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Vol. XXVI No. 17, December 16-31, 2016

A Christmas in Royapuram

Suma Padmanabhan (nee Chandran), an ­alumnus of St. Kevin’s, Royapuram, and a former resident of East Madha Church Street, Madras, recalls her days in Royapuram.

Festivals and celebrations bring back memories of the days gone by, especially when you grow older. Your grown-up children have homes of their own and when they come home to join you in the festivities, you go back in time and relive fond memories. Christmas is one such occasion.

I lived in Royapuram for 16 years, on East Madha Church Street. We were one of a few non-Anglo-Indian families living on our street. We had an enchanting childhood, full of fun and laughter, adventure and secrets, ghosts and ghouls, and the simple pleasures of breaking rules and getting our bottoms paddled or put in a corner on a moda! My childhood memories of Christmas are vivid, as if it all happened yesterday, because I re-live it every year.

Christmas, for us, began when Aunty Colleen Duarte soaked the fruits in rum for the Christmas cake. Uncle Mervin and Aunty Colleen and their four children were our neighbours. We lived in a terrace house on the first floor and they lived on the ground floor. It never occurred to any of us that we practised different religions or that we did not belong to the same community. We were eight children with two sets of parents!

cecillia-pillai

As it was the custom in those days, employing “child labour” was the only way a cake got made. We had to halve the ‘cherries’, chop the orange peel, the pumpkin preserve and walnuts, and tutti-frutti. If Aunty and Sister Jeannie were a little lax in their supervision, we pinched a handful when we could. All that done and the fruits soaked, it was countdown to Christmas!

You didn’t make just one frock, it was a mini wardrobe – one for the Bandwagon, midnight Mass, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. During festivals, if Andy and Jerry (the Duarte boys) got new clothes, we got them too. Sister Jeannie took us girls for measurements to the tailor at the end of the road. It was quite an event – Sister Jeannie, the three Chandran girls and Subramani, the rickshaw wallah! We rode like we were on a carriage and our people had lined up on either side of the road. How the boys envied us!

It was usually at the tailor’s that the topic of presents was broached… We normally heard the other girls enquiring. “Whatcha getting for Christmas, child?” The three of us never knew, we gave our parents broad hints, but they had a knack for being temporarily deaf. We tried to coax it out of Valli (the maid), but no chance! We used to be threatened we wouldn’t get a present unless we were ‘good’, but only till the New Year.

We were good as gold and  Billy (Uncle Letoille’s dog) got some relief from our bullying…

He was horrid dog! I call him ‘horrid’ because every time we practised our carol singing, the wretch would yowl his head off and we got into trouble for disturbing the peace!

We were a band of about ten children who would go carolling. One boy usually dressed up as a girl with a wig and lipstick. Sister Jeannie dressed us up and we would go to all the houses on our street. Uncle Duncan always ragged us and invariably pulled down the ‘boys’ skirt so we never sang at his house but Aunty always gave us our share of yummy cake (she made lovely cakes!). We used to get money and lots to eat and we stuffed our faces and were always ill the next day and got a dreadful medicine to set our tummies right (wonder who invented that nasty pink syrup?).

We had to be right as rain on the 23rd of December when the Bandwagon came. For those of you who don’t know about the Bandwagon – it was quite a phenomenon. Santa Claus never came down the chimney in Royapuram, he came on a bullock cart, colourfully dressed girls and boys, men and women followed the cart singing and dancing on the road. A jazz band would be perched on the cart and in the middle of the gaily decorated cart stood Santa and his pile of presents. Every girl and boy waited for Santa and for his or her present waited with bated breath for Santa to call our names (a million dollar question always was: ‘Will Santa remember to give me a present?’) Our presents were simple, yet beautiful and thoughtful gifts. We lived under the illusion that Santa knew exactly what we wanted. Even as a 16-year-old, I waited for my present from Santa. I was delighted that he knew I wore a Bata size-5, and I got my Cleopatra sandals, quite the fashionista’s prize in those days.

It has been decades since we moved out of Royapuram and just as long since we’ve gone back. But to this day, Christmas to me means Santa and his Bandwagon making his way down the road and waiting for my name to be called out. Christmas is a walk down memory lane to my old Royapuram, with my aunties and uncles and friends and ­siblings, and reliving the magic of the old days. Having lived with Anglo-Indians most of my  growing up years, I learnt that life is to be lived, to be made memorable, to be loved! – (Courtesy: Anglos in the Wind.)

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