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Category: International 12 Dec 08

 

“April is the cruellest month, breeding

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 Hotel.

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 than snakes.

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 the survivors.

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 correct ones.”

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 spring rain.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur