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Thursday, February 2, 2012

It's all God: Christmas in Shekawati

This story is not mine. I'd be very happy if it were....

It was written just days ago by Julie Marsh, a former student of mine who completed her studies all the way through Indian history to a brilliant Ph D which drew many elements of Indian culture together.

She and her husband Michael Maher have been travelling in and writing about Asia, India in particular, for more than 30 years. They both know Indian culture very well, and love it dearly. 

Unlike many, they do not look at India with rose-coloured glasses, unless roses are in front of them. Their knowledge of Indian philosophies and traditions are deep, and while some Indians might protest at my saying this, they understand some aspects of Indian culture more deeply than some Indians, who now live in a globalised world with globalised values.

And so this is Christmas, 2011, celebrated in a world far away from their cottage 15 kms west of Armidale. Enjoy this extract from her diary!

It's all God: Christmas in Shekawati

Christmas in Bikaner

By chance, Michael and I had arranged to leave Bikaner on the Sunday that was Christmas Day. Each day was nameless to us by this stage, dissolving into the dust of timelessness. The sights, walking, sleep, impressions, were left in picture or sense memories which seem selected quite inexplicably. Why remember one moment more than another? I've heard that emotion prints memories, so perhaps I was feeling touched by some extra awareness just at the instant of rounding the curve in the road, bringing into sight that long, dull red line of the fort wall; the girl child with the smile. It's all dust, gritty dust, ankle deep, ground up stone of ages, some of it yellow, some almost purple, trodden by millions over millennia. You feel the oldness of the earth here, the 'used-ness'.

On the road to Nawalgarh

Pooja knew it was Christmas (and of course, I did too, thinking of everyone at home). She came to the breakfast area with a large fold out paper Christmas bell and hung it from the bookcase, then brought a small Christmas tree, put it on a tall stool, with a Santa doll, and arranged a few toy objects around it - a tiny gold paper box, some nameless humanoid creatures, an anthropomorphised crocodile, two foreign Christmas cards. It was really for her children, the little boys, who were excited and absorbed, as only children can be, by this magic.

Back of a truck, on the road to Nawalgarh

I showed them an animated sparkly card my brother had emailed me, and soon after the eldest boy began surreptitiously jiggling the stool, in order to get the tree to move the way the animation did. No use. I sang 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' instead. (yes, odd choice, I know!) The grandparents emerged to wish us Happy Christmas, the mother giving me a large hug and a fairly horrible celebratory scarf of scarlet and yellow tie dye. In return I desperately scrambled through my bag and came up with an expensive Australian hand cream (with, I admit, some unChristmaslike feeling of regret). You can see we weren't really in the spirit , more concerned with our departure and that feeling of slight concern about what the day would bring.

Typical small town, on the road to Nawalgarh

I'd imagined that by Christmas we'd be in the South where Christianity is big, and we'd go along to enjoy that enthusiasm; although they are Hindus, Pooja and Jitu were taking the family to church later in the day, as Indians do like to join in all religious days - it's all God after all, and celebrations are such fun. But our journey to Shekawati began this morning; we were going by car to avoid the interminable bus, and the driver would take us past the Catholic Church on the way out. Namastes were made to the family and Raja the German Shepherd, and we set off.

Train passing crossing while vehicles and people wait, on road to Nawalgarh

The church was on the scrubby edge of the city, and as the car stopped we foreigners were quickly and enthusiastically spotted by the lines of 'Special Day' beggars. Mothers with babies, old women, lepers, all hurried to the car and began tapping on the windows - it was hopeless, we couldn't get out, or we'd be mobbed; and there are just times when you have the energy for beggars and times when you don't. If that sounds cruel, it may be, but it remains one of those unsolvable India dilemmas. You could spend all your time, and all your money, and all your health, helping beggars and as a visitor it would make barely a drop of difference. Yet each day, I see individuals that make my heart cry. We give them bits of money, or food - but so what? It won't change their lives, though it may alleviate the hunger for one day. But abjuring the poor on Christmas Day… Weeks later, when reading comedian Russell Brand's autobiography My Booky Wook in Alleppey, I found I agreed with his awkward childhood sense that 'special' days did not necessarily feel special. Instead, 'special' comes at unexpected moments, just as happiness does. Christmas is a day designated by humans; the love advocated by the idea of Jesus is always there, an inexhaustible well. But it's still good to be reminded. In a sense, we really did visit the church that day.

