Mizo Christmas was a whirlwind of horror and hilarity and left us utterly exhausted, but with smiles on our faces.
Kyle and I spent Christmas Eve with Hope Ministries, an English-speaking church we had attended the Sunday prior. Hope Ministries is a small church that we associate with friendly people, terrifying promises of required spontaneity, and an inordinate amount of waiting. Like their Mizo-wide renowned leader, Mini, the church is enormously charismatic and evangelical. I cringed in fear as, with pride, Mini explained to us that their church is like a family, meaning they can call on each other at the last minute to preach or lead worship. In Coventry, Kyle and I attend a stiff, regimented, Baptist church, which suits our shy personalities well: we like it very, very much.
When we reached the church on that first Sunday, we were greeted by two sweet women who showed us the sofa and brought us tea. Then we waited in boredom for over an hour. Add another hour, and this is the same way our Christmas Eve started. We were due to visit a nearby orphanage to drop off some warm clothing, but our scheduled driver did not to show up. We waited, and waited, and waited some more, until another person finally stepped up, sending us on our terrifying, seatbelt-less way.
The orphanage is large. It houses about 500 children, as well as an additional 1,000 recovering addicts and people with disabilities. Throngs of children rushed up to us to shake our hands and practice their English (“Hello! What is your name?”). The compound was beautifully lit up for Christmas and was sprinkled with colourful balloons. It all looked ship-shape. Thinking back to the orphanage in West Bengal, I was impressed by the fact that these children had mattresses to sleep on. I chuckled at one section of the boys’ dorm which was occupied by six or seven little boys, completely naked in their beds with their little belly buttons sticking out. This was their punishment for wetting their beds the previous night. The place was buzzing with activity (exemplified by a huge trophy case, jammed full) and the occupants were full of smiles. The smaller children were sleeping peacefully and, while I knew it was good that they had a warm bed to sleep in, it brought tears to my eyes to know that they would never have a mom or dad. Somehow this was easier to take in West Bengal, where there were only twenty children there, and the director knew the personality of each.
The people in the mental health area (‘The Flower Garden’) were also in good spirits. A lady wearing one, long earring asked me what I got her for Christmas. When I suggested a hug, she suggested my glasses.
Later, when we were about to leave, a large group of recovering addicts came a-carolling and gave a beautiful performance in Mizo for the compound’s receptionist.
However, Kyle and I witnessed some things we found problematic. Shortly after we arrived, Kyle saw an adult man—a leader—side-punch a little girl, throwing her several feet out of the food line she was standing in. She must have been in great pain as she sulked back into the line with her head down. Later, during the tour of the Flower Garden, we saw a violent mental health patient who was chained (yes, with actual, giant, metal chains) to his bunk bed, which was enclosed in a tiny room with barred windows and a padlocked door.
We were, of course, deeply disturbed to see these things and felt entirely helpless. We have been trying to analyze the situation, starting from the philosophy of Shantaram‘s Linbaba. If you try to intervene for improvement in India, particularly as an outsider, you will inadvertently upset India’s balance and make things worse. For example, if we blow the whistle and publicize the chained man’s situation, the orphanage will likely lose funding, causing 500 children to miss their breakfast. While we see truth in this line of thought, Kyle and I don’t think the philosophy can stop there, lest it be a recipe for apathy. We think that change is also possible, but you often have to use the Indian system, changing realities from within. You have to live and suffer with those you are trying to help. For example, Kyle faced a similar situation when he lived at the orphanage in West Bengal; the kids sometimes suffered brutal, abusive corporal punishment—far beyond a simple spanking. But, having lived there and gained credibility with the leaders, Kyle was able to ask one of the worst offenders to stop. And, indeed, she did. However, if we had said something at the Aizawl orphanage that night, we would have simply embarrassed the abuser and likely caused him to lash out more as, evidently, he struggles with anger and power problems.
These are our thoughts. However, we are still processing all of this and know that generalizations are dangerous to make and there is certainly room for exceptions, particularly in India, where everything is flexible and fluid.
