It was an immense pleasure to spend the last three weeks in your warm, humid embrace as I walked around your cobblestoned contours with my compatriots, looking for the shawarma that had so brightened my drunken youth. Not even a week has passed and I still find myself drawn in by clickbait about the delicious and definitely unhygienic food that crowds your streets. And do not even get me started on the warm air of the Arabian Sea, or the video-game like pleasure I derive from driving around your lane-less streets filled with motorcycles and Maruti Swifts.
In a short while, I shall have readjusted to life in the land of Queen Calafia with its gentle people and plentiful marijuana, pushing you to the back of my mind until I touchdown at the airport named after the old Maratha king later this year. Nevertheless, you will always be running through my head. Normally, it would be after I imbibed some of the holy herb and began craving your one-of-a-kind schezwan cheese dosa. But this time, I am thinking of you for a different reason.
This land of Queen Calafia is situated within a larger land that derives its name from Amerigo Vespucci, the Ringo of the great European navigators. Now, this land of Vespucci has always believed itself to be the greatest at everything, even at things that nobody else cares about, like baseball. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly the greatest at one thing, and that is the art of declaring war.
In my three and a half years in the land of Queen Calafia within the States of Vespucci, I have heard wondrous, frightening and deliciously absurd tales of all the wars being fought. There is a war being fought on drugs and another on terror. There was a war on socialists until one of those accursed believers became a candidate for leader of the States of Vespucci. If you go back further, you will find wars being fought against poverty, wealth, cancer, health, fast food, organic food, pharmaceutical companies, homeopaths, technology, financiers, men, parents, children, gamers, athletes and many more such things.
Amongst the various tribes of this nation, there are two major confederations that constantly bicker with each other. One of these confederations has declared war on dumping excessive carbon dioxide and other contaminants into the earth’s atmosphere. The other one has declared war on the first confederation for declaring war on dumping these pollutants into the atmosphere. The former tribe has countered back by saying that dumping excessive carbon dioxide will kill both the confederations and most of the tribes, so they should work together to win this war. The latter tribe has told the former to go fly a kite because they smell of patchouli, listen to crappy folk music and who is science anyway to tell us not to burn black gold in unironically and unnecessarily large trucks? Such is the absurdity of the land of Vespucci.
However, there is a war being waged among the denizens of this land that is so delightfully, hilariously absurd that I, at first, did not believe it to be real. Like the war on dumping carbon dioxide, it is being fought between the two aforementioned confederations, each with an extra layer of tangled alliances among the smaller tribes and another layer of indifferent tribal units munching popcorn and watching the chaos from the sides. I am speaking, of course, of the legendary War on Christmas.
You see, the land of Vespucci has long prided itself on being the greatest at religious diversity and tolerance. For centuries, it accepted and welcomed Christians of all stripes – Anglican, Lutheran, Evangelical, Puritan, Episcopal, Presbytarian, Calvinist, Orthodox and so on. Sure, they had some problems with the Catholics and Mormons, but over time this nation blossomed into a beautiful melting pot where the diverse denominations of the same faith that believed in roughly the same things could gather in peace and sing Kumbaya, knowing that no matter their differences, when winter came around they could all walk around greeting each other with the refrain “Merry Christmas.”
Of course, this couldn’t last. Over the last 80 or so years, millions of heathens invaded the land of Vespucci, bringing with them flavorful food and new holidays. The not-so-original settlers of this land suddenly had to deal with replies of “thank you, but I don’t celebrate Christmas” when passing out holiday greetings. Stores began remaining open on Dec. 25, lamps and menorahs were added to winter decorations and public and private institutions started removing talk of the birth of Jesus (Christ, not Navas) from their Christmas celebrations. Companies that were once beloved by all the residents of the land suddenly threw shade at their customers, by passing over the refrain “Merry Christmas” for things like “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings.”