Women and kids on roadside, on way to Nawalgarh

For hours then we drove through the countryside and towns of Shekawati region, north-east Rajasthan, on our way to the town of Nawalgarh, where we'd stay a few days. It was desert country, but productive, much of it cultivated and irrigated, by ground water, I imagine. It was interesting that the scrubby trees that grow so well here are in fact also a crop: the leafy branches were being harvested for winter fodder, so that most had only one 'maintenance' branch remaining. Raptors circled overhead, as they do everywhere in this country, cleaning the bones of death, and no doubt controlling rodents, too. The towns, of old stone and new cement blocks, sun bleached, blended shabbily into the wastelands of garbage, of rural thatched huts becoming submerged by the push of suburbs, edged at times by the camps of semi nomadic herders of goats or sheep. Trucks, buses, camel carts, cars and motorbikes vied for the narrow tarred road, all halting together at level crossings. Everyone seems equally entranced by the trains; there's no sense of impatience, but a companionable focus, and a frisson as the long carriages go by.

Fatehpur with haveli in background, on road to Nawalgarh

At Mandewar, we waylaid for lunch at a hotel painted up to resemble the famous havelis of this district. Bright pictures of gods, birds, Raj gentlemen, Rajas, women bearing pots or babies, flowers, covered every surface of the white marble. It becomes saturating, and after the Jain temple in Bikaner all else pales into parody. More intriguing, and enjoyable for us, was sitting on the rooftop watching the neighbourhood kids flying kites from their rooftops. For it was a Sunday after all; extended families and friends came together in this age old game. It's great the way Indians use their flat roof space as a recreation area; it's breezy there, open, while below at street level there just is no room at all. We could do the same in Australia!

Detail on the walls of a haveli in Fatehpur

 After that, a young man who acted as a tourist guide inveigled us to take a brief, unwanted tour of several nearby havelis. He distressed us by his mannerisms, clearly imbibed from young backpackers - he was cooler than cool, slick, a small town guy who wished to be far away - and who could blame him, at his age. He proudly announced he'd been drinking beer with an English girl the previous night. But it felt as if he was losing his soul: Western tourism has a lot to answer for in India. Yet I suppose it opens possibilities, too, in places otherwise on the fringe of changes that seem so desirable when seen on the movie screen.

Bishnoi huts along the road to Nawalgarh

Back on the road, and soon to the dense, busy, crumbling town of Fatehpur, where the rutted roads are almost impassable and where the havelis are the oldest of all, but to me the most beautiful. Here, the paintings are faded visions in exquisite soft colours, depicting scenes from religious stories, on falling walls fading into mould, or glimpses on the tops of shopfronts, or beyond green trees in forgotten gardens. A French woman has restored one of these havelis, though we did not find it, as we wanted to press on. Besides, there is something in me that likes the unrestored. I wish they could just be kept lightly cleaned, and not allowed to decay entirely … and if the surroundings were cleaner too, how romantic, evocative Fatehpur could be. Must once have been, when it was on the main desert trade route. But such are not the people's concerns; I guess they have the pressing matter of earning their livings, raising their children, to attend to. The old world has such value, beauty and knowledge, a loss surely that it is so disregarded, except by the few.