Christmas Eve dinner took place at John’s house. Having volunteered as the replacement driver to the orphanage, John wasn’t able to start cooking dinner until after we returned at around 8pm. And so we spent some more time waiting. We waited for two hours. By the time dinner was done, we had fully run out of conversation with those around us and had resorted to watching Hindi cartoons.
Dinner was delicious chicken biryani (a baked saffron-rice dish), served with what we thought was salad. We took nice, big portions and after one bite we realized that it was actually Bird’s Eye chilli chutney. Bird’s Eye chillies are one of the hottest chillies in the world. Afraid to offend, I swallowed that flaming ‘salad’ piece by piece, tears flowing from my eyes, my whole brain pulsating from the intensity, and my stomach filled with lava. Even the Mizos were gasping and sucking cold air through their teeth. Kyle also ate a heroic quantity and luckily managed to hide a sizeable portion underneath his pile of chicken bones. We probably should have been tipped off by the chutney’s tiny serving spoons and the big bowl of raita (yogurt with cucumber bits in it) sitting beside the chutney bowl.
After dinner, at around 10pm, we went to Coffee Nite, a huge outdoor concert put on by the Salvation Army, featuring all the Mizo stars. Christmas Eve is celebrated in the same way we would celebrate New Year’s Eve, by bringing in the next day with pomp and celebration. Thinking about our breakfast appointment at our friend Chhawna’s the next morning at 8:30am, we warily followed Mini to the VIP section in front of the hoards of people. John promptly fed us a chocolate bar.
The most notable performance was by a singer called Andrew. He must be famous because at the announcer’s mention of his name, one woman from our group got so excited that she started screaming fanatically like an enamoured teenager. Andrew descended from the top of a darkened building next to the stage in a large box, lowered by a crane. He was wearing some sort of golden armour, which excited Mini. “Just like the Greeks!” she shouted to us. The crowd went nuts. Andrew started dancing in his box, which started shaking and jiggling and looking entirely unsafe, particularly considering we are in India, the land of corner-cutting. His transition from the box to the stage was comically disastrous, as the box did not seem to entirely lower to the ground, making his exit extremely difficult. All the while, he was trying to rid himself of his gaudy costume, which he succeeded in, apart from his golden wrist-guards. The spotlight operator also seemed to get very confused at this point and was waving the spotlight all around, only occasionally managing to focus on the de-robing fiasco. Amazingly, we actually knew Andrew’s hit Mizo song as we had recently heard it on repeat in a restaurant for about forty minutes straight.
We left Coffee Nite at around 1am and, as expected, were totally exhausted on Christmas Day. Kyle and I do not plan to carry on this late-night tradition into our Christmases Future.
Chhawna made us a delicious, Christmas morning breakfast, us women donned our puans (the Mizo traditional wrap), and marched down the hill to church. Sanny, embarrassed by my ratty flats, made me wear her four-inch heels, which made me a whole foot taller than the average Mizo woman.(Christmas breakfast in Mizoram is a little different than my family’s traditional sticky cinnamon buns.)
After a drawn-out service in Mizo we shared the traditional, Christmas, post-church snack, chang ban: crushed rice cooked into a jelly-like paste, wrapped up in a banana leaf. We ate it with a lump of kurtai, sugar cane juice boiled down over a fire into fudge. (Chang ban and kurtai.)
(Kyle and I with Drs. Chhawna and Sanny and their daughter, Rempuii.)
Chhawna has a massive sweet tooth, but is also diabetic, making his temptation for sugar stronger. After explaining to us how very much he loves chang ban and kurtai, he snuck around to a table behind Sanny, where she had temporarily put down her kurtai so she could sip her tea. Chhawna popped the kurtai into his mouth and disappeared. We find this behaviour from a fifty-year-old man rather comical. Sanny just rolls her eyes, laughs, and continues to try to control his sugar intake, while Chhanwa tries to find any way he can to sneak sugar without her knowing (including pretending to innocently look at the beautiful view from their patio, all the while stuffing his face with mouthfuls of candy).
