Christmas gets me feverishly excited. I won't even bother trying to explain why, because everytime I try - even just to myself - my words come out as an untidy bunch of hokum. Ever since I can remember, though, come December, I would begin scouring the shops on my way to and from school, making a mental note of the ones among them that had the best cardboard cut-out stars and glass ornaments.
My mother would drive my sister and me to one of the tiniest and busiest gullies in all of Hyderabad, one that went by the name of General Bazaar. It was a place where at any point during the day you would rub against people, rickshaws, and buffalos, all simultaneously surging in various directions. The air smelled like polyester drenched in sweat, although every now and then, if you breathed in with intent, you could pick up a waft of bovine dung. My mother believed we were in serious danger of having our feet run over by one of the rickshaws.
I, however, looked forward to this outing, because deep within the slippery intestine that was General Bazaar was a shop that sold the nicest Christmas ornaments we had seen at the time. I like to imagine that when I stepped into the store, the little boxes of colored glass spheres threw a limpid, dappled light on my face. But this is probably not true, because the inside of the store was just as crowded as the outside.
Once we'd spent a little time in the store, the negotiations began. I would pick out twice as many ornaments as the Norfolk palm in our garden could hold, and my mother would reason with me. We would then bring them home, and slip them onto the gentle, open arms and slender fingers of our tree. There were the aforementioned glass spheres, little plastic bells and stars colored golden or silver, and always, among all these, little plastic heads of Santa, with a red felt hat and a cottonwool beard. Always. If there was ever a time when I believed Santa was real, I don't remember it. But Santa was still always there.
My family isn't Christian, they're Hindu; and I got acquainted with the athiest in myself at a very young age. I understand, in hindsight, that the reason why Christmas was so important to me, the reason why it caught on with me, is because most of the things I read and watched at the time were American. But the tradition of exchanging gifts that I insisted upon as a child is one that continues in my family to this day.
As I write this, in my sister's house in northern California, my five-year-old niece is fast asleep in her bed, having spent the day being told by my sister that if she is good, Santa will make sure to get her the football she wants. I know it's a matter of months before she snaps back at her mother about how there is no Santa, so she needn't hold off on her mischief, because she knows her parents will get her gifts anyway. But for now, she's at least pretending to buy the story, and I don't see the harm in that. I haven't decided yet what to get her. Last year it was a jigsaw puzzle. This year, proud of her newly pierced ears, she wants earrings.
And like everyone else, I continue to ask for things as well. No matter what our belief or non-belief systems may be, we all still spend our entire lives asking for things, either through publicly declared forms of worship addressing specific anthropomorphic entities, or through silent prayers that sublimate into the universe, and make us hope that if we want something badly enough, there's a chance it might happen. From asking for books, pens, and toys, I've grown to wanting books, shoes, and DVD collections. And discipline in my work. And job interviews. And the opportunity to travel. And the strength to face my life when it doesn't live up to my ideal. And, at the risk of sounding like an aspiring beauty queen, world peace. Equitable distribution of the world's resources. Equality of rights and opportunities.
If there was ever a time when I believed Santa was real, I don't remember it. But he is one hell of a concept, isn't he?