What does Christmas mean to me?

Growing up as a Hindu in a predominantly Hindu neighbourhood, I shouldn’t have been exposed to Christmas as much – especially in the 80s.

But I had a friend who was Christian (a few friends who are still good friends). I used to visit his place often –practically lived there – and I learnt about Good Friday, Easter, Palm Sunday, Christmas Eve, Midnight mass and nativity scenes (which is called Christmas Crib in India) . cribI went to midnight mass as a teenager much to the grief of my religious orthodox Hindu parents. I liked the bustle of organized religion. They all sang songs together – they knew these songs – and Hinduism except in a small way is not organized.

India is organized chaos and so is Hinduism in many ways. We all go to temples whenever we like, there are some specific exceptions. And we all prayed to a myriad of gods and goddesses, we had many festivals throughout the year, many anniversaries of special full-moons and new-moons to celebrate, it was difficult to be organized so often in a week. It is more of the personal relationship with their own God. My Dad was quite religious and ritualistic and he did all his prayers at home.

I knew about Santa Claus and the reindeer – but not in a big way – not like the Indian kids of today. We didn’t have too much fanfare during Christmas. Every street would have one or two Christian residents, and they would have a star hanging outside their house lit up with lights. Some had trees and some didn’t. We have those Christmas trees in abundance in the coast. People sang carols and came to the various Christian homes. They knew where the parishioners lived and they went from one home to another singing songs. I would sit by the window and watch.

I don’t think Enid Blyton wrote a lot of Christmas stories. Did she? I can’t recall reading any that explained Santa Claus or using him as a character. Maybe it was Father Christmas in the UK and Raymond Briggs’s books didn’t come to India.

And then when I moved to Singapore, I saw the decorations in the shopping district. singaporechristmastreeThe enormous Christmas Tree in their biggest mall and it was fun to watch. Chinese New Year was bigger than Christmas and hence although Singapore celebrated Christmas, it was only second to CNY which was also a 3-day holiday. I did attend midnight-mass once there, my first Christmas there. (Don’t ask me why). christmas1999When I worked there, I had Japanese clients – and they didn’t do Christmas holiday – so we too had to take turns to work. That’s when I discovered that not all countries gave it the same importance and then I realized the effect of being a British colony vs not being one.

I also had the most traumatic experience of being in Singapore during the Tsunami 10 years ago and waking up my parents to ask about it – and they were like we felt tremors, we went back to sleep and then found out it had wiped out the coast in our city and miles beyond. We had reservations at another coast in Malaysia and we had to triple check everything before we went on that holiday – everything was great except we weren’t allowed on the beach and we snuck in anyway.778671703_4bdd996c8d_z

When I moved to the UK, Christmas was not really a great time because everything shuts down. From where I come, holidays don’t keep shops closed. Even the big ones like Diwali – because we consider the festivals to be auspicious – the shops remain open on auspicious days. Only Christian shops used to be closed in Chennai on Christmas and that was a handful of grocery stores run by a specific community of people who were Christians.

I didn’t fully understand “Nothing is open” until my first Christmas when no shops, no supermarkets, no buses, no trains. I use public transport for everything and I was stranded.

But there is a silver lining – it was my time of quiet – two days of quiet when I could write – no one would bother me on those days whatever happens. The Christmas weeks were quiet at work. Many took time off and I usually covered Christmas. So that meant quieter at work, less workload and more time to get to know the people who did come to work.

Slowly that too has changed – my Christmas graph from childhood to today seems to fluctuate. Now I’m part of my sister’s family celebrating Christmas.

I know Christmas is filled with the stress of buying gifts, cooking food, going somewhere on time with the trains being as they are and all that. I also know where there is family, there would be squabble. We wouldn’t fight with strangers – just family. That’s what love is all about.

And the other best thing for me for Christmas is that Facebook is filled with good wishes, happy videos and the TV news is filled with heart-warming stories of people who are generous and find a way to include others in their celebration.

We have a tree this time, giftspresents (which I always overdo and buy lots), board games, Christmas movies and the works. And I have a nephew (and soon to be two) who loves to read books with me and loves the Big Tree in his house with baubles, surely I’m going to be celebrating as many Christmases I could with them. A great time for mulled wine (which I love), cooking food for a big group, singing songs (out of tune) and enjoying the company of people you love.

I think I get it. It’s not very different from Diwali, except for the absence of presents and tree, and with firecrackers – it is about families and friends coming together, good food and making merry with the people you love and care about. The trimmings are different across the religions and countries and communities, the food on the table is different – but the love and cheer – that crosses all boundaries.

