8 Eminent Personalities Share Their Festive Memories

From author Anand Neelakantan to chef Kunal Kapur, eight eminent personalities share their cherished festive memories
Festivals usher in a sense of renewal
Festivals usher in a sense of renewalPhoto: Getty Images

Across most regions, it marks the beginning of a new season, the turning of time. And while it is about starting afresh, it is as much about pausing to share moments with loved ones that stay with us as memories. From Kunzes Angmo's Losar celebrations in Ladakh that remind her of how time and togetherness go hand-in-hand to Barry O'Brien's memories of Christmas in Calcutta in the 80s to chef Kunal Kapur's promise to carry on his mother's cooking traditions for Diwali, we bring you stories of cherished festive memories told by eight individuals from different walks of life and parts of India.

For representation
For representationPhoto: Getty Images

A Chef's Diwali

By Kunal Kapur (Celebrity chef and restaurateur)

Diwali holds a special place in my heart and it is when family takes centre stage in my life.

On the day of Diwali, our home would be adorned with decorations, and a lavish vegetarian feast would be the highlight. The days leading up to Diwali were equally enchanting. The whole house would come alive with the glow of diyas, with the bustling, brightly-lit markets adding to the festive fervour.

Kapur's Diwali celebrations at home
Kapur's Diwali celebrations at home

While I do enjoy non-vegetarian food, a day before Diwali and a few days after, our home transforms into a hub of vegetarian delights. My mother initiated the tradition of preparing multiple desserts at home, which I've continued through the years. It serves as a beautiful reminder of my childhood and the wonderful Diwali memories.

However, being a chef in the restaurant industry has taught me the importance of commitment and responsibility. There are times when work commitments prevent me from being home for Diwali. It's a tough decision. However, in this profession, duty often takes precedence. We coordinate schedules to ensure that chefs who can't go home during this time work extra hours, so that those who can, attend the puja or share a quick meal with their families. It's a challenging conversation to have with loved ones, but it's a part of the culinary profession, and we learn to embrace it.

Christmas in Kolkata
Christmas in Kolkata

An Anglo-Indian Christmas in Kolkata

By Barry O’Brien (Author of "The Anglo-Indians: A Portrait of a Community")

I grew up in the Calcutta of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Even people who immigrated decades ago still say nothing can beat a Calcutta Christmas. Strange that, since nothing in a "Cal Christmas" is real—not the lifeless Christmas trees, or the snow you buy from New Market. But how does that matter when the thing that matters most is very real —the spirit of Christmas.

Christmas, for me, meant a host of things. It was the Midnight Mass at Christ the King Parish in Park Circus with my parents while my two siblings and I occupied the entire row dressed exactly alike.

Christmas was also about the solemnity of the Midnight Service in Carmelite Chapel. This was after friends told us that the quaint little chapel’s service put together by the Carmelite Sisters was a life-changing experience. It is.

Our annual family outing was to buy decorations, followed by a yummy, oily lunch offset by the best tutti-frutti in the world at Karco’s—Kar and Co—indigenously and innovatively mispronounced by Anglo-Indians as Karco’s (car-coze).

O'Brien celebrating Christmas
O'Brien celebrating Christmas

We would pop in and out of the "Bado-deener-pheast" (Christmas Feast) organised by our paara (locality) friends on someone’s terrace—the same Hindu friends with whom we organised Kali Pujo earlier in the year.

We had an open house at home with people dropping in, some for wine and cake, some just to "wish and run." The "last batch" would be attacking the peas pilau and Joyce O’Brien’s (my mother) legendary chicken curry way past 4 am.

Today, Christmas is a quiet day for my wife, Denise, my mother-in-law, Helen, and me at home, when we miss her dad and my parents the most before the evening ups our spirits with family and friends. But the weeks before that, we grab every opportunity to make other people’s Christmas a little more special, like helping organise a party for 200 senior citizens.

