age”

  1. Your journey UP the memory lane is beautifullly written! In true secular spirit we celebrated all major holidays! Having grown up in Mumbai (Bombay then), we had a slightly different experience but the festive spirit was of the same brand! Thank you for the gift of a fond retrospection!


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