I wish there were short stories in English about Eid, Deepavali and Gurpurab that we could all share. One of the nicest things in the English language is the genre of Christmas stories that go straight to the mushy Indian heart because they are so simple, well written and charming. Old-fashioned ‘mummy mags’ from England like Woman’s Weekly always had a romantic serial and a short story.
The best stories were about Christmas, which seemed to inspire some very sweet and gentle ideas in writers. What I liked best was that they were set in the present and unselfconsciously celebrated the presence of God (and angels!) in our everyday lives. One such story was about the little boy who was clumsy at everything. He dropped his lunch sandwich on the dirt, got inkblots on his shirt and books, let go of the ball in every game (in Delhi we call a habitual basketball dropper a khuddah), always tripped over his shoelaces and couldn’t remember the right answer in time in class.
One Christmas Eve, he got lost in the crowd at the shopping centre and couldn’t find his Mum. Looking around miserably for her, he bumped into a group of tall, beautiful strangers who stood at the corner singing carols. One of them looked down at his face and suddenly put a sheet of music in his grubby hands. “Sing,” he said, turning back to face the crowd. Our little boy couldn’t hold a note, nor could he read sheet music. But he found himself joining in with perfect harmony, praising God in a pure, sweet voice.
The song ended, the strangers went away without another word and the boy found his mother and went home. He never sang again, but for that one perfect song which would startle tears out of the most hardboiled people.
Or take another fav-ourite, a short story by Leo Tolstoy. An old Russian shoemaker in a basement has a dream that God will make a personal visit the next day. He sets to work eagerly, looking up often at the street through his basement window. All he can see are feet going by. Every time a pair of feet falters, he rushes out, sure it’s God in disguise, looking for his shop. Instead he finds all kinds of poor, lonely and sick people. Each time, he invites them in and is nice to them, telling them importantly about his dream. He even gives away pairs of shoes. Cheered and comforted, they bless him and go their way. At nightfall, the disappointed shoemaker tells God off for failing to appear. But God thanks him in his sleep that night for the warm welcome each time He came by.
Agatha Christie couldn’t resist the Christmas story either, in fact she wrote a whole book. There’s the one about the rich and lonely old woman who can’t face another bleak Christmas when everyone else seems to be enjoying such good fellowship. She starts to listen to ordinary people whom she always took for granted, like her cleaning lady whose daughter has man trouble. She goes out on a boat ride and finds a stranger in a dark robe of some inviting weave standing at the rail. The lady can’t help sneaking a hand out to touch his sleeve. Such peace and understanding steals over her that she knows life will be better forever, because from now on she will stay connected to people.
My absolute Christmas favourite, though, is the medieval French tale about the little juggler. The town church has set up a beautiful Nativity scene within. The little juggler is desperate to offer a gift to the Christ Child. But all he has to offer is his tiny skill. He tiptoes into Church after dark when the rich merchants have gone, kneels solemnly before the candlelit crib and juggles with all his heart. A junior priest spots him and is about to scold, but the wise old Abbé sees him too and holds the priest back, for he understands what’s going on.
Don’t you think this story perfectly expresses our lovely prayer, Kayena vacha manasendriyerva/ buddhyatmanava prakrteh svabhavat/ karomi yajnyat sakalam parasmai/ narayana iti samarpayami? ‘I dedicate to God all that do with my body, speech and mind, my five senses, my natural instincts and my intelligence.’