This is a story narrated to me by the ghost of a liberal that I met behind a tree on St. Stephen’s College campus in Delhi. I remember recording it, but it turns out that you can’t record the voice of a ghost on tape. Just like you can’t capture the image of a ghost in a photograph. The following, therefore, has been reproduced from memory to the best of my ability.
My doubts over Christmas started early. On Christmas day, we girls would gather at school for a special blessing, followed by which we would all receive our special Christmas boxes wrapped in bright red. The Scottish nuns who ran our school told us that they were gifts from Santa for being “nice” during the year. And that we should stay off Santa’s “naughty” list if we wanted more gifts the next year.
I had heard the same spiel from my parents earlier that morning, when I woke up to find candy and oranges stuffed into the stockings near my bed.
“But what about the kids in Africa?” I once asked Mother Superior at the school, “Why doesn’t Santa bring them anything? Have they all been naughty?”
Somewhat taken aback, Mother Superior mumbled something about the need to be charitable towards poor kids in Africa. But I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to know why Santa Claus wasn’t doing anything for them. At least on Christmas Day.
“My child, everyone is born with original sin. And for that they must suffer,” she told me after much pestering.
I couldn’t sleep that night. The thought that a merciful God would let babies be born with original sin from Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden filled me with horror. And the thought that unless they accepted Jesus into their hearts, God would throw them into eternal hellfire.
At our Catholic school, we were constantly taught about hell and about the Devil. I envied my Hindu classmates who didn’t have to go to Bible Study. While they played outside, we had to sit on uncomfortable benches in a semi-darkened room reading the same leather bound book over and over again. The book had no pictures and was written in small print. Worse, the teacher would constantly scare us with stories of burning sulfur and brimstone in hell.
I would shudder in horror when they told me that the communion wine was supposed to be the blood of Christ.
I didn’t think my Hindu classmates were going to hell. I had been to their homes where I was always very welcome. We played together and ate together and studied together. They would bring me delicious sweets on Holi and Diwali. Why would all these nice people go to hell, I would wonder?
As I grew up, I began spending more and more time with Hindu friends. I found their belief system fascinating. They had different gods, each with a different shade of character. There was Rama, the ever diligent good kid who always listens to his parents. But then there was also the mischievous Krishna, who went around with his friends stealing butter from the neighborhood. There was Hanuman, the hard working yogi but also Ganesh who seemed to enjoy the good things in life.
Their pantheon of gods was so lifelike. I felt I could relate to them.
And best of all, the Hindus also had female gods. Wealth was worshipped as Lakshmi, knowledge was Saraswati and strength was Durga. From wealthy to wise to a fierce warrior, the female could be anything.
These were times when I was just becoming aware of complicated power relationships in the world, between countries, races and genders. Lakshmi had skin that was white as milk, but Kali was dark as the night. Both were objects of worship.
In contrast, Jesus was always shown as a white man, his muscles, his hair, all conforming to white Western norms. And we only talked about his Father in heaven.
The only time we mentioned the feminine was during Christmas, with utmost emphasis on the idea of “virgin birth.”
I didn’t feel like virginity could define a woman.
Later on, I learned that Christmas as we know it today is actually an adaptation of the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, the worship of Saturn. That and various other pagan festivals around the time of the Winter Solstice in Europe were co-opted into modern Christmas. Every tradition that I thought was associated with Christmas : from the Christmas tree to Christmas carols to the yule log that we put in the fireplace for Christmas, everything had been formed by fitting on a solemn Christian tag on pagan traditions.
Which was weird, because sitting in British era cathedrals at school during Christmas and putting on British manners to interact with classmates and teachers always made me wonder if we were still colonial subjects.
The one thing that I loved about Christmas was the Baby Jesus. Just as much as I loved the Baby Krishna. And I love the Mother Mary as much as I love our Bharat Mata.
Years later, when I married my husband, a Hindu Rajput, the issue of religion never came up. Ten years after marriage, I decided to become a Hindu, but there was no pressure from any side. I chose it myself. Now, I am a Christian and I worship Krishna and Lakshmi and Durga with great pride.
It makes me sad when I hear sermons about the need to believe in “one true God” and calls to the faithful to give up the so called “false gods.”
I don’t think these people understand what it means to be Indian. We are one nation and one people and we have this one life. Let’s live it with mutual respect and love for each other. Merry Christmas y’all!
Abhishek Banerjee is a math lover who may or not be an Assistant Professor at IISc Bangalore.