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Christmas day at The Cellar

Delhi Christmases had their own nostalgia in World War days, interspersed with the tones of ‘I’m Weeping for a White Christmas’.

RV Smith | Updated :

Whenever Christmas Day comes around one is reminded of the one spent at The Cellar several decades ago. It was located in the left-hand corner of Regal Building at what once was an ordinary restaurant, whose manager was a genial Sharmaji ~ a great friend of Sports scribes, who congregated at the place every day to discuss their assignments.

That Daniel, Ramu, Mahadevan, and Raghu later, could always be found there was well known to their News Editors and their pal Neel Batra, an ex-IAF PRO and a critic, who could write not only on food (his “Eating Out” column was a hit), but on Western and Indian music and sports too. As a matter of fact, whenever a paper found that its regular critic or reporter for a particular assignment was missing, word was sent to the Chief- Sub to contact Neel at the Press Club. “He must be sleeping there, just wake him up before he gets up and goes to The Cellar”, was the NE’s usual refrain.

Neel always dressed up for X’mas, his coat buttons undone because of his bulk. He had migrated from Quetta during Partition and never married as (after his father’s death) he was devoted to looking after the family. His loyalty and expertise were the envy of many. When the old restaurant became The Cellar and its other avatars ~ The Tavern and The Deghchi among them ~ some of the Sports fraternity found a new joint in the Coffee House at Janpath. Without Sharmaji they (unlike Neel) couldn’t really connect with The Cellar.

However, there were others who were attracted to it, among them the lady teachers from England, who came on deputation to St Thomas’ School, Mandir Marg, whose principal then (if memory serves right) was Mrs Jacob. Sam, a pipe-smoking Coorji journalist with a handlebar moustache, who was close to her, would bring the girls to The Cellar.

One X’mas 48 years ago the group included Sally and Marion. Sally was tall and big- built with an attractive face, Marion short and demure, with a freckled face which became very red when she blushed. “They are feeling homesick,” confided Sam to a friend. Sally overheard the remark and countered it by saying “Not really homesick but nostalgic about Christmas in England.”

“That’s true,” added Marion. “I miss the holly and the mistletoe, the silver bells, snowdrops and Old Father Frost.” “Not snowdrops so much as snowflakes,” said Sally. “And the drinks that made your cold bones warm again as you sat by the hearth fire”. Sam lived in Janpath Lane in a cute little house, which belonged to Balwant Gargi (a big name then in literary circles).

Just then in walked a young journalist. “Where’ve you been old chap,” said Marion, who had taken a fancy to him. “Oh, I went to the cemetery to see some Mutiny-time tombs,” he replied. “You do look morbid,” said Sally. “What a day to visit a cemetery of all places!” The youngster was one up on her. “Remember even a hard-boiled man like Thomas Hardy liked visiting the family graves on X’mas and once was surprised by a Medieval-time ghost,” was his reply. Marion caught the boy’s hand. “Really Ron, you do know quite a lot of English Literature.”

To which Sally added, “And about history too. I cannot forget the day at the Taj when I tried to outwalk, outrun and out-talk him at the Taj. But he outdid me, which left me looking silly. He cheered me up when we returned to Delhi and hosted me at the Paratha Gali. It made my insides burn but the stuff was great.” “Well, well,” said Sam. “Let’s have lunch and go to Gargi’s house. He’s left the whole place to me.”

Lunch at The Cellar was special that day, though they didn’t serve turkey, and the pudding was just delicious. The group went Dutch to pay the bill and then walked down to Janpath Lane. Wonder of wonders, Gargi’s house was decorated with holly, mistletoe and silver bells amidst fluffy “cotton snow”. There was a beautiful crib with the Baby Jesus, his parents, the angels, the good shepherds and the Wise Men in a corner.

Sam put on the music system and one heard Jingle Bells, Santa Claus is coming to town, Silent Night and the whole lot. “Feels we are back home,” said Sally. “Why didn’t they decorate The Cellar like this and entertain us with Christmas music,” added Marion. “Tut, tut,” said Sam. “We’ll go to Standard’s in the evening, dance to the tunes of the juke box and then, if you don’t like the dishes there, go to Micardo’s in front of Rivoli, for some exotic Chinese food.” Everybody clapped, except Marion, who wanted to dine at The Cellar. “I like the quaint ambience there. It reminds me of Jamaica Inn,” she said.

“Then we’ll go there again,” replied Sam. Sally and the others nodded. And sure enough that X’mas evening turned out great. The Cellar is no longer there but its memories abide. Ask Khushwant Singh’s kin, Malavika Singh, author of two delightful books on Delhi, and she’ll probably agree for she was a regular at The Cellar, where instead of wine the cheerful spirit matured, especially at Christmas.

Back home Mariam remarked, “X’mas songs bring back nostalgic memories like those of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, for who can forget Tiny Tim doomed to die young. His character is almost akin to that of Little Nell whose death made another famous writer throw the book out of the window in tears.

Delhi Christmases also had their own nostalgia in World War days, interspersed with the tones of “I’m Weeping for a White Christmas”. But Marion and Sally couldn’t have known about it. You could hear the girls singing it aloud wherever Christians lived Civil Lines, Kashmere Gate, Daryaganj, with its Old Pataudi House, Karol Bagh and Paharganj but not Connaught Circus which was sparsely inhabited. One can still picture Maggie in the mind’s eye leading a group rehearsing carols, starting with “Silent Night” and ending with “Children Come to the Manger”.

But “We Three Kings” was reserved for the Epiphany 12 days later. Not to be outdone, Hindi song singers gave vent to their own repertoire which, besides the cheerful ones also had such sorrowful numbers as “Mehroom bhaiyon par /ai raf mein jo hain/Un par nahin kage ga meharbani aur daya”. A plea for God’s mercy to the souls in purgatory. It was by an Italian priest, although some think actually a translation of a longforgotten Latin or English hymn enriched with choice Urdu words that brought out the pathos of the emotional suffering of those undergoing punishment in semihell before eternal salvation. When a Hindustani-knowing memsahib heard it she burst into tears.

One still cannot forget the slap one got from an aunt for starting off the hymn with the words, “Ghamgeen bhaiyon par”. The aunt explained that they may be sorrowful but here it was a lament of their being “mehroom” or bereft of the sight of the Lord in the fire of purification. However, joyful is the hymn “Ai bacchay log aaoo/Sab milke halo/Bethlehem ke gaushale ke andar chalo/Woh dekho khuda ka nor galib hota hai/