I always think (I think a lot during this time of the year), take away the rituals and the external practices, underneath we want the same things, we enjoy the same things, we love for the same reasons and laugh for the same reasons.

falgucloseupFrom Falgu and yours truly, Merry Christmas folks! Hope you all have a wonderful time.

The South Indian Festival of Lights

My mum and Dad are so pleased that I am in India on the day of the festival of lights after a long time. In some southern parts of India, the festival of lights – Karthigai Deepam is celebrated from yesterday until Monday. It is confusing to anyone who doesn’t speak Tamil or Telugu – because it is hardly celebrated across the rest of India.

The streets are filled with lamp sellers – we use clay-lamps mostly and then tall bronze ones and lots of small bronze ones too. Some people would have silver ones just at the altar.  We light using oil and cotton wick.


Then of course the main sweet for this festival is a ball of sugared-puffed-rice called Pori Urundai – it is so sweet that it bruises your tongue.


On Diwali, which translates to a row of lamps, most of India celebrates with lamps except the South. The south waits a few weeks and celebrates the festival of lights in the lunar month of Karthiga on a full-moon day.

We began preparing the lamps and lighted them inside the house and outside.

While India is a singular entity for the outside world – India is hardly homogenous. We are multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-religious just within India. We have every religion that the world practices and every religious sect within Hinduism and we always took for granted that the world was different and we had to live with that. We never had a situation where everyone looked the same, spoke the same that being different was difficult.

So we have three different reasons why we celebrate Diwali and how we celebrate it is very different too. So while the North celebrates Diwali with lamps to mark the occasion of Rama returning from Lanka on a new moon night, the south doesn’t light a row of lamps for Diwali. We wait until Karthigai Deepam and then light our lamps. We do save up the firecrackers from Diwali and burst them on this day. And even Karthigai Deepam has three different reasons for celebration depending on what your religious inclinations are.

In this difference lies some similarities too – when Diwali is celebrated in the north, one of the days is ear-marked for sisters praying for their brothers. Similarly when we celebrate Karthigai Deepam a few weeks later in the south, we too have a day earmarked for brothers. We pray for our brothers and visit them and eat together. As a kid, I remember all families from my Mum’s side would congregate at my Grandpa’s house – they were two brothers and three sisters and we would pray for each other’s siblings – I didn’t have a brother – so we prayed for our cousins and secretly for our classmates too.

The other common factor of course is great food, festival specials and temples that pray for the entire nation – with the coming of cable TV, the temples broadcast these prayers to a wider audience and my mum and dad were glued to the TV set this morning to watch the prayers in a city far away.

In a modern busy life where we all are running about – perhaps it is not a bad idea to have a day earmarked for siblings – so you could get together, think of each other if you can’t be together and enjoy good food regardless.IMG_0569

Inspired by India’s Traffic

My writing is like the Indian traffic. 


It’s chaotic , it is filled with impatience, blaring horns and swerving bikes. I don’t plan much when I write just like the city planners in India. If I plan, I lose my interest to write – at least at the beginning. I have some stories mapped out fully, with outlines, chapter breakdowns and character sketches. Then I put them away because the joy of the telling was satisfied with all of the work I put into the prep. There was nothing left to tell the full story.

Perhaps my impatience is the reason I prefer writing in 12 spreads. Not because I don’t want to write longer text. I want to and love to. But I want the story to be told quickly and with little words. I imagine the pictures. I know what I am saying in the pictures and what in the text. Sometimes I wish I could draw or learnt drawing. I grew up without drawing a single picture, colouring or painting. Except for the once-in-a-childhood experience of egg-shell painting, I stuck to writing, stamp-collecting and reading. It never occurred to me that I could draw or even try learning.

Now I am learning to doodle and the children in my school visits tell me I’m not that bad. I guess it is all in the practice and of course if I start now, perhaps I could be an illustrator when I am 75.

I digress. I’ve been in India for a week now for my book-launch and related stuff. And I’ve been thinking of my writing as the traffic that moves around here. There is no lane discipline – but in many roads, there are no lane markings. Like when I write fiction – there are rules, but no formulae. I just have to figure it out as I go and if I have gotten lost in the melee, I have to find my way back.

IMG_0727I have so many new ideas since I came a week ago. I went to some beautiful old places in Delhi and Chennai, listened to sounds and breathed in smells of this place. Now what I need is a route map to convert one of the ideas into a story without getting lost. It needs patience – the patience to find my way, the patience to finish the journey even if i have to make a lot of detours and wrong turns. I need to trust my driving and not worry about the lanes. I need to make eye-contact with the characters I create and not just wait for traffic lights to tell me how to proceed. IMG_0718And of course call upon the myriad gods in bronze, wood and stone to guide me . 

