“April is the cruellest month,
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”
TS Eliot was wrong. April isn’t the
cruellest month. December is.
It snatched my handsome young
brother away almost two years ago on New Year's Eve, (ruining the only night
of the year where I have allowed myself since having children to really let
rip with a risque dress, and as much alcohol as my body could take)
Last year I hadn’t had the heart for
Christmas. I was glad to be in India where I spent Christmas day with the
family on the viceroys tiny toy train taking an interminable ride in a
biting cold compartment from Kalka to Simla.
There was no sign of Christmas—just
a thousand train stops as we wound our way up to the snowy Himalayan
mountains with vendors passing hot samosas and sweet cups of tea through the
railings. It was a bitter sweet trip, and an astonishing lesson for the
children who found amidst that mountain air, tall pine trees and winding
roads where monkeys romped, India’s “little colonial England,” that they
didn’t collapse without presents and a tree.
This year after a month in America
watching the country unravel after the Wall Street crash the chill of a
million job losses, thousands of lost homes reflected in the eerily still
eyes of the homeless, I wasn’t in the mood for Christmas.
November was the cruellest month
giving the world the Mumbai terror attacks where almost 200 men women and
children were shot dead in cold blood most of them inside the Taj Palace
I felt the rage and sadness of
millions worldwide at this ugly pointless massacre that was the antithesis
of humanity and civilisation.
Last year this time we were having
tea and samosas at the Taj Palace hotel in Mumbai watching the thronging
crowds at the Imperial Gateway of India through its windows. Strains of
Chopin filtered through.
My parents were recalling my
grandmother's stories of parties held there during the height of British
rule, and the fact that this heritage building was used as a hospital during
World War I. It hadn’t changed since they were young they said, recalling
they had sat in this very spot 40 years back.
The marble staircases, chequered
floors, chandeliers, exquisite hand-woven carpets, priceless artwork and
period furniture was the same in this heritage hotel now reduced to cinders
by dangerously stupid men who were so brainwashed by such a misguided
interpretation of Islam that they turned bestial. Worse than animals. Colder
It was built over a century ago by
Jamshetji Nusserwanji Tata, who, having reportedly been turned away from a
“white-only” establishment created a hotel that rivalled the splendid
palaces of the Raj.
While liveried footmen bowed, we
spoke of India’s contradictions, its thousand-year-old traditions, its slums
and palaces. A people steeped in history. Simply, India.
After this, I told the children,
there would be no presents this year. When five families pile their presents
under our tree at Christmas the result is an obscene mound of presents at a
time when we should mourn for the poor and the dead. I persuaded all adults
not to give presents to one another but to charity. Instead the children
would do a play mimicking the adults. The children agreed I thought.
Then things changed.
I scoured the Net for the stories of
Civilisation endured in the spirit
of service. While gunfire and fire raged around them, a group of staff and
guests was pressed together in a kitchen enclave for hours when a Brit
cracked open a bottle of champagne and was about to pour. The head waiter
immediately said, “You can’t do that sir.” “Oh yes, I can,” replied the
traumatised guest. “I mean you can’t use those glasses. Let me get the
It's so India, as were the first
words of the wounded general manager of the hotel to his boss after waking
up to hear his wife and teen-aged children were killed by terrorists “ we
will make the Taj better than ever sir, he said.”
I sent e-mail to friends and family
across India, as both the Hindu and Muslim parts of me felt eviscerated,
afraid, that it would set off an ugly religious war on the streets between
countries and countrymen. Every response I got showed me otherwise.
Muslim and Hindus, Pakistanis and
Indians despite the terrorists attempt to divide the countries and people,
remained united against terror.
Every e-mail I received, and there
were dozens, blamed the politicians for illiteracy, which bred dogma; and
for corruption and divisive politics, which left so little for the basic
needs of the people and kept them illiterate and divided.
On Eid this month, Muslim clerics
called on their flock not to slaughter cows and refused to bury the
terrorists in their graveyards calling them “un-Islamic.”
The children came to me last night
and asked for a compromise. They agreed to donate half their pocket money to
charity, agreed to modest presents, but please, they asked could we have
Christmas with presents, with the giving and the taking and the surprise.
I thought of the man who lost his
family and who immediately offered his service to rebuild from the ground
again. His gesture was not just about restoring the glory of the Taj, but
symbolic of the enduring human spirit that by creating beauty, by giving,
despite the ugliness, perhaps because of the ugliness, makes the soul more
powerful than a hundred terrorist attacks.
So, having learned some lessons from
children and the wounded, I prepare for a Christmas neither of atonement nor
happy endings but redemption, a playing out of joyful chaos with wrapping
paper amidst loved ones, which is our biggest weapon towards mindless evil.
Even in the cruellest months dull roots are stirred with