I have rotated through approximately 10 roommates in the seven months I’ve been in Mumbai -- young professionals hailing everywhere from Peru to Kenya. As fates would have it, my current roster of roommates includes two fellow Americans, both of whom also work in my office. For us Americans, these past two months in particular were emotionally resonant, as friends and family in the United States celebrated the holiday season and splashed news of their festivities across various social networks. As I have learned, though, celebrations in India are a rich part of the culture, and even “foreign” holidays are honored with distinct Indian flavor.
The American “holiday season” arguably starts with Thanksgiving. For the past 22 years of my life, this holiday for me has entailed family gatherings with my aunt, uncle, and cousins in Northern Virginia – I knew it would be hard to replicate an American Thanksgiving amidst the hustle-and-bustle of Mumbai. The week of Thanksgiving got off to a good start, however, when my coworkers presented me with a gift certificate to a local department store, and a cake -- which doubled as a farewell-cake for a departing teammate. Their generosity in ensuring a memorable first “Thanksgiving away from family” emboldened me to think outside the box about my Indian Thanksgiving, and to be proactive.
Aiming for turkey-and-stuffing, my roommates and I booked a table at the most American place we could find – TGI Friday’s, located in RCity Mall in front of our apartment. Inviting another expat friend – an Indian-American originally from California – we ordered very “American” dishes, though not quite redolent of Thanksgiving – chicken quesadillas, alfredo pastas and chicken wings were the main fare of the night. My bison burger was a bit dry, although I’m not sure if that was indicative of bison meat or the restaurant quality.
Food quibbles aside, we had a fun night, and were excited to launch into Christmas season. To my surprise, Christmas in India is fairly widely-celebrated, despite the fact that Christians account for only 2 percent of the total population. By the first week of December, red-and-green tinsel and cotton snowmans adorned the office, and construction workers at RCity Mall erected a thirty-foot tall plastic tree amidst the fountains at the entrance.
On Christmas Eve, I had the chance to participate in a community Christmas play, held amidst a Christmas festival in Hiranandani – a sort of “town square” for my Ghatkopar/Vikhroli neighborhood. I played the role of a guard, hammering Jesus on the cross – certainly not a star-making performance, but enjoyable nonetheless. The festival was memorable as well, as I had the chance to meet “neighbors” and garner a genuine sense of community.
On Christmas day itself, we looped Christmas music from my iPod speaker and ate dinner at a restaurant called Out of the Blue – an up-scale lounge with an intriguing “Christmas menu,” although we ended up ordering “sizzler” plates. Thai chicken may not be a traditional yuletide meal, but I appreciated the quality nonetheless.
New Year’s Eve was spent in the company of other expats at a friend’s apartment. The traditional countdown-to-midnight ended with fireworks across the city – a memorable end to a memorable year.
The triumvirate celebrations of Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Years were surprising, fun and touching, but possibly my favorite experience these last two months has been my teammate’s wedding – or more specifically, the reception. The ceremony was Catholic, and the reception was held in a large hotel ballroom – a venue which reminded me of my own cousin’s wedding after-party several years ago, in Florida.
Walking into the ballroom, attendees were greeted with chocolate truffles and shots of wine. Right as my teammates and I arrived, the wedding band struck up a rousing rendition of “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain,” followed by an eclectic selection of pop songs – ranging from the hip-hop tracks of Flo-Rida to the latest Bollywood singles. The food was deliciously Indian – pots upon pots of biryanis, curries and breads – although with an open bar for most of the night, the dinner had a decidedly Western flavor. Dancing ranged from ballroom to more informal party moves. Needless to say, the “raise the roof” fist-pump transcends all cultures, serving as my comfortable fall-back on the dance floor.
Similar to my experience with “Western” holidays, the wedding was a fantastic mash-up of Indian and American cultures – although because America derives so directly from other cultures, it’s safe to say the event was a bit of a world fusion. Indeed, part of the reason I have grown to love India so much is because the culture is so distinct. Even in celebrating Christmas, I am sometimes hard-pressed to identify where a respective ‘tradition’ originated – global advertising and cross-culture pollination make the season quite a sociological hodge-podge . But there is no such ambiguity when I am eating a spicy masala curry, or dancing to a Bollywood song – India has an extremely defined cultural identity, and the country is masterful at tastefully incorporating other nation’s traditions and stamping their brand on diverse celebrations.
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