City Life: Delhi - Ding dong! Time for Christmas baksheesh

ON MY FRONT door in Nizamuddin, I have just hung up a huge red and green wreath, made from dried chilli peppers, to spice up my holiday mood and to discourage a marauding monkey who has been mooching around our neighbourhood.

He won't nibble on these Christmas goodies more than once, that's for sure.

Christmas Day is a national holiday in India when all offices shut, and Christmas Eve is one of the biggest nights for middle-class families to dine out, topped only by New Year's Eve.

Many Indians look forward to a Christmas bonus and Christmas break.

While politically correct friends send me their family photos stamped, inoffensively, "Season's Greetings" and the New Agers command me by e- mail to "Make it a peaceful Winter Solstice, man", I am mired in Christmas chaos here in the Indian capital.

Cultural fusion often sparks confusion, and this year we have the Islamic holy month of Ramadan coinciding with Chanukah, Christmas and the birthday of the 10th Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh.

To complicate matters even further, more than 10,000 bridegrooms, mounted on white steeds and each preceded by a brass band and a gaggle of relatives, hit the streets last week when the astrological alignment of the stars was declared especially auspicious for weddings.

But not to worry. Celebrating is what the denizens of Delhi do best.

The colder it is outside, the hotter the entertainment gets, and the mercury here has dropped to a chilly 6C.

Festive fairy lights sparkle in the hedges, whisky drinkers warm their hands around charcoal braziers and loudspeakers crackle at maximum volume.

Shahnaz, the melancholy eunuch, is sporting imported fluorescent green eyeshadow to make a bigger impact at the wedding parties he stalks.

Because of so much winter fog, the hijra entertainer is now too hoarse to sing out blessings for cash. "What to do?" he shrugs. "My dancing is still there. And I thank Allah for this Ramadan fast. The nights come much quicker than in summer."

With two other hijras, who resemble pantomime dames on the skids, Shahnaz huddles in an open rickshaw and heads towards a wedding reception down the road.

The cloth sides of the shamiana, done up like an ersatz Taj Mahal, seem to pulse to the beat of the band.

There is no chance here to experience a truly Silent Night, with more than10 million, mostly Hindu citizens making merry in the murky dark. Delhi certainly is no place to escape the worldwide Christmas commercialism. Holly and ivy may be scarce but the backgroundmusic playing in the bazaars is usually disco Christmas carols. My doorbell chimes constantly with the arrival of sweepers, postmen and telephone linemen who demand "Christmas baksheesh" from the foreign memsahib.

Vendors arrive to hawk embroidered tablecloths, shawls or brass curios.

Vast hampers of out-of-season fruit are brought up, with wishes for my continued prosperity. Lights and tinsel glitter at the markets, punctuated by paper star lanterns fashioned with a pop-up nativity scene.

These Christmas sentiments pre-date any nostalgia for the plum cakes and plummy voices of the British Raj, and so many acquired customs make a curious mix.

Local Christians believe the Apostle Thomas rowed ashore in Madras. When the Jesuit missionary St Francis Xavier arrived in the 16th century, there already was a long-established church in India. Today, most of the Indian elite know every carol by heart after childhoods spent in English- language boarding schools run by Christian clergy. Satellite television whips up the frenzy even further.

Such enthusiasm may seem odd, given that only about 2 per cent of Indians are Christians, but the birthday of Jesus is just one more reason for a party alongside these 25 million believers.

The Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Nataraja Centre, for instance, holds an annual Bible reading, Christmas feast and gift exchange for all its members and keeps room on the eclectic altar of idols for Christian icons.

The centre believes in pluralism - the more gods the merrier. Emanuel Baksee, a Christian convert, sets up a tiny manger scene every year and never leaves out three odd figures. Mingled with the wise men and shepherds are a plastic Santa, a small rubber Mahatma Gandhi with silver glitter on his loincloth, and a miniature Indira Gandhi, like Cruella De Vil in a sari.

Sometimes, the unfamiliar symbolism goes awry. I spied an extravagant wreath of bogus pine boughs that featured an especially grisly crucifix - all done up with a red satin bow that exactly matched the colour of the blood droplets.

But whether it's a "Merry Christmas" or even a "Happy Krishna", I know every minor acquaintance in Delhi will phone me on Christmas Day to wish me well.

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