Christmas in Bombay

by Phyllis E. Weston

We arrived in Bombay early in December, all agog to see the wonders of one of India’s principal cities and looking ahead to visiting Delhi, Agra and the Taj Mahal, even the Khyber Pass, Afghanistan and Karachi. We accomplished only the first of these. After one night in Bombay we awoke to the news that India and Pakistan were at war.

That day we scrambled to cancel the rest of the arrangements, thus acquiring money for the three-week stay in Bombay. This prospect and that of spending Christmas there did not daunt us.

Time went amazingly quickly with excursions to rock temples on Elephanta Island and at Kanheri. Hewn out of living rock, the temples are feats of art and engineering with columns carefully carved to support the massive stone roofs of the caves and with many fine statues of the gods.

Fortunately, such serious sightseeing often had its lighter moments. To reach the Elephanta Caves we went by boat from which we were transported in a crude type of sedan chair, a box carried by means of poles on the shoulders of four rather slight men. Our arrival at the island was the signal for a shoving match as the bearers of the sedan chairs eyed us speculatively and then dashed for the tourists who seemed to weigh the least. The disposition of passengers settles amicably in the end, we all enjoyed a bumpy ride and a very enlightening tour.

Sightseeing was limited to daylight hours as there was soon a blackout. In a day or two our windows and lights were obscured. We could keep one light on. We added two candles to its feeble glimmer. However, when I took Stella’s (my sister’s) picture by two candle-power it looked as if I had taken it in the full light of day.

We soon learned, too, That the boat that was to take us to Mombassa in Kenya would sail from Bombay instead of from Karachi. We had no further worries.

Gradually we accustomed ourselves to the idea of Christmas under a hot blue sky, a brilliant sun, with palm trees more in evidence than pines.

In perfect weather, we walked about the city to visit the Prince of WalesMuseum, art galleries, and the Crawford Market with over 2000 stalls. Oh, what fruits and vegetables! In the live animal section were canaries, tiny three-color birds, equally tiny rice birds in glowing red, Nepalese mynah birds that really talked, parrots, monkeys, and many less exotic creatures.

To walk down from Dadabhai Naoroji Road, to repeat its musical syllables, to eye the open-air food stalls with their piles of rice colored yellow with saffron or shades of red with various curries, to shop in small stores for ivory, for little ornamental boxes and for hand- made cards one could use for many occasions, these pastimes occupied us for many hours on many days.

To see the sidewalk entrepreneurs shining and mending shoes, practising their art of chiropody, and cutting hair, had an endless fascination.

One of these pleasant days had its hazard, too. On the way to an art gallery one afternoon, we heard a huge palm leaf drop on the sidewalk just seconds after we had passed under the tree. As an Indian woman who the accompanied us for two blocks said again and again, "God is wonderful!" which received our heartfelt agreement.

And coming ever closer was Christmas. The celebration was to be on Christmas Eve with dinner, dancing and a programme. Having procured tickets, we presented ourselves at the stated time and place. The waiters, who were by now our friends, actually looked Christmasy on any gala occasion, each in a scarlet and gold iniform and turban.

Stella had a lucky number under her plate so was given a red fez to wear. Later she won the thermos as a prize but was able to dispose of it without any hurt feelings.

The dinner was a traditional feast of turkey and plum pudding with minor variations as there was beef, too and the pudding was cold. The food was good, we were hungry, and we enjoyed every mouthful.

The dancing belonged to that era when partners faced each other at a respectful distance and each went his own sweet way. This was good from my viewpoint as I am blessed with Methodist feet. Then there was a snake dance around the dining room and corridors of the hotel.

The highlight of the entertainment was a belly dancer, a diminutive woman who performed tirelessly, or so it seemed. However, when Stella and I said our thank-yous and good-nights in the small hours of the morning, we met the belly dancer once more in the elevator. The poor little thing was heaving like a pair of bellows so that she could only gasp her thanks for our words of appreciation. We learned afterwards that the local people outstayed us, lingering long enough to sing our traditional carols. Even so, from our point of view the evening had been a great success to be recalled with pleasure on many a cold and snowy Christmas Eve.


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©1996 - Phyllis E. Weston
21st Century Adventures - November/December 1996