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On Christmas and Cultural Majorities

I'm back in Mumbai after two-and-a-half weeks in Sri Lanka with my parents. This week was Christmas. I don't usually do anything for Christmas, but being in Mumbai and trying new things, I decided to find something fun. Christmas Eve after work I got on a south-bound train and headed for the small Christian neighbourhood of Khotachiwadi.

The train was busy. I had forgotten the crowds of Mumbai. We seemed to pass train after train heading north-bound on the tracks. Each train pulled twelve massive cars packed with people, and as I looked out the window I saw compartments designated for men, women, seniors and cancer patients, luggage compartments with vendors crammed in amongst piles of produce and packages, everybody hanging from the open train doors and rushing past my window as the light faded. The platforms were loaded with people. People everywhere, as if all 24-million people in Mumbai were trying to get somewhere.

I looked around me. Nothing in the car seemed different. You couldn't tell it was Christmas Eve - just another Mumbai rush hour. My taxi driver on the way to work had commented on the fact that tomorrow was Christmas. I said, "Yes, and tonight is Christmas Eve." He had never heard of Christmas Eve. He said that he was just a good Muslim, and he was happy when other people were happy - Christmas or not. I wondered if the Hindu women in the women's train car around me cared that it was Christmas Eve, or even knew.

I got off the train at Charni Road, and crossed the station bridge. A young girl was crouched on the ground selling reindeer headbands. She had a crumpled Santa hat perched on her head, just revealing the red velvet bindi stuck between her eyebrows, indicating that she was most likely a Hindu. So many people, all going somewhere, doing something. Each with their own beliefs and understandings and experiences and ideologies, but all together, making up the magic of Bombay.

Khotachiwadi is a small Portuguese-Catholic settlement tucked into the neighbourhood of Girgaon. It's really only a few winding lanes, but it dates back to an 18th century land deal with migrants from South India, and much of that heritage has been preserved until today. At the entrance to the neighbourhood is a shrine erected to the Virgin Mary after the inhabitants survived the plague. A nativity scene had been set up inside, the baby Jesus to be placed only at midnight, to replicate his true birth.

After Kotachiwadi I took the train north to Bandra, the first of the Western Suburbs, inhabited by wealthy Indians, foreign businessmen and their families, and the fading original Catholic community (as well as a healthy concentration of trendy Western cafes). Christmas was far more apparent in Bandra. Imposing gothic churches were hung with flashing string lights in true Indian fashion, with rows of vendors selling Jesus statues, amongst Hindu-influenced marigold arrangements and coloured candles.

The blending of cultures is something which is far more apparent to me here than it is in Canada. When I talk to people about my experiences in India, they're always surprised that Jewish women in India wear saris. Many people are quick to accuse Indian Jews of assimilation because of the integration of Indian customs and adornments into the Jewish rituals, ignoring the specific cultural tastes added by Mizrachi, Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Moroccan, and all types of Jews to their own rituals. Our cultures are amalgamations, and Diaspora Jews are a minority, true to ourselves but products of the majority cultures that surround us.

So it didn't surprise me to see statues of Mary with marigold garlands hung on her neck, just like the statues of the goddess Durga had been adorned with during Navratri. In fact, the two women looked quite similar, immortalized in marble and plastic and surrounded by worshippers alternating between praying and taking selfies. In India, Christianity is also a minority, surrounded by a Hindu majority, and incorporating bits and pieces and rituals here and there.

Growing up in Canada I was always surrounded by a majority Christian culture. Despite attending Jewish school until fifth grade, the basis of Western culture is rooted in Christianity, and when I switched to public school it became even more prevalent as my friend group shifted to include people of lots of different religious affiliations. Yet I've never felt like I couldn't share my Jewish identity with those around me. At school I always brought bits and pieces of Jewish holidays to share with my friends. But part of me felt like I needed to maintain some barriers to keep myself separate from that dominant culture. Not celebrating Christmas was a good way to do that - steering clear of the carols and candy canes and shelf-elves was a way to maintain a clear-cut Jewish identity.

