As the winter session of Parliament concluded in December, friends in Delhi asked me where I was headed for the Christmas and New Year break. "I'm headed home, as always," I said in reply, usually to the questioner's amusement. In all my years, I've been away from Kolkata only once in the final week of December - in 2007, when I was in New York. Otherwise it's Kolkata, or "Cal" (for Calcutta) as old-timers call it.
Kolkata is THE place to ring in the New Year. Here are my 16 reasons for ushering in 2016 in the city I was born in and so love and cherish:
1. The Christmas Festival on Park Street: Park Street was the social and Christmas capital of the country till the 1960s. The Naxalite years and the economic decline under the Communists killed its vibrancy. In the past five years, we have tried to bring it back with a Christmas Festival that begins a week before Christmas and ends a week into January. These three weeks see the street at its most magical. The themed lighting matches anything on Oxford Street, Orchard Road or Manhattan, believe me. The community food stalls - Bengali, Punjabi, Goan, Anglo-Indian, you name it - offer a delectable array that tells you how rich and diverse our city, and our country, are. Every evening there's a music concert at the Allen Gardens on Park Street. For three weeks, this is Festivity Central. The Puja after the Pujas, if I may.
2. The Kolkata winter: Short and crisp, just right to bring out your woollies and smart jackets but not enough to send you into a freezing and foggy zone. Climate change has made the winters even milder. This is good for the body, but I'm not sure what it means for the environment. Also, the Tibetan sweater sellers of my childhood hardly come anymore.
3. Midnight Mass: There's a range to choose from, depending on your taste. On Christmas Eve, I oscillate between the big ceremonial service at St Paul's Cathedral and the private and small Mass at the Carmelite Chapel. This balances the Catholic and Protestant legacies of my family. Incidentally, Mamata Banerjee goes to St Paul's every year. In the 1970s, at the height of the Naxalite lawlessness, churches were asked to conclude "Midnight Mass" by 10.00 pm. All that is behind us now.
4. Boxing Day and New Year's Day Races: December 26 and January 1 are the highlight of the season at the Royal Calcutta Turf Club, easily the most picturesque racecourse in India (though the horses in Bangalore and Mumbai are better). It's a social occasion. Fashionable ladies and burra sahibs who often don't know a horse from a mule turn up just to be seen. This year I missed my friend Deepak Khaitan, tea baron and patron of Kolkata's equestrian culture, who passed away a few months ago.
5. Christmas cakes from Nahoum's and, my favourite, a little outlet called Saldhana's - the copycat cakes made by other shops don't even compare. As I write it, I realize the Nahoum family wants to sell and move on. The Saldhanas are carrying on. The daughter of the family has quit a banking job to take over the family concern.
6. Club culture: From Tollygunge Club to Bengal Club to Calcutta Club, there are a variety of parties on the 24th and the 31st. Only one club has a proper Christmas dinner event for members and their families on December 25 - the Dalhousie Institute (DI), where you usually see my parents and their brood.
7. Decorations at New Market: Christmas decorations are sold in the center of New Market, an iconic Kolkata building. In days gone by, this used to be the preserve of the city's Chinese community. Now there's a Chinese flavour all right, but it's usually shiny imports from China.
8. Old Folks' Parties: There are many Old People's Homes in the city, some run by Christian institutions but with residents from all communities. Festive lunches and celebrations - even a beauty contest for the 75 plus! - are a tradition. There's lots to eat, good music and stars like Usha Uthup have been known to turn up and sing.
9. Bow Barracks street party: This is the Anglo-Indian para (neighbourhood) and has become known for an earthy feel to the Christmas culture. In the final week of the year, there's a music concert every day, the street party extending till 2.00 am. It's a tourist attraction now and a must - visit.
10. School reunions: Every school and every milestone batch (20 years ago, 10 years ago ...) has a reunion. The best organised are the old boys and girls from La Martiniere. Oh well, as we Xaverians knew all along those Martinians always had a business acumen.
11. Christmas Day lunch: There's a toffee-nosed set that goes to the clubs and the big hotels for Christmas lunch. I go to my parents' home. Christmas means an open house for a Christian family, with lunch being served till 4.00 pm. In 2016, I plan to replicate that tradition in Delhi. Let's see if Dilliwallahs turn up (note from the editor - we will, try us!).
12. Going to the Zoo, or the Victoria Memorial: The lungs of the city - the Zoo, the Victoria Memorial Gardens, the New Eco Park, Nicco Park, this is where hundreds and thousands of families, some from nearby districts, and laughing children come for an outing and a picnic. It reminds me of the simpler days of my boyhood.
13. Cricket at CC&FC: The Calcutta Cricket and Football Club is one of the oldest cricket clubs in the world and to my mind has a better turf than the Eden Gardens. I'm in the C team (for above 45s). Every Saturday morning, there's a game. If you miss it, you can go to the Maidan for one of maybe a hundred simultaneous matches, with your third man standing next to somebody else's third slip. This year a combination of Parliament, politics and a little tweak in the right knee have kept me from the pitch, alas.
14. Nolen Gurer Sandesh: Available only in the winter, and the one sweetmeat that can give Christmas cakes a run for their money. Confession: I prefer Nolen Gurer Sandesh.
15. Polo: I've never seen a polo match but the army organizes tournaments at the Pat Williamson Ground that friends who are affcionados swear by. One of the things I need to do...
16. Pedestrian-only Park Street: The highlight of the Christmas Festival is getting cars off Park Street (officially, Mother Teresa Sarani). On the Sunday before Christmas, there's a four-hour parade, led by schoolchildren. On Christmas Day itself, Park Street is out of bounds for cars for most of the day - from 2.00 pm to 10.00 pm. This year, according to police estimates, 600,000 pedestrians and holidaymakers showed up in that short, eight-hour period.
As you can see, the final week or fortnight of December and the early days of January are all-consuming in Kolkata. How big is the city's Christmas-New Year economy? Any economists willing to do a survey?
Have a great 2016!
(Derek O'Brien is leader, Parliamentary party Trinamool Congress (RS), and Chief National spokesperson of the party)
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