Connemara_Public_Library_Chennai_18212I am heading to one of the oldest libraries in Chennai – the Connemara this week before I head back to London to find some research on the ideas I have. This trip has been inspiring in many ways – and the traffic is one of those urban miracles in India that has triggered me to draw the parallels with my writing.

Bookaroo – Day 2 – Workshops & Storytelling

Header-logo-unit-DELHI2My first session of the day was at 10:30 am and I had to get to central Delhi from Gurgaon, a neighbouring town where I  had gone that morning to meet friends from Duckbill Books and a brilliant breakfast. In spite of the numerous warnings about traffic jams, I got back in plenty of time.

At first, the Amphitheatre was empty – after all, it was Sunday 10:30 am – and I thought most people would have a lie-in, a late breakfast and perhaps some newspaper browsing. But eager readers from New Delhi came in droves just in time for the session.


The first session was IDEA BLASTER – we were going to take off into StoryWorld with things we can find around us.

With the help of the young people in the audience and some grownups who were brave enough to reply, we built three stories out of nothing but our imagination and some prompts from the world around us.


Our first story was about an eagle called Narangi – because it was orange in colour and it was stuck inside the Matti Ghar that was on the premises.


The second story involved Astro-Cat fighting with a superhero to take control of Mars.


The third story involved an Astro-Mutt and a cartoon superhero villain with gadgets.

All in all, we had super-fun.

Then I had some time to make sure I get some selfies with writers and friends I had met during Bookaroo and visiting the illustrator gallery. More on that in tomorrow’s post.

The afternoon session was a wildcard – it was about story shapes – shapesbut it was right after lunch. Would people listen? Would children fidget and want to run about?

I was scheduled to start at the Kahani Tree and there was already a big audience seated there. Then as I welcomed them, many opted to stay back, much to my joy (and relief?)

We did long stories, tall stories, never-ending stories and counting stories.As we began the story of the biggest liar, we tested the waters and found out how well the children can imagine.

lie-clipart-liesThey made up stories about themselves – being a princess, a fairy, a dragon, a superhero – even the littlest ones had a lie to tell. Then I told them the story of the biggest liar (A Tall Story).

We followed that with the never-ending story – the story about the twins Only and Again.

gola_webWe talked about stories about going home, journeys and landscapes with Where is Gola’s Home? which was a big hit with all ages – they were busy trying to spot the various characteristics of riversides, beaches, deserts and jungles.

I like counting like every other 7-year old. So I told them the story of the 11 travellers. But we didn’t just tell the story – we played it out. We had 11 eager volunteers up front who were being counted. We had a wise girl solve their counting problems.


The crowd was hungry for more – so we did another counting story with Birbal and the crows in Delhi – an apt story for a Delhi Bookaroo!

That was my last session at 2014 Bookaroo and I hope to come back again and meet more readers and budding writers.

Bookaroo – Day 1 – Launch Day

Header-logo-unit-DELHI2Bookaroo had begun. It was the 29th of November 2014. The launch of Farmer Falgu Goes to the Market was scheduled for 3 pm. I had a nice lie-in and then decided to go to the pool to write and prepare for the event.


But it was  not to be. The lovely pool manager decided that I might enjoy some blaring music at 10 am and switched on the loudspeakers. I retreated to the safety of my room which was a good thing because I decided to tell the story and practice the song.

The cleaners were on the corridor and must have been terribly confused by the noise coming out of my room with nursery rhymes and sounds from the story.

I reached Bookaroo venue quite early and met up with my editor Nithya who had come all the way from Chennai for the event. We took charge of The Stage 30 minutes before the event and started getting ready.


The crowd was building up and we started at three with a massive countdown with the support of the audience. Then we sang Farmer Falgu Had a Farm – a remastered version of the Old MacDonald had a Farm with AiyaaahyayyyaYo! Then we told the story from the first book Farmer Falgu Goes on a Trip.


Each child in the audience was given a raffle ticket and we put the tickets in a hat and pulled out a number. The lucky winner was the receiver of the first book of Farmer Falgu Goes to the Market.


After the official launch, we counted down in Hindi this time and then I told the story of the second book ending with a fantastic recipe for an omelette – we chopped, we broke eggs and we sizzled under the warmth of the winter sun in Delhi. Then we sang  a new song that I had written for the second book.


A very big crowd, a very participative audience of children and parents and a good queue for signing – what else does an author want for a launch?