Holidays revisited: Of miracles and a Christmas gone by
When wonderment, curiosity and awe still played a part in our lives.
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The custom of giving and receiving presents on Christmas traces its origins to the presents given to Jesus by the Wise Men: Frankincense, Gold and Myrrh. In the spirit of this tradition, international students studying in France, sent to the Pyrenees Mountains for Christmas holidays by International Student and Trainee Centre (CIES), were required to present a national dish from their country to 250 guests. My wife and I were the only Indian representatives and she decided to prepare le curry de pommes de terre et petits pois.
The only problem was she didn’t know how to cook.
This was 1987. I had been deputed by the Indian government for a year-long course to International Institute of Public Administration (IIAP), Paris. I had got married a few months earlier and took my wife along. CIES, the French organisation providing lodging, social and counselling services to international students, had organised a winter trip to Argeles- Gazost, a town in the Pyrenees Mountains on the border of France and Spain.
Remember there was no Google, no internet, no mobile phones, no instant messaging services. The international telephone calls from public booths were prohibitively expensive and beyond reach of the modest monthly scholarship paid by the French government to me.
But my wife conceptually knew the principles of cooking. The challenge was the huge quantity involved (each dish was a standalone main course); the low tolerance of the French for anything chilly or strong masalas; and finally, the availability of the basic ingredients.
Thanks to some Indian shops in the town of Pau, located at the foothills, condiments were no problem. The peeling of potatoes was done with the help of electric potato peeler (a gadget we were seeing for the first time) by a Mauritian of Indian origin, pining for Indian food after several months of hostel food.
Peas were tinned, hence already peeled. I helped her by getting out of her way. How she got the quantity right, the ingredients right, the timing right, was a miracle. Her dish was fourth in line after Moroccan, Mexican, and Korean offerings. The food trolley was rolled into the dining hall to Indian music, with us dancing the Bhangra in Indian attire. With much fanfare, the plates were placed before the invitees and, with fork and knife, they dug in. The dish was a great hit and my wife got a standing ovation.
There were a few casualties though – some over-sensitive stomachs which couldn’t negotiate the minor masalas. They broke out in cold sweat and gulped water after water. But overall, she kept the Indian flag flying high.
Incidentally, the dish she cooked is called ‘aloo matar curry’ in Hindi.The statue of 'Our Lady of Lourdes' at the entrance to the Grotto of Massabielle in Lourdes. (Credit: Reuters photo)
The other remembrance of the Christmas miracle is linked to the town of Lourdes – an important center of Christian pilgrimage – which was located close to Argeles- Gazost and which we had the good fortune of being taken to during the holiday trip.
This is the place where the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared before St Bernadette. The Grotto of Massabielle below the Upper Basilica, the place where the apparitions occurred, draws the faithful. Millions come to pray, kiss the rock of the Grotto and make votive offerings.
It is said that the Virgin Mary gestured to St Bernadette to dig under the rock by the Grotto. A puddle was formed, which turned into a perennial spring of clear, fresh water. Nearby are taps fed by the water from the spring. This water is said to possess miraculous powers. Believers drink it and carry it away in bottles.
We filled a plastic bottle, molded in the likeness of Mother Mary, and brought it back to Delhi after the end of the Paris course. The magical powers of the holy water were first put to the test the day our first child was born, in 1989. Desperate for a maid, we had moved heaven and earth, trying to find someone suitable, but to no avail. We then learned about a Christian institution in South Delhi which supplied trained domestic help. These were mostly tribal girls from Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. Naturally, the demand far outstripped the supply. I visited the institution for several months to plead my case, with no luck. The waiting hall was invariably packed with anxious potential employers and I was told that the minimum waiting period could extend up to a year.
Mother Mary smiled upon us a few hours before my daughter came into this world. As I left for my umpteenth visit to the institution, an inner voice told me to take the bottle from Lourdes along. Speaking with the sister in the institution’s driveway, I brought up the subject of the holy water. I expressed my fervent wish to donate some of it to the institution. The sister was dumbstruck at the offer. The miraculous water of Lourdes delivered at her doorstep? What was the catch?
There was none, I assured her, just a gesture of thanksgiving in advance. The offer was accepted.
At that very instant, in walked a couple with their maid. They told the sister that they had to leave the country immediately and had come to drop the maid back. And the maid, who had been trained to look after newborn infants, agreed to work for us. Moments later, I was rushing to the hospital with the maid in tow. The holy water had worked wonders!
The Madonna bottle, remained half-empty until 1994, when it exhibited its magical powers yet again, this time in Mumbai.
The convent school where our daughter was seeking admission had closed its lists. Heeding my inner voice again, the holy water as well as the bottle was donated to the school. And a vacancy miraculously appeared. A student’s father was being transferred, and our daughter was admitted right away.
All this was ages back when miracles and wonderment and curiosity and awe still played a part in our lives. The present-day dogma of instant gratification and cynicism would be well served by generous helpings of the good old Christmas cheer and magic delivered in wheelbarrows by Santa himself!