After church we returned to our place for a well-needed Christmas nap, followed by our first mug of real coffee in over a month. As a true coffee lover, it has been an uphill battle (literally, in hilly Aizawl) to get a decent cuppa. Our small victory on Christmas was a true joy. Mizo coffee is the same as in West Bengal—Nescafe instant coffee mixed into hot milk, with a couple tablespoons of sugar added. The day I found a coffee maker in an abandoned corner of Aizawl’s Millennium Centre mall, my eyes bugged out, I snatched it up, and hugged it all the way home. For weeks until then, the typical response to my inquiry for a coffee maker was, first, an index finger pointed at a water kettle and, second, the same index finger pointed towards the nearest industrial-sized Nescafe dispenser.
However, now that we have a machine, we have no beans. All the way across town there is a single, rather-dead coffee shop, The Coffee Place, which serves cappuccinos made with real espresso. They don’t make real, regular coffee, but the taste of espresso is pretty close. The problem was their tendency to play obnoxiously loud Christmas carols about snow and home, which would invariably reduce me to embarrassing, public tears. Two days before Christmas, though, we walked the hour it takes to get there, braved the carols, and I nearly dropped to my knees begging the barista for a few grounds for our machine for Christmas day. So on Christmas afternoon, we enjoyed a good, strong cup of coffee with sugar and ‘fresh’ cream, which tastes delicious but for some reason does not need to be refrigerated. (Puzzle, coffee, and gifts.)
Afterwards we exchanged gifts. We did all our shopping together on December 23rd. We walked the streets and, when we saw something for the other person, they would wait outside the shop or scurry off to buy a surprise in the meantime. It was a ton of fun. We wrapped the goodies in shiny, colourful pieces of beyond-thin wrapping paper, slapped on tags that said ‘Happy Birthday’ and ‘Best Wishes’ (the only gift tags available), and topped our gift pile with our one-foot tree. Among other gifts, I got Kyle soan papdi, a flaky, Bengali sweet; a bottle of taboo Mizo port, which tasted like gin mixed with grape juice crystals and which, after our two sips, was dumped in the toilet; and an elbow brace for his swollen ‘Researcher’s Elbow’. Kyle, among other things, gave me lots of Indian sweets; a bottle of white nail polish, which he used to give me a French manicure on my birthday on Sunday; a beautiful, new puan; a round hairbrush which, two days later, I got so wound up in my hair that it took Kyle two, painful hours to remove and left me dripping in oil, missing half the chunk of hair; and Mizo, beaded earrings. (We used my earrings as Christmas tree baubles.)
(Baking soda is a hard-to-come-by commodity around here. My face is now so exfoliated.)
(Doing laundry on my birthday in my new puan.)
(Zo port wine is terrible.)
(Kyle just dumps things in the toilet if we don’t like them. This was instant upma.)
On Christmas evening we wandered around from house to house, trying to find anyone we knew that wasn’t at church. We ended up at Judy and Mahminga’s house, puckering up at the taste of gooseberry wine, while watching Fast and the Furious. (Christmas disco lights are extremely popular in Mizoram.)
It was all topped off with precious phone calls home on Skype (pronounced “Skypee” here).
The next day, Boxing Day, is the celebratory feast day for Mizos. Everybody gets together at their church and, together, prepares a feast for that afternoon. On arriving, the sight of Christmas carnage was truly a shock for my protected, urban, Western, vegetarian-when-it’s-not-impolite eyes. An enormous, one hundred kilo hog was skewered from his bum through to his mouth and was hanging there, open-mouthed with his tongue sticking out, just outside the church entrance. Men with long, flaming sticks were charring the pig to burn its hair off, while other people were continuously scraping off the charred bits of skin. When I turned to enter the church I had to walk around an enormous, severed cow’s head, sitting in a pool of its own blood on the pavement, eyes open, with its tail draped over its forehead. The cow’s skin was laying in a heap beside its head. On the other side of the church entrance was a big, blue tarp on which a man was using all his force to hack at various cow parts using a giant machete. A group of men stood around and watched. Kyle said he saw one man pick splattered meat parts off another man’s jacket. (Chhawna, Rempuii, and I walking to the church, equipped for vegetable chopping.)