Even today, this war rages on. Starbucks, that seller of pumpkin coffee, has replaced all its Christmas-themed cups with plain red ones! How dare they undermine the wonderful diversity of Christianity that is so integral to the land of Vespucci! And how dare cities rename their Christmas trees as holiday trees! And death to all those companies that refuse to properly and adequately honor our lord and savior (not the lord and savior of the Sevilla football team, that’s a different Jesus).
Such is the rhetoric of the latter confederation, fighting on the side of Christmas. The former confederation for some reason seems to both care little and care a lot about this war. They appear to care little when they – rather accurately, I might add – assert that this war is predicated on pure idiocy and that no one wants to destroy the time-honored ritual of drinking eggnog and gifting presents to children in some misplaced goal of building a religion-free society. At the same time, they appear to care a lot by being overtly mindful about what they say to the more melanistic of us in the month of December, or how they use public money to celebrate the festivals of wintertime. How, they ask, should we celebrate this festival by making sure that none of the heathens who have recently arrived feel left out? How, they ask again, do we ensure that none of our behaviors oppress minority religious beliefs? And how, they keep asking, do we avoid the awkwardness of a steely cold reply that goes along the lines of ‘my people don’t celebrate Christmas’?
It is as I stand at the sidelines of the front lines of this war, ostensibly over the appropriate manner of greeting people in the month preceding December 25th, that I realize why I miss you, Bombay, and your wonderful multiculturalism. Not to mention your Anglo-Saxon inspired Christmas cake (apparently the settlers of Vespucci don’t have any).
I have very fond memories of Christmas in Bombay, ranging from my little brother’s insistence that we get a Christmas tree when I was five or so years old, to the large, end of year Christmas assembly that we had at school, to the decorations and smell of nutmeg that lingered around our local sports club. As I grew older, school Christmas parties started getting replaced with drunken nights out and we would give presents directly to each other, instead of leaving them under trees. But the city celebrated Christmas with the same gusto as it did every year – and interestingly, with almost as much enthusiasm as Ganesh Chaturthi, Diwali, Eid and Holi.
In a city where the two biggest religions are Hinduism and Islam, and where there are significant numbers of Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Baha’is and Jews, festivals are simply a way of life. I remember fondly how my father’s Muslim employees would come wish us a “Happy Eid” every year before going to the mosque for prayers, and how my Zoroastrian friends would invite us over for a large dinner during Navroz. Not to mention schools closing during almost every major festival, the streets would be packed with revelers of all faiths during Holi and Ganesh Chaturthi, and that children of all backgrounds loved blowing up fireworks during Diwali.
Like other large cosmopolitan cities, I learned from you that being successfully multicultural doesn’t require much thinking. All that is required is a realization that festivals really are occasions to eat, drink, make merry and sing Kumbaya – and that the more this happens, the better. Presents, firecrackers, good food, and an excuse to throw colored water on each other have this amazingly universal appeal.
Being on the front lines of the War on Christmas is thus a most entertaining and simultaneously uninteresting experience, like an episode of Family Guy. I relish in laughing at the fact that the inhabitants of the land of Vespucci are not the greatest at some things, and will go to great lengths to try to make themselves the greatest at multiculturalism, despite the fact that they are going in the wrong direction in pursuit of this goal. Equally entertaining is the boiling blood of the defenders of Christmas, mindlessly equating a red coffee cup with the fall of Western Civilization. I often wonder whether or not it is worth it to just serve cake and firecrackers to everybody – but I guess that’s what the Fourth of July is for.
Now that it is January, there has been a ceasefire declared within this war – until November at least. Hopefully this year the ceasefire shall be extended, however unlikely that might seem. I personally am not too concerned – I will always have Bombay to go to.
Take care of your health. You know very well what is happening to your cousin Delhi.
With many warm regards,
*I realize that your on-again, off-again, Muslim- and Bihari-hating, vada pav-eating ex made you change your name from Bombay to something else. That’s alright; no matter how many times you change your name, we all know who you really are.
Contact Arnav Mariwala at arnavm ‘at’ stanford.edu.