The last Christmas

If there was one place we’d have liked to be this Christmas, it would be in Delhi, with Bim Bissell and her family, bringing in the crisp winter morning, clasped in a Punjabi hug of a Delhi we once knew and had loved. Before we’d spent Christmas with the Bissell’s, it used to be a very different experience, growing up as we did in Juhu and attending a convent school in Bandra.

It had been carol singing and jingle bells and cotton candy Santa (who smelt of talcum powder and was always a little underfed compared to his Hallmark version); it had been Midnight Mass and plum pudding and great big shanks of Honeyed Pork, and sherry in silly glasses and a tree made of recycled plastic shreds painted moss green.

Christmas invitation by John and Bim Bissell
Christmas invitation by John and Bim Bissell

No sir, the Christmases of Mumbai and Delhi were like Dickens’ ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, as we would soon learn. In Delhi, Christmas at the Bissells, that grand ship launched in 1964 a year after Hartford born and Yale educated John Bissell married the bright, wise and slender Bimla Nanda, daughter of an aristocratic Punjabi clan.

They were respectful of tradition and legacy but not pinned down by either and they were soon to establish a way of life wholly their own. Spurred by their interests in media, public policy, economics, international diplomacy, the arts and civil society, along with John’s passion for Indian textiles and, Bim’s eye for people, ideas, handicraft, entertaining and everything else under the sun; between themselves they launched a virtual Armada of institutions, traditions and ways of doing things, key amongst them the fabulous FabIndia, one of the earliest examples of social entrepreneurship.

The Bissell Christmas Party was one amongst these. It made Delhi’s winters even more enchanting. Of course, it was nothing like we’d ever experienced in Mumbai. For one, there was the weather. Chilly enough to warrant the wearing of boots and berets, capes and caps. Or the donning of pashmina shawls-during that mini festival of one-upmanship that goes on in the margins of the city’s social static in the last season; Delhi’s best and brightest had never looked better.

Mind you, not all of those assembled on the Bissell lawn were sartorially splendorous. Lumpy cardigan clad but still very posh civil servants, swashbuckling economists, a swathe of diplomats in their Anokhi chic, colleagues of Bim’s from her stints at the US embassy and the World Bank; media stars, children from the school the family ran and their parents, ministers, muralists, master craftsmen and mandarins, they would all gather on the Bissell lawns, to the accompaniment of Rajasthani folk ballads, iterant street musicians, the braying of an invited camel or two and enough laughter and mirth and good cheer in the air to last a whole year through.

This was a very different Christmas from what we had encountered in Mumbai and we took to it. The great melding of Boston Brahmanism, Punjabi warmth, gajjar ka halwa, plum cake, the considered views of the city’s aristocrats, the robust scrum of young Delhi sparklers, early gladiators on the social stage and the odd clash of words, if the occasion arose and a very grand Left-leaning poetry spouting diplomat disagreed with a hot-headed Japanese-speaking artist from the hills.

That more or less was the Bissell party where we had spent many a Christmas morning and you can see why if there’s anywhere in the world we’d want to be this year it would be here. Especially because we hear that, for one reason or another, the Bissells have let it be known ‘This will be the last Xmas Party extravaganza.’

Mind you, not that at the way things are going, the tradition of Christmas being celebrated in Mumbai or Delhi or Goa or any other place in this country, the way it used to be, can be taken for granted. Not that there are too many Silent Nights, Holy Nights left in these sorry times either.

Taking things in her hand
“I actually thought of you when I sent you the text message because I know you love poetry,” said actress and media maven Dipika Roy about an upcoming performance of ‘Take Me In Your Hands’ by playwright Evald Flisar, Slovenia’s most renowned author and poet.

Dipika Roy and Vijay Crishna in ‘Take Me In Your Hands’
Dipika Roy and Vijay Crishna in ‘Take Me In Your Hands’

It had been invited to premiere at NCPA’s Centrestage festival last month where its creators say they were delighted with the audience’s response to what Vijay Crishna, the play’s other actor, describes as ‘a curious love story’. Incidentally, the genesis of the play being performed in India is interesting: Roy had met the Slovenian ‘quite by accident’ at a dinner party for the Mumbai Lit Fest last year.

“We got chatting without knowing either of us had any interest in theatre. He then tried to come to a play reading we did for the Lit Fest last year, but couldn’t, as it was houseful. Amazingly, he took the trouble to get my contact details through the organisers of the Lit Fest, and sent me two volumes of his plays via the Indian Consulate in Slovenia!”

“We hope, to perform ‘Take Me In Your Hands’ at the International Festival of Theatre in Slovenia next year in celebration of Evald’s 70th birthday,” she says.

Throwing Open the Fictions
“As each one of my books are literary adventures, and ambitious ones at that, and each one has garnered critical acclaim, I interconnected themes and approaches.

Priya Sarukkai Chabria
Priya Sarukkai Chabria

I spoke about how I write across the four verticals of literature: poetry, fiction, non-fiction and translation,” says writer, poet and Pune resident Priya Sarukkai Chabria about a recent talk she’d given, ‘Throw Open the Fictions’ at Pen @Prithvi last weekend.

“I was invited by Ranjit Hoskote, General Secretary of The PEN All-India Centre to speak about the creative process and my approach to literature,” she says. Pen@Prithvi is an intimate space which invites authors to speak about their processes of writing, the sparking of ideas, the adventures and challenges that lie behind each book,” says the poet, whose oeuvre includes Generation 14 (Penguin-Zubaan) and a novel

The Other Garden (Repack) And how did it go? “We had a long interactive session. As one of the participants mailed, ‘it was truly an inspiring session …often when we write we face many blocks and I found your talk clearing my mind on many levels’,” she says.

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