My last few "Christmas Days" have been spent with residents of Tollygunge Homes— cool dude octogenarians and nonagenarians who know how to party like no other.

Navroz celebrations
Navroz celebrations

The Navroz Feast

By Ashdeen Z Lilaowala (Award-winning textile designer, author and curator)

Growing up, celebrating the beginning of a new year was a unique experience for me. In our Parsi community, we had the privilege of celebrating Navroz twice a year, in March and August. The March festivities were always a grand affair, filled with family gatherings and joyous moments. However, the August celebration was distinctive due to the accompanying monsoon rains.

Our Navroz traditions typically began with a visit to the fire temple, a sacred and essential part of our celebrations. Following this spiritual start to the day, we would indulge in a sumptuous lunch featuring dhandar and pulao, traditional Parsi dishes that hold a special place in my heart.

Lilaowala poses with his parents on Navroz
Lilaowala poses with his parents on Navroz

As the years have passed, I've witnessed a natural evolution in our Navroz traditions. While we used to visit our aunt's place for Navroz celebrations, my personal involvement in the festival has grown significantly. Setting up my Haft-Sin table, adorned with seven symbolic items, has become a cherished ritual. Today, I find immense joy in playing host, welcoming family and friends to my home for Navroz. It has transformed into an occasion for creating lasting memories with loved ones.


Losar: One With The Earth

By Kunzes Angmo (Researcher, chef and founder of Artisanal Alchemy)

Growing up, Losar was always about the food and people coming together for me. The preparations begin weeks before, with the women of the family cooking and baking biscuits and breads. These snacks are made to be offered to anybody who pays a visit, especially the daughter after she's married. No matter at what time somebody came over to offer their wishes, they would always be served an extensive meal during Losar.

I remember receiving my first thabzan, a ritual offering prevalent in the Leh region. Family members send a package of biscuits and breads, the ceremonial scarf, and since Losar is preceded by the butchering done for winter, it also includes a cut of the meat. This signifies an invitation from the family to the daughter to visit them for the Losar celebrations. Even though making these confections and dishes from scratch has reduced with time, I love that the essence of togetherness continues.

Angmo (centre) rejoicing winter harvest
Angmo (centre) rejoicing winter harvest

Since summers in Ladakh are busy and labour-intensive, as everybody is involved in subsistence farming to ensure enough produce for the winter, Losar is when people reconnect.

In the months before the festival, you sow, you reap, but in winter and during Losar, you enjoy the harvest of the hard work. It is when even the earth is resting. In a way, I like how Losar makes you one with the earth's rhythm and the ones you love.

Chhath festival
Chhath festival

Worshipping The Sun

By Anamika (Author and award-winning feminist poet)

My earliest memory of the Chhath festival takes me back to Muzaffarpur in Bihar, where we attended Kharna Pooja and many other rituals at Sahu Pokhar or Akhada Ghat by the river Burhi Gandak.

It used to be a grand spectacle, where all the women would dress up as local deities (gram devis). Together, they raised their gifts gathered from the embrace of Mother Earth towards the Sun.

First, they faced the setting sun, representing the elders. Then, they turned to the rising Sun, symbolising the awakening of life's finer values. In the background, a local instrument, the Pupuhi, a cross between a shehnai and a snake charmer's flute, strung magic.

Anamika performing Chhath Puja
Anamika performing Chhath Puja

A folk song etched deeply in my memory is "Runki Jhunki Beti," where, towards the end of her wish list, the expectant mother prays for a lively daughter and a learned son-in-law.

As a child, I often wondered why it wasn't the other way around. Now, I understand that being learned is easy, but staying cheerful and vivacious is a greater challenge.

My aunts meticulously performed all the rituals associated with Chhath Puja. Their rendition of the rituals felt like a leela (divine play). We joined them in preparing prasad (especially thekua), cleansing the space with milk and water, and participating in the procession of ghat-goers. I cherish these memories of joyful community life. They remind me of the interconnectedness of all things in the web of life, where the actions at one end affect the other and where man, woman, and cosmos are all intertwined.

