Tuesday, December 28, 2010
A Mysore Christmas
I was resigned. Perhaps this year, there would be no “Christmas.” On Christmas morning, surrounded by children tearing into their pressies, I was happy to be wrong.
Predominantly Hindu, Christmas is not big in India. There are none of the familiar sights and sounds of the season: no decorated trees covered in tinsel, no wreaths, no carols, and none of the holiday consumerism, which dominates the west and the little Southeast Asian Christmas-slave I call home, the Philippines—and which I guiltily find comforting because, well, I am Filipino. My American side doesn’t do me any favors either in this respect.
In my tropical neck of the woods, decorations start to come up by late October and the general population systematically stuffs itself silly for a three-week period leading up to the big Christmas Eve feast. And quite some time after, as well.
Because the shala stayed open it was pretty much business at usual in Gokulam. The 25th was off only because it fell on a Saturday.
Generally, the shala students were pretty casual about Christmas. I guess we knew what we signed up for. Christmas itself could have passed us all by. In the days leading to Christmas Eve, a Friday, there were no definite plans. Quite suddenly though, there were dinners here and there, and at least one big party at Alex’s.
For me, it almost felt as if we were forcing the issue, scrambling for a way to observe the holiday. Still, I treated myself to as many heart warming indulgences as possible: chai in Amruth’s in the morning, lunch at the 3 Sisiters, homemade chocolates from Geetha and Trupti Coffee (a double whammy), classic holiday movies (It’s a Wonderful Life and Sound of Music) that I’d downloaded before leaving home in anticipation for a solitary Christmas. I did venture out too.
In the end, I joined a group dining at Windflower’s Olive Garden (no relation to the stateside chain) for a joint yuletide celebration and birthday party for Yan, also practicing at the shala. It was a surreal event at the garden establishment tucked at the bottom of Chamundi Hill. There, our party was ushered into a raised stage area, where they had prepared seating for cocktails. We were even visited by an Indian Santa. Half the party dressed in beautiful saris, some like glittering constellations. It felt a little like Junior Prom, someone said. Or the pre-prom dinner, arranged by our parents. Us "kids" disoriented by the so-called finery--what? tables not cushions? dresses not yoga clothes.
At Alex, we arrived just in time for caroling. Alex led, while Mark and Lars accompanied with guitar and harmonium respectively. The rooftop was full of students and together we sang a number of favorites, from Jingle Bells to Silent Night. This followed by dancing. It was a great little party.
The Eve was fun. Good company and happy vibes dominated the night. Still, it didn’t quite feel like Christmas.
In the morning I treated myself to a Christmas Day castor oil bath before heading out to meet a group going to Ashadayaka Trust, a orphanage for street children located 15 minutes away from Gokulam.
I was first introduced to the orphanage during the November fundraiser, which was organized by a handful of dedicated shala students. Over the last few weeks, I've joined some of the afternoon excursions to Ashadayaka. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, willing students meet at 4:15 at the coco stand to visit the children. We take them to the park and for an hour they are given hugs, time and attention. Anyone is welcome to join.
These children are so special. They may have been abandoned, they've had it rough in their young lives, but they are still children who like to smile, play, and take pleasure in having a grown-up hold their hand. And for that one hour, they are the center of the universe. I've seen the other neighborhood children stare in amazement as we walk with them down to the park. Sometimes some hang around the playground, inching their way towards our group, the desire to join in and play with us too shining in their eyes.
I was happy to join the Christmas gift giving that Deva had organized. I brought a present for Arathi (one of the girls who insists on holding my hand and wearing my sunglasses on the walk to the park)--a pink-clad barbie doll. Other shala volunteers brought presents, while donations from students and friends all over the world made certain that all the children would have something special.
We started with carols. Bo Chang, a classically trained singer and master gift-wrapper, led us in a cheerful round of carols. Though the English mystified the kids, their tongues glossing over the consonant sounds, they loved fa-la-la-la-ing to "Deck the Halls," which they screamed happily in our kirtan fashioned caroling.
Deva and Ursula brought in the bags of presents. And the distribution began. Shelly's daughters were present and helped give out the first batch. In an unusually orderly fashion (I've been to a few Christmas gift-giving events in the Philippines that could easily have turned into riots) the children came up when they were called, then returned to their spot in the circle, patiently waiting for the moment they could open them. Some curiously investigated theirs, shaking them trying to discern the weight or find an audible clue.
When all presents were distributed, we helped them tear into their gifts. Their faces then...the surprise followed by the elation at seeing a brand new toy (there were dolls, toy cars, balls, cricket bats), their brand new toy was Christmas!
For the next hour, we played. Shelly's husband Trevor taught basket ball tricks. Deepika and Mark played tossed around balls and played catch. Like myself, Deva, Ursh, Z, Bo, Shelly and her daughters moved around the rooftop, enjoying the company of children. Even our rickshaw driver joined in, he visits the orphanage too in his free time, he tells me later. The boys excelled in their sportsmanship. The two older girls with their hula hoops. The younger girls all investigated each other's dolls. The younger boys raced their cars.
Before we left, we gave out cake and they gave us their thanks. The children circulating within our circle, each giving us a hearty thank you and a strong handshake. Some more than once.
Many times over that hour, as I watched the scene, I wanted to bust out and cry. I felt so much love for these children and so much admiration for the fellow students there that day. This was the spirit of Christmas, of giving, and of receiving--that precious transaction of love that eludes us so many times in this modern day.
Get involved. To visit the children, meet at coco stand 4:15pm Mon, Wed and & Fri. Also, fore more info check out the Ashadayaka Trust group on facebook.