The final christmas, p.1
THE FINAL CHRISTMAS
Bem Le Hunte
A short story to accompany her bestselling novel, The Seduction of Silence
Copyright 2011 Bem Le Hunte
August 14, 1947
“Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge…At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom…
“The appointed day has come – the day appointed by destiny – and India stands forth again, after long slumber and struggle – awake, vital, free and independent. The past clings on to us still in some measure and we have to do much before we redeem the pledges we have so often taken. Yet the turning-point is past, and history begins anew for us, the history which we shall live and act and others will write about…”
Even though Tulsi Devi had turned the wireless down to no more than a light crackle, the words spoken by the nation’s new ruler amplified in that room with the sheer nobility and passion of their message. Tears landed on her sari as she tried to picture Pandit Nehru speaking to the Indian Constituent Assembly, giving hope to the millions who sat outside under an August moon and looked up to see freedom in the stars beyond.
For a moment there was no fighting. Everything in the past was history, and everything in the future was a new land, awaiting its first pioneers. The bloodshed had been forgotten. The only thing worth remembering now were the heroes who had brought the country to this moment in time. Independence.
It felt like a moment cleaved from time. The British had finally gone. Yet there was nobody there with her to share this elation. Her seven-year-old daughter was fast asleep, because she had no stamina to stay awake until midnight, and her husband was asleep early, because he had no interest. For him midnight was simply the clock ticking over with the slow certainty that the country would soon be overrun by power-hungry politicians of its own making. As the nation experienced the exhilaration of freedom, Tulsi Devi remembered that she was the wife of a Colonel who had served in the British army, and as such could not lay claim to any of India’s newfound pride.
She thought for a moment if the Colonel’s ominous predictions could be fulfilled. What would their lives be like after the British? What would the next day be like and the day after that?
Tulsi Devi had been meaning to say goodbye to Lily, the governess from her childhood, for many weeks. Photographs kept appearing in The Statesman showing the British packing up and boarding boats and trains. One week there was a photograph of an Englishwoman being carried onto a boat in a palanquin. The next week there was a photograph in The Statesman of a servant touching his English master’s feet goodbye. Was it already too late to say goodbye to Lily and Roy? The longer she left her visit to their house, the more concerned she became that she would be met with its new inhabitants.
Finally, when Tulsi Devi and the Colonel did go to say goodbye, Lily’s house was in boxes and her mind was already in England. Seeing this, the Colonel said:
“Where do you intend to spend Christmas this year, if I may ask?”
Where had he even imagined such a question? It had arrived like a bullet from a renegade soldier, catching Tulsi Devi off guard, because she knew him well enough to know what would follow.
“We have no plans this Christmas. It’s a bit difficult, because we’re all packed up to leave.”
“Well then we would be most happy to be your hosts on Christmas Day if you will allow us the honour,” he continued.
Lily agreed, seemingly delighted. “But please do not go to any trouble,” she insisted, without fully knowing the troubles that erupted in the wake of her words. “Christmas?” Tulsi Devi had said later to her husband, waving her arms around, pointing to the ornaments and paintings that had never once seen a Christmas celebrated in the Sundernagar house. “Christmas?” she repeated, as a question that could never have any answers. “What all are we going to give them for Christmas? What to celebrate? What are we going to cook?”
“Turkey,” the Colonel answered confidently. “The English like to eat turkey for Christmas. Or sometimes goose, or sometimes swan.”
“And where, if you please, are we going to find these birds? And who is going to cook them? Dhruv has never cooked meat in his life?”
“Then I will cook it,” came the Colonel’s reply. “And if I cook it, I will insist that we all eat it.”
“I will not touch it,” Tulsi Devi replied, for the first time in her life refusing one of her husband’s military-style orders.
“And you will insult your guests? You will feed them food that you would not eat yourself. For God’s sake woman, you will show some damned respect, if not for me, then for this Lily person.”
Christmas Day came closer and the Colonel visited the Officer’s Mess to try and order turkey. There was none to be found there, and so he started making inquiries through his contacts in Himachal Pradesh. Surely there was a turkey lurking somewhere, waiting for a high price before it lay its head down on the chopping block? Surely some peasant had been producing these damned creatures for the British to consume every year? He asked everyone, except, of course, Lily and Roy. Let them just come along on the day and see how he summoned the spirit of Christmas just like they did at the British Club.
The celebration of Christmas required a lot more than just a turkey. The next problem was the cutting of a Christmas tree. He would have gone north with an axe himself, except that the country was plagued with riots and civil unrest. “Wait and see,” he told Tulsi Devi, “after they’ve gone there’ll be nobody to control the rascals. They’ll give Jinnah his Pakistan and we’ll fear for our lives every time we step out of the house.”
With the land in turmoil there was nothing for it but to pay a handsome bribe – on this occasion to a bearer at the Officer’s Mess. “Take two days off work,” he told the man. “Bring me a tree with spikes down from the hills. And while you’re there, do one thing for me. Try and buy a turkey from some farmer.”
The singing of Christmas carols was another problem. Nobody knew any, not even the Colonel.
“Didn’t they teach you Christmas carols in the army?” Tulsi Devi asked.
“Do you think that the army was some kind of party?” he replied. “Who cares about singing? It’s not a child’s gathering. Let them sing some for us if they must.”
Their daughter, Rohini, was the only person who expressed an interest in learning carols. “Papa, I will arrange a choir,” she told the Colonel. “We’ll have a party and all of us will learn a carol to sing to the English people.”
So a party was organised and five seven-year-olds were taught to sing Silent Night, by a colleague of the Colonel’s who had served in a military band. “It’s just like the story of Krishna,” he told the children, whose mouths opened wide when they sang those unfamiliar words. “Just pretend you’re singing the baby Krishna to sleep.”
In spite of the difficulties, the Colonel was determined to make that Christmas his own personal farewell to the country he had served, as if the British had been his guests, and his alone, over the past two hundred years.
After plans for this farewell were in place, the Colonel decided that he would just have to relax, wait, and see how everything turned out. It’s just a party, he kept reminding himself. They have been guests of Tulsi Devi’s family for so long, they must know how we people are. When Tulsi Devi offered help, the Colonel refused, saying: “I will manage everything. Your job is to enjoy Christmas.”
Come Christmas Day, Roy, Lily and their daughter Juliet arrived punctually at noon. They had Christmas presents for everyone. Rohini was given a baby doll that drank from a bottle
“I wanted to give you something that’ll stay alive and remind you of us for many years to come,” Roy said.
“There are so many things the British have given us to remember them by,” said the Colonel, shaking hands with Roy. “Your gift is most kind and we will give it pride of place.” All the time he was wondering how he could have overseen this exchange of gifts. He felt stupid and humbled by his lack of generosity and started to think about what they might be able to produce at the last moment as a Christmas present from their side. Unable to imagine anything suitably worthy, he decided upon a simple distraction tactic. “Have you seen our Christmas tree?” he asked.
“That’s the most enterprising Christmas tree I’ve ever seen,” came Roy’s reply.
“What does enterprising mean?” Rohini asked.
“It means ‘very pretty’, Tulsi Devi quickly whispered. Even she knew that it wasn’t a real Christmas tree – more like some dying branches hacked from a fallen Himalayan pine. She’d heard her husband
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