All in the Details: ‘Ponytail Gopi’ and His Annual Party at the Kodai Club Badminton Court
As far as Christmases go in Kodaikanal the only one of note was the party organised by Gopi. Ponytail Gopi as he was known, was a charismatic chap; a chef in his own right and someone with a flair for the elaborate. His party at the Badminton Court was quite an extraordinary effort and thoroughly enjoyable. It was a sit-down affair. Dixie Prince and I were in charge of just one thing: Serviettes! Not knowing what to do, we went to Margaret Sekhran and she lent us a book.
Well, the serviettes had to be starched, to begin with. Then the book proceeded to illustrate how they were to be folded. These operations varied with the nature of the artist’s intentions: from producing a peeled banana, there were detailed descriptions on how to make a swan. There were drawings, with complete instructions, of cut and sculpted pineapples and some floral stuff, that resembled pansies, were on offer too.
It was great fun. My clumsy fingers were all over the place but Dixie sweetly helped out and we soon got a respectable table going, full of different servette designs. Very fashionable indeed!
Dinner was served in stages; the food, drink and ambience nothing short of par excellence. I forget what the dessert was but it was undoubtedly something exotic. That was by far and away the best Christmas dinner I have had in Kodaikanal. There were one or two at the golf club but those were more spirited affairs and I doubt anybody remembers the food. Personally, I don’t think there was any…
Otherwise, it was either lunch or dinner in people’s houses and one extravaganza on my estate in Pethuparai. That ended quite wildly at Peggy Rustomji’s place, where her son, Reshad, had insisted we end Christmas day. There were no bison to contend with then and the few elephants that made occasional forays in the area prudently left us alone.
Despite all the derring-do of Santa’s past, the one I remember best is my first memory of Christmas.
Brandy, Pachyderms and a Pile of Dung: Santa at the Annamalai Club
It was the day of the annual Christmas party in Valparai. Dr Benjamin was slated to be Santa Claus. The president of the Annamalai Club, GP Reddy, was elated; Dr Benjamin, a well-rounded gentleman, would make the perfect Father Christmas. It was a beautiful evening and planters were playing tennis and golf under a sky that heralded the end of the monsoon.
At the last instant, however, Dr Benjamin called the president to say he couldn’t take on the main role as he had a stomach ache. Playing Santa in front of forty or so kids of assorted ages is a daunting task. Who would volunteer to be Santa at the last minute? The beleaguered president rushed around in a frenzy. As further inducement, a bottle of brandy was offered. Still, there didn’t seem to be any candidates.
Finally, he induced one of the golfers, in the last throes of a bad round, to quit the game. The brandy was sufficient temptation, and, with the help of two fellow golfers, the new Santa demolished the bottle. Santa, who was Aban Sethna’s cousin, was dressed and ready–traditional red robes, white whiskers flowing down to the chest and coming to rest over a large pillow strapped under the garment–when Santa began to raise a request.
‘I didn’t get my full share of the brandy,’ stated the worthy, saying that he wasn’t going to be Santa under these circumstances.
The flabbergasted president, who incidentally was the doppelganger of Omar Sharif, protested loudly—but as the would-be Santa had started disrobing, he immediately sent for another bottle of the much-desired amber fluid.
Fully sated, Santa left the changing room at last, making his way across the cricket pitch with his friends. A slanting sun silhouetted a large object looming on the mud road to the Masonic Lodge. A horrified Santa found himself suddenly confronted by a huge elephant. Moreover, it had a chair strapped to its back!
By then a crowd from Valparai town had assembled around the elephant: kids gesticulated and squealed in delight, while a slender mahout tried to keep them at bay with a series of yells and threatening gestures.
Realising that Santa was never going to mount the pachyderm on his own steam, the villagers got together. Lifting the flummoxed Santa, they pushed him onto the chair atop the elephant. Nobody knows whose fault it was, but the chair hadn’t been fastened properly and flipped over to the other side, taking Santa with it.
Lying sprawled on his belly, rocking on the pillow stuffed under his belt, Santa couldn’t even utter a curse. The wind blown from his sails, he was hoisted, once again, atop the towering beast.
They had miscalculated yet again. Santa found himself astride the coarse hair that sticks out from an elephant’s back. It was like riding a porcupine! Before he could protest, the elephant began its interminable journey (all of 500 yards) to the club house above.
But the surfeit of alcohol had finally kicked in. A weary and battered Santa put his elbows on the backrest of the chair, and fell asleep to the swaying gait of the elephant. , insisting that he wouldn’t get off the elephant at the entrance of the club. There was pandemonium as the elephant entered the club and, annoyed at the treatment being meted out, discharged a voluminous quantity of steaming dung.
The kids insisted this was the best Christmas ever and, after the presents were distributed, Santa was the life of the party!
A few years later, in the coffee belt of South Coorg, the same Santa, now acknowledged as Saint Nick himself, was called to perform above and beyond the call of duty. There was no elephant this time and the committee of Coorg ladies and gentlemen decided that Santa would make his appearance on roller skates. Well, I suppose everyone is entitled to surmise how that ended!
Postscript – The author was the Santa at the Annamallai Club. Aban is his father’s sister’s daughter.
A Quiet Christmas
Circa 1949, Darjeeling
By the time the bells of St. Andrews struck four times, it was dark. There weren’t too many people in the town square, making it look even bigger than usual. It was bitterly cold too. Overcoats, scarves, gloves and felt hats made it difficult to recognise anyone: they looked huge in the pullovers and cardigans used as extra padding.