(Kyle scraping the pig.)
Typically my stomach is strong, but the sight of this gore made me uncharacteristically nauseous. My chest and throat started to warm up like I was going to “lose my parathas” and, as I made for an escape, a little kid scampered up to me and shoved a piece of cake into my hand. I held it to my mouth and nearly gagged. By this point Kyle had already taken a bite of his cake and warned me against trying it; he had deduced that it was the same cake from Christmas celebrations the day prior and that the icing had since gone rancid due to lack of refrigeration. I spent the next fifteen minutes trying to regain my composure while trying to find a way to inconspicuously dispose of the cake.
The rest of the church was busy with members working together efficiently on the various required tasks. One room was dedicated to boiling rice in massive vats, another area was for plucking chickens, a smaller room was used for dumping chopped meat into vats (which included a bowl full of organs, later to be auctioned off), one station was for tea and rotten cake service, and a huge room was for peeling and chopping vegetables, which is where Kyle and I fit in. We enjoyed the next couple of hours peeling potatoes, slicing onions, and topping-and-tailing bitter gourds. It took days for me to get the potato-coloured stains of my winter-dry hands.(Stirring meat.)
We took another afternoon nap and then returned to the church for the feast. Around the church there were at least ten serving stations. We had rice, dal, boiled pork (Chhawna swears it tastes better when the whole pig is boiled together), curried beef, boiled greens, boiled bitter gourd, boiled egg, homemade French fries, and chilli chutney (taken in reasonable quantities this time). As I was walking away with my plate full, a lady handed me a styrofoam cup full of green liquid. I assumed it was vegetable water as Sanny had served us cabbage water the day prior. But, of course, it could not be anything tame at a Mizo feast. It was intestine water. After tasting one awfully offal-y, strong, salty, bitter sip, Chhawna kindly traded me his cup of dal for my pig intestine water. We both thought we’d got the better deal.(The feast. Note the styrofoam cups of intestine water.)
Chhawna explained to me that the older generation loves to eat the organs and unusual parts, but the younger generation is losing its taste for it. This was disappointing for me to hear. Although I have a hard time eating these parts (it is simply not what I was raised eating) I think it is fantastic and smart to eat and enjoy every part of an animal, including the water in which it is boiled. This has to be an improvement on the fussy, Western way. That said, I certainly enjoyed Chhawna’s cup of dal a whole lot better.
We ate our Christmas feast with our hands, sitting on low benches, and topped it off with salty lemonade. The lemonade tasted good, but unfortunately salty drinks still remind me of Dengue Fever.(Our friend, Hosa, pouring lemonade.)
After the feast we “did roaming” and ended up at Pi Zami’s eating fruitcake while watching music videos of a clearly homosexual, middle-aged, Mizo man with bleached-blonde hair. In every video he would wear flamboyant clothing and awkwardly stand and sing in different green-screen locations, while tapping his leg with his hand, out of time. Without our saying a word, Sanny began to justify his appearance by telling us that he is actually a very good husband to a woman and is also very good at knitting. He is also now our favourite Mizo singer, next to golden-wristguard Andrew.
We escaped another Mizo church service by using Chhawna and Sanny’s convection oven to make Christmas shortbread cookies. A decent metaphor for how India works in general, our whole baking experience was drawn out and compromised by a variety of roadblocks, but the product turned out pretty good in the end. The blender didn’t work, the sugar granules were too big, we sifted flour using a pasta colander, we had no measuring cups, I got grease on my trousers, and our baking sheet was one centimetre too big to fit into the oven. But the shortbread was delicious!(Grinding sugar.)
All of this happened in three days. Needless to say, we did a lot of sleeping during the days thereafter and are about to start the cycle again, as tonight we wait, wait, wait for midnight with Hope Ministries and tomorrow we feast yet again to celebrate the new year.
To all of you, a happy new year, from Kyle and I! Kumthar chibai! (Us today, on New Year’s Eve.)
PS I am pleased to report that Kyle and I think we have eradicated my lice! Twice we have completely saturated my hair with fine, Italian olive oil and are elated that yesterday’s nit count was down to a measly three.