In Kolkata, Christmas is a festival for the outdoors
“This festival stands for love,” said Mamata Banerjee earlier this week. Speaking at the Christmas Carnival on Kolkata’s iconic Park Street -- now Mother Teresa Sarani -- the West Bengal chief minister added: “This festival stands for unity, it stands for peace, it stands for solidarity. It is celebrated all over the world. Why is Jesus Christ’s birthday not declared as a national holiday?”
Banerjee is battling hard against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP in anticipation of assembly elections next year. In the days before she spoke, the ruling party’s home minister (and chief architect of its election strategies) Amit Shah had toured her state, deftly scooping up defectors as he went: Seven MLAs and an MP from her party, and three additional legislators from other parties.
On the 21st, Banerjee laid out her message straight: “They cannot unite the country. They can only divide.” Mimicking a needling action with her right hand, she said: “I am sorry to say it’s a typical type of religious hatred policies going on [but] Bengal is going ahead [with its official celebration] and some people are jealous.
In fact, Christmas does remain gazetted an official holiday in India, but it is also true the BJP -- after its sweeping national victory in 2014 -- immediately began commemorating it as “Good Governance Day,” ostensibly to honour the late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s birthday. Banerjee argued: “Christmas is like Pujo, it is like Eid. We celebrate all festivals, because we are one. We are together, and unity is our strength.”
In another part of the country -- say my native Goa, where Christians are roughly 25-30% of the population -- you might classify declarations like Banerjee’s as political pandering. But it would be wrong to derive that conclusion in West Bengal, where Christians constitute less than 1% of citizens (they are just above 2% nationwide). Instead, this is one state -- and regional culture -- in India, where celebrating Christmas is an undeniably cross-cultural and distinctively secular phenomenon.
It has been this way for a very long time. Over a century ago in 1910, Rabindranath Tagore initiated annual celebrations of Christo Utsav at his Visva-Bharati University, with non-denominational prayers and hymns. His first sermon on that occasion carefully explained: “Great-souled Christ, on this blessed day of your birth, we who are not Christians bow before you. We love you and worship you, we non-Christians, for with Asia you are bound with the ties of blood.”
These sentiments reflect the ancient universalism of the sub-continent, where Christianity -- just like Islam -- first arrived and became peacefully established far ahead of any other corner of the globe, by preachers and traders from the Middle East who traversed the Arabian Sea to the Konkan and Malabar coastlines. On its west coast, India is home to some of the oldest Christian (and Muslim) communities in the world.
Tagore was also speaking from the context of the ecstatic mysticism of Bengal which runs deep through all religious traditions to his pedagogy at Shantiniketan. It can easily be seen in the wonderful paintings of Jamini Roy, and the cross-coastal ouevre of his contemporary, the still mostly unknown master Angelo da Fonseca. Their Gurudev wrote: “The object of education is to give man the unity of truth. I believe in a spiritual world -- not as anything separate from this world -- but as its innermost truth. With the breath we draw we must always feel this truth, that we are living in God.”
We know that -- all across the sub-continent -- the vast majority of people believe and practice an inconvenient truth that foxes the fundamentalists: Faith is not zero-sum, and celebrating the festivals of one religion never cancels out respect or regard for the others. We can be both, indeed all, and only bigots fuss about perceived contradictions.
“Truth alone is my God: The entire world is my country,” said the oft-appropriated, generally-misrepresented Swami Vivekananda (born Narendranath Datta), “every religion is an expression, a language to express the same truth, and we must speak to each other in his own language. Does our master belong only to India?”
About the very Bengali Christmas, acclaimed author Amit Chaudhuri writes: “In the western world, [it] is a time to be spent with family. Consequently, the streets of London are cold and empty as much of the population is indoors with their families. It is Kolkata that sees this unique phenomenon -- thousands of people celebrating the festival outdoors -- a sight that no other city can lay claim to. If it was a festival for the Anglo-Indians and Christians earlier, it has become a festival for everyone. Park Street opens itself up to the public -- both the upper and middle classes come to celebrate the festival. It is the best Christmas -- better even than the London Christmas.”
Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.