Haveli in Mandewa, where we stopped for lunch along the way to Nawalgarh

In early evening, we came at last to Nawalgarh, and the Shekawati Guesthouse, an oasis of calm, in this otherwise typically shabby but lively Rajasthani town. Kalpana had great foresight when she decided to develop an 'organic' farm into a haven for the newly evolving trade in haveli tourism. She and her husband Gajendra designed and built six Bishnoi style huts (round in shape, mud walls, thatch roof) with modern bathrooms, naturally, for the visitors; also several rooms were made available in their own large traditional family home. Kalpana greeted us and said “It's Christmas! I'll be serving something special for dinner.”

Cottages at Shekawati Guest House

At 7 pm, we presented ourselves at the dining room where two other tables of guests, Europeans, were gathered. We helped ourselves from tureens of vegetable curries: one of baby eggplants (brinjal), one of cauliflower, one of a type of chic pea dumpling, along with rice and chapatis, tomato salad, and to Michael's delight, a strong, delectable garlic pickle. All were subtly flavoured and different to any other Indian food I'd eaten: this made me realise that home cooking is very different to commercial fare, at least, to the type that we can normally afford as daily sustenance. Next, Rahul, the boy who helped with serving, and was quite mischievous too, ladled out sweet, luscious gulab jamuns, round balls made with milk, flour, flavoured with cardamom and swimming in sugar syrup. Yum! But this was not the 'special treat' for Christmas that Kalpana had promised. She came in personally bearing a cake, a bought cake, iced with several shades of pastel cream and some sort of piped decoration, and with great fanfare set it in the midst of the guests. Next, she set candles all around it and, with some difficulty, lit them. By now I was puzzled. Was it someone's birthday?

Shekawati Guest House owners, Kalpana and Gajendra

“How many are there?” she counted: including her family indoors and us, 12 and, we pressed her, what about the dog? Her little white dog was ecstatic about the cake. He danced about below unable to take his eyes from the treat. It MUST be his or he could not bear it!! At the next table, a young French woman stood up and said she would cut the cake. So! I thought, perhaps it is her birthday. But it wasn't; it was the birthday of Jesus, dummy! Happy Christmas: our little group of strangers, made one by sharing this singular, but caring, moment, then wandering to our huts, under the hazy stars in distant Nawalgarh.


  1. Great writing of a sensitive soul. Great pictures, too. I was intrigued by Julie's description of the young man who had imbibed mannerisms from young backpackers, "he was cooler than cool," but losing his soul. I see this often in travel through South Asia. Distressing, definitely. Best, Dipen

    1. Thank you, Dipen. I'll wait to see if Julie wants to comment. When satellite TV came to the subcontinent, I knew it was going to change everything (well, apart from many other things changing everything....)

    2. Thank you from me too, Dipen. You are always so courteous and sincere in your words.The question of 'soul loss' is the most outstanding issue for me in India (I don't know much about the rest of South Asia) as I feel it is as if they are having a huge party with no thought for tomorrow (well, isn't the whole world!) but that Asia still retains enough of its traditional ways to temper this course -if they could just realise it. And quickly.

      Julie M.

  2. Julie: passing on an exchange on Twitter:

    A terrific guest posting which comes close to the heart of India: "It's all God: Christmas in Shekawati"
    11 hours ago via web


    Debbie Green
    debbie_green19 Debbie Green
    @deniswright I love this piece Denis (& Julie) I felt immediately transported to those gritty dusty streets - had to check my feet! Thank you.
    4 hours ago

    Denis Wright @deniswright
    @debbie_green19 Debbie: I'll pass this on to Julie, thanks. Her writing comes from deep understanding (of Indian culture).
    7 minutes ago

    Debbie Green
    debbie_green19 Debbie Green
    @deniswright That was evident Denis I loved the warmth and rich images created within her writing. If Julie turns this into a book - I WILL BUY

    Friday, 3 February 2012 12:20 PM.

    1. Well you can imagine I feel very pleased that you enjoyed this, Debbie! Thanks for saying so, and to Denis for posting it - I'm still his student in life:) as well as his loving friend - how fortunate for me.



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