St Andrews overlooked Victoria Park, which is now a large building for political use. On the other side it towers over The Gymkhana Club which, in turn, overlooks the Government House, used by the Governor of Bengal during the summer months. The Capitol Theatre and St. Andrews church, at opposite ends of the town, are iconic buildings, recognised by anyone who has visited Darjeeling.
I was very young at the time but the Planters, who were mostly British then, were the dominant socialites. The Planter’s Club was the place to be for social recognition and, the Gymkhana Club, for the Queen’s birthday dance.
Of course, the Gymkhana Club did more than host the Queens dinner and dance party. It had tennis courts and a skating rink the size of two tennis courts. The wooden flooring was Burma Teak and made for a wonderful surface for roller skates to glide over. It was the destination for the hoi polloi. The skating rink housed a bandstand where waltzes, tangoes and foxtrots were played and skaters would circle the floor in tune to the music. Those days Georgie Banks (Louis Bank’s father) would switch between the clarinet and the trumpet even as old man Coutinho sawed away at the violin. The drums were the domain of Mr. Wilson.
I still remember Edgar Cleaver playing the accordion through the early and mid-nineteen fifties.
My mother never spent Christmas in Kodai. It was too quiet for her! She was the life and soul of parties at home in Darjeeling and later at the Coonoor Club, playing the piano, singing, and dancing… she was an excellent dancer.
Tonight, there was no discernible breeze. Yet the cold, coming off the mountain range, chilled one to the marrow. Some folks were busy scratching their noses, fingers, and other assorted extremities in an attempt to ward off the bane of winter; literally doing St. Vitus’ dance to get temporary relief from itchy Chilblains!
Every alternate year the skies chose to remain overcast. It wasn’t as bitterly cold then, under an overcast sky but, as it turned completely dark, snow started falling. It was never very heavy. Tiny flakes floated down, each with its own distinctive design, until a sudden flurry turned everything pristine white.
Crunching through the white carpet, holding my mother’s hand, I was excited. Muriel Ray had invited us for Christmas dinner and my mother was on a last-minute mission to buy presents. Some shops were open and Habib Mallik, on Chowrasta square, was the destination.
It was warm inside. Fur coats and an assortment of warm garments, hanging from the ceiling, left a musty smell within the confines. Trinkets from Tibet were displayed on large tables and collapsible walnut tables, carved intricately, from Kashmir took pride of place. There were thick Tibetan carpets covering the walls, with a multitude of designs and there was even a hookah in a far corner. I think it was for sale.
With an experienced eye, my mother took in all the wares on offer. I wasn’t aware of what she finally settled on because a large foldable knife had caught my attention. With all the curiosity of a four-year-old, I stared at this wonderful invention, wondering what marvellous things I could do with it. Before I could ask her to buy it for me, she had finished her purchases and dragged me out of the shop.
The disappointment was soon forgotten. Snow was still falling and, in the silence, faint Christmas Carrols came from a rag-tag bunch of school children. A girl in front carried a hurricane lantern and six or seven behind joined her to sing “Ave Maria” softly into the night. There was nothing rag-tag about their singing; it sounded as though the angels were amongst us.
We passed other groups on our way home. In the dark, trampling over a carpet of snow, the enchantment of hearing “Silent Night” was certainly the nearest thing to heaven I had ever experienced… and my mother opened her lips, her beautiful voice floating over the whitened earth… and I thought I was in heaven.
At the entrance to our doorway another group awaited our arrival. As soon as they saw us they burst out with ‘Happy Birthday’. I clutched my mother’s hand tighter. She was twenty-eight years old that Christmas day. To me, she was very old and I was afraid I wouldn’t have her with me much longer. Intuitively, my mother turned to me and told me to hurry and get ready for the evening party.
The nightmare of mortality wiped away, we arrived at the huge hacienda that housed Muriel and her daughter Jennifer. The extensive lawn had turned white, and the tiny pond in the centre, frozen solid. In the years to follow that Christmas of 1949, I was to become familiar with the hacienda. After the Ray’s left, it housed the Plant family from Burma, before being converted into a communist commune!
The sitting room was large and there was a roaring fire, which did more to light up the room than the dim electric bulbs overhead. There was an entire goose, still steaming, on the table and a white swan hanging from the rafters. It was enough to give me goosebumps. Turning to my father, I pointed to it and he said it was a ‘khoya bag’, which didn’t make any sense to me at the time.
After the goose was carved, the stuffing attacked and all the crackling chewed, aunt Muriel pulled a cord from under the overhead swan. As the belly ripped, confetti drizzled all over the dining table. There was an occasional thud and my parents reached out to discover what surprise they held. I got into the act and quickly discovered a tiny car. It was a model of a Hillman Minx.
It had two doors which opened. Inside there were seats, a steering wheel and a dashboard. Dad looked at it and told me it was an expensive Dinky Toy. I treasured it for many years. I was drowsy by then and fell asleep. I don’t remember how I got home but was told later that dad had carried me back.
My dreams of delicious marzipan, English toffees and Dundee bread were interrupted when I remembered Jenny kissing me and wishing me a Merry Christmas. I awoke rubbing my cheek. After all, which four-year-old wants to be kissed, Christmas or no Christmas!
She had also added, “this is specially for your mother’s birthday.” My mother was a Christmas baby and this was the first of many, many Christmas memories I have. It was a very special one indeed.
Afterword: On the first of October 2021 my mother passed away. She would have been one hundred years this coming Christmas day. I’m sure she would not have us mourn and celebrate instead the wonder of Christmas. Merry Christmas to all… and a very happy birthday in heaven mum!