When Karen and I began to outline the details of our itinerary for India, I was really only adamant about visiting one place – Kolkata (changed from its former name – Calcutta – in 2001). The very mentioning of the city has always brought me back to Scott Spence’s sophomore-year “Classic Civilizations,” class when I was sixteen years old. I remember my own youthful jaw-dropping fascination after having watched a film with grainy images of teeming streets and the work of Mother Teresa.
Just as Karen was anxious about visiting the holy city of Varanasi (as she recently mentioned), I too had reservations with regard to Kolkata. I knew it would be crowded and noisy. I knew the poverty (for which it is notorious) would be in my face. I knew that its cow-dung-lined alleys and its wide boulevards would be an adventure to navigate. But for me something happened during my time leading up to our arrival in Kolkata – I got used to India. I came to accept the things that seemed so foreign to me. And that’s why I was so confused to find something culturally familiar in our last stop on the subcontinent – Christmas.
There were decorations everywhere. I found myself smiling at the illuminated and pulsating streets with the familiar reverie. I continued to feel this way at our first restaurant the night we arrived, “Oh Calcutta.” The waiter that took our order wore a Santa hat like he was an official little helper. Just as our seltzers and Bengali curries arrived, Bing Crosby’s White Christmas (written by the Jewish songwriter Irving Berlin by the way) began to play on the sound system. I had a flashback of our family vacations in Aruba of the late 1990s. Perhaps the memory was jogged because of the similar climate and the fact that Christmas always seemed so out of context to me there as well.
The holiday was everywhere in Kolkata. The downtown cosmopolitan area of the city – Park Street – was kind of like a miniature Time Square with Merry Christmas signs and more people wearing Santa hats (like our waiter).
Of course, Karen and I saw plenty of the city’s neighborhoods over the course of our two days that showed us the authentic side of things too. But whether we were at Mother Teresa’s Hospital in South Kolkata or at the home of the author Rabindranath Tagore in North Kolkata, I continued to mutter the same thing under my breath over and over again like it was a Buddhist mantra, “I’m in Kolkata (India) and there are people wearing Santa hats five minutes away from here!” It was as simple as that.
With this thought in mind, Karen and I went out for our final meal in India on Christmas Eve. As much as Christmas annoys me, I’ve always loved Christmas Eve (to me there is a very real distinction). Christmas Eve is cozy, quiet and relaxed. Last year, we spent it in Connecticut where we had a wonderful meal, dozed off next to a fire while watching the Big Chill (on VHS) and in the morning exchanged presents. I even remember what my brother Jonathan got me – an 800-page tome about Rasputin (which was riveting).
In Kolkata, the thought of these memories made me homesick for a moment. The only consolation was the fact that at least for our final night in India, Karen and I were in a city apparently obsessed with Christmas. For that reason, quiet would for sure descend upon it (a rare occurrence for India) and I would get a good night’s sleep before our 5:00am flight to Yangon (our first stop in Myanmar).
But as we were walking back to our hotel after our Christmas Eve meal, our neighborhood was even more alive than it had been earlier that day. The streets were still filled with people (and their Santa hats). There was pop music being pumped onto every corner through old rusty loudspeakers that were attached to telephone polls.
“Haven’t they heard of noise pollution?” I told Karen.
“You just have to embrace it mi amor.”
“At least it’s not near our hotel.”
Minutes later though, I was horrified to discover that there were speakers on the street of our hotel too.
“Oh God.” I said when we entered our room to pack our bags before going to bed. The music was loud enough to feel like we were still part of the party. It was at that moment that I realized something. I longed to be in Connecticut. I wanted to be falling asleep by the fire. I wanted silence. Connecticut is where it was silent – unlike India where there is no such thing.
As I put in my earplugs attempting to sleep, I heard the last song one would ever expect to hear being pumped from the speakers down on the street below.
“Rah Rah Rasputin, Russia’s greatest Love Machine. It was a shame how he carried on.” It was that 1970s disco tune that I had become obsessed with after reading the book that Jonathan had gotten me about Rasputin. It was as if India was winking at me and saying, “Merry Christmas Matt! Here is your present! You can’t leave without a party!”