Durga Puja
Durga Puja

Awaiting Durga Maa’s Arrival

By Samrat Banerjee (Chef and F&B entrepreneur)

When I was a child, we left our Daryaganj house and moved to South Delhi. But we brought how we celebrated Durga Puja with us.

Since, in those times, our house had an aangan, the idol was made in-house by the Pal Babus hailing from Krishnanagar.

The murty used to be kept in the garage, and I remember always trying to sneak a glimpse of it as none of us were allowed to see it before the festival officially began. Even that one stolen glimpse used to fill me with so much joy.

To date, my favourite part is the build-up to the pujo. In our barir pujo (household puja), the day of Annapurna puja, which falls a day before Ram Navami, marks the first day of activity. On that day, we reward everybody involved with the pujo–from the purohit to the dhakis to the Pal babus and everybody in between.

Banerjee performing a pujo ritual
Banerjee performing a pujo ritual

Then, on the day of the Rath, kathamo pujo takes place, where we worship the wooden structure on which the murty is made.

From that day onwards, there are specific days on which the first clay is put, Maa's face is sculpted, the first layer of paint is applied, and so on, till the day of Mahalaya, when Maa is invoked, brought into the pandal, and decorated with daaker shaaj (the silver tinsel ornaments and the clothes Maa Durga wears).

Among Bengalis, the anticipation of the pujo's arrival is more special. The excitement is so palpable that it transcends to other sensorial elements, such as the pujor gondho (the scent of Durga Puja).

While the four days of the festivities are fun, the feeling of Maa’s arrival is what I cherish the most.

Onam celebrations
Onam celebrations

When The Wrong Turns Right

By Anand Neelakantan (Author and screenwriter)

The vibrant celebration of life and the unique embrace of an Asura king, Mahabali, sets Onam apart from other Hindu festivals. While many might argue it as Vamana Jayanti, for us Malayalis, it's the return of Mahabali, the benevolent ruler unjustly banished to the netherworld.

My cherished memories intertwine with Athachamayam, a grand pageantry transforming the sleepy town of Tripunithara in the Ernakulam district of Kerala into a carnival. It heralds the ten days of Onam festivities.

I recall the competitive tableaus weaving through congested lanes, from Puranic tales to cricket and local politics. Artists remained stoic despite sweltering heat or torrential rain, as the slightest movement could cost them the prized victory.

Neelakantan with his furry friend on Onam
Neelakantan with his furry friend on Onam

One unforgettable tableau featured Ravana perched on a throne atop a rickety truck. It depicted the iconic moment from the Ramayana when Hanuman stared into Ravana's eyes in his durbar. Alas, Tripunithara's streets were not Lanka, and a pothole sent Ravana tumbling, shedding cardboard heads! Kids snatched them away, leaving Ravana bleeding but determined to win. Sunlight danced on his bald head, and he endured the crowd's laughter and jeers.

His composure shattered when Hanuman tumbled before him at the next pothole, leading to an unceremonious loss. But despite this mishap, our town honoured the team for their humour.

In today's serious world, these memories evoke a time when we revelled in humour and the lightheartedness that once defined Onam.

Bamphalar has become a particular phenomenon in Jowai
Bamphalar has become a particular phenomenon in Jowai

Together, In The Spirit Of Bamphalar

By Avner Pariat (Researcher, curator and writer)

Bamphalar has become a particular phenomenon in Jowai, around 70km from Shillong, where entire localities take the time to contribute either financially or physically to create this wonderful community feast.

The first time I took part in Bamphalar, I must have been around 26 or 27. I was used to the annual Christmas feasts in my local Presbyterian church in Shillong. But Bamphalar was different.

Avner Pariat
Avner Pariat

We would also have a huge bonfire and my memories are tied to all the singing and dancing—each locality would try to upstage the other in these events. One thing that the institution of Bamphalar has enabled is the democratic use of space.

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