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The Dungdungs’ Christmas is no cakewalk

A third-generation Catholic, Dungdung lives in the servant’s quarter of a large bungalow in Nizamuddin West. And she is not baking a cake today, reports Mayank Austen Soofi.

delhi Updated: Dec 24, 2008 00:32 IST
Mayank Austen Soofi

Can Christmas be celebrated without cakes, Christmas stockings and Santa caps? Yes.

Those shaking their heads in disbelief must set up an appointment with Anima Dungdung, who hails from Jharkhand.

A third-generation Catholic, Dungdung lives in the servant’s quarter of a large bungalow in Nizamuddin West. And she is not baking a cake today. No, don’t doubt her skills. After working for 30 years in expat households, her apple pies are as light and buttery as those made in New England.

“Christmas cake is an angrez (western) thing,” said Dungdung. “Back in my village near Ranchi, no one knows how to bake a cake.” Instead, her husband, employed as a cook in the same bungalow, swears by her irsa roti, the traditional Christmassy dish of deep-fried rice flour dumplings. Her two children have a weakness for dubni roti, the equivalent of Christmas cake in Jharkhand.

But Dungdung, who cooks delicious pasta and steaks, has never made dubni for her employers. “They never asked for it,” she said. The sahebs might not have noticed that Delhi has a large population of Christians from the Chhota Nagpur plateau, which covers much of Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa and Chhattisgarh.

Christmas for Christians from this belt is not about carols but bhajans (hymns); not cakes but irsa roti; not grape wine but rice liquor; not midnight mass but meesa puja.

In the meesa puja, the bhajans are sung in regional languages like Khariya, Sadhsi and Munda. “Nobody understands English,” said Dungdung. However, popular culture is making inroads into their lives too. Cakes have gained acceptance. Dungdung gets one for the family from a bakery in Bhogal.

“But Christmas is more exciting in the village,” she said. “In Delhi, we return home after the midnight mass but there, we dance till the morning.”

The celebration reaches its climax on Christmas day when the village’s young gather, collect food from each household and go to the riverside for a picnic. “In the village, we make music with dholak, nagada and manda (folk instruments),” said Gilbert, Dungdung’s 18-year-old son, who is learning a computer programming language and is also an altar boy in the church. “But here, we dance to Christmas songs played on decks by a DJ.”

Dungdung, however, insists: “It’s not even half the fun.”

In a year marked by attacks on Christians in Orissa, Dungdung’s village has remained inviolate. “We never faced discrimination anywhere,” she said. The exception being the servant’s quarter. Dungdung’s neighbour, a Hindu domestic, often objects that they eat “anything and everything.” The squabbles have forced their master, Mr Kapur, to censure them for fighting like ‘slum dwellers.’

However, this Christmas eve, at the church of Our Lady of Help in Okhla, Dungdung plans to “pray to God to make me powerful enough to forgive my neighbour.”