But here in Mumbai, where Christmas is just one more of hundreds of festivals celebrated throughout the year by a crazy amalgamation of cultures and religions and ideologies, Christmas almost seems like a way to tie myself to another part of my identity - that of a Westernized foreigner living far away from her cultural upbringing.

I've been thinking about what it means to be part of a majority culture. Jews are really only a majority culture in Israel. I've travelled to many places with different majority cultures - Hindu majorities like India and Bali, Christian majorities, Muslim majorities like Jordan, Indonesia and parts of Israel, and recently to Sri Lanka, where the majority is Buddhist. While being part of the majority can be quite fun and definitely has its benefits, it's also important to know what it means to be a minority - to be in a position where you have to struggle sometimes for what you believe in.

Christmas Day I went to work - it's not a holiday for people working at Jewish organizations in Hindu-majority countries. After work I went to the Mahim Mela - a big outdoor carnival organized to commemorate the death of Sufi Saint Pir Makhdoom Shah Mahimi - the Patron Saint of Mahim. The Mela is a 600-year-old tradition, where half a million devotees come each year to honour Saint Mahimi, whose mausoleum is an elaborately decorated emerald green shrine five minutes from my apartment.

The road leading up the mausoleum was packed. Vendors hawking brightly spiced kebabs, teacups, dangly earings, and huge trays of vibrant orange sheera lined both sides of the street, while a row of disfigured beggars went down the middle. The mausoleum, which is flashy on a regular day, was completely covered in flashing LED lights which painted it in dazzling patterns.

The packed lanes continued as we made our way to the main fair ground, located on a vacant lot squished between the sea and a small fishing village. The fair was mayhem. It was really the most packed I've ever seen in India. More people than the train, more people than the markets in Delhi, so many people everywhere! And the rides were out in the open, not fenced off like they are in Canada, but right on the ground next to the people, so you had to be careful that an airplane ride wouldn't hit you as it circled around, or you wouldn't stumble over the edge of a children's rollercoaster track. There were so many people it was hard to even look around, we just kept slowly walking, being pulled along by the crowd.

One of the most exciting things about the fair were the people. Mahim is a fairly divided neighbourhood - East of LJ Road is predominantly Hindu with some Christians, and West of LJ Road is Muslim. The Muslim inhabitants make their way to the train station in the East down MMC Road (who names these Indian roads?), but apart from there I rarely see Muslims in the rest of Mahim. But being that the fair is dedicated to Saint Mahimi, someone honoured by both Muslims and Hindus, there were all sorts of people there. Seeing everyone together, waiting in line for the ferris wheels, buying popcorn and kulfi, melting together into one big crowd, was very special.

Dov and I took a ride on the biggest ferris wheel. While waiting in line I ate 10 rupee street popcorn, and Dov googled how many people have died on ferris wheel accidents. Apparently the largest ferris wheel accident ever happened in Delhi. We were in the third car loaded, sharing it with a local couple. The girl smiled nervously at us, and indicated that she was afraid of heights. There were no doors or safety rails on the cars, only open space between us and the crowds below. As we reached the top we could see the glittering Christmas lights of Bandra across the water, and the glow of the smaller ferris wheels below us. I read a newspaper article about the fair, where one of the Muslim vendors said that he particularly loves the Mahim Mela. He said he takes his ferris wheels to fairs all around the country, but the Mahim Mela is special because it honours the Saint, and so it brings divine blessing.

Back to Christmas Eve. After a long night I was finally back in Mahim. As I walked home from the train station, the city was quiet. Aside from the flashing lights, some set up for Christmas, some still left over from Diwali, there wasn't much movement. I passed the usual people sleeping on the sidewalk by my house, spread out amidst the day's trash and residue, unaware of Christmas Eve or Mahim Melas, but playing a role in creating the specific masala of energies which makes up this crazy city.

Shabbat Shalom!

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