Winter Holiday Tablescape – Nanda Munshi

It is the most wonderful time of the year. Our lives will soon be filled with the joy of our daughters coming home, bringing vitality, energy, well being, and setting everything in balance. The piano idle for months will sing out, the empty but tidy rooms and open spaces will soon burst with clutter, snacks in storage cupboards will mysteriously disappear, favorite hot chocolate mugs will come in handy. Mother’s cooking laced with secret Indian spices will be devoured sumptuously. Seasons Greetings to all!

13UP-14DWN

13Up-14Dwn in Indian Railways is the Upper India Express that ran between Sealdah station in Kolkata and New Delhi. The overnight journey to Sahibganj from Kolkata took nine hours. The train departed at 8:55 pm. I have an intimate relationship with the 13Up-14Dwn. At thirteen my life started spiraling down, but then at fourteen things began to look up.

My very first ride on the train was January 13, 1960, two days after my brother, Sujat’s birthday January 11. I was five and a half, Sujat had just turned seven. We were the two youngest recruits to St. Xavier’s School Sahibganj boarding school. My mother prepared her darling boys for life in a boarding school in just under thirty days. Between December 15 and January 13 our lives were completely transformed. Mother and Father worked lovingly and diligently to help us become skilled at living independently as boarding school students. Suddenly two dear Bengali boys could dress themselves, knot their own ties, not clip-on, tie and untie shoes, wash and hang their under garments, etc. But especially turnover quilts and dress them up with their covers. The different steps need elaboration. We stood up on our beds, swished the quilts up and down to spread the warm cotton fillings evenly. Spread the entire length out on the bed. Laid the quilt cover on top. Slipped our hands through the front slits until we reached the furthest opposite corners. Then pulled our arms back out through the entire length of the cover, so the cover became reversed, turned inside-out.  With our hands still inside the cover, grabbed the corners of the quilt, stood up again on the bed and let the cover with quilt inside drop to the floor. Finally, with further careful swishing the quilt and cover were both ready. Night time temperatures in Sahibganj can drop to nine degrees Celsius. Sujat had been going to full day school for almost two years. Sujat’s first school was a fifteen minute ride by rickshaw from our home in Uttarpara to the next town Makhla.  Our loyal and long time rickshaw driver and family man-servant Ramji drove us there. Yes, both of us. That is, I went for the ride. Too young to go to school. Probably true for Sahibganj too. But when Fr. Ghirlando, Principal, asked me in his broken Bengali, if I was going to cry at school in Sahibganj, I had bravely said no, with a lot of head shaking in the likelihood he did not fully understand my response in Bengali. I had tears in my eye only at the thought of my brother going away to boarding school. So started the rush to get us all ready to go to Sahibganj for that year and the next thirteen or so.

Sahibganj is a scenic town in Jharkand, India. In 1960 Sahibganj was a very important railway junction, especially for Bengalis from Kolkata travelling for “change” to the hill stations of Darjeeling and Kalimpong, escaping the sultry, muggy and oppressive heat of long city summers. The Jesuits who built a new boarding school in Sahibganj knew the location would attract many families from Kolkata who were already sending their children to boarding schools in Kalimpong and Darjeeling in Bengal and Ranchi and Hazaribag in Bihar.  In January of 1960 there were six boarders all from Kolkata and by the time school let out for the summer break the number had climbed to fifty four. On January 14, when the Upper India Express pulled in to the Sahibganj junction it was 4:00 am of a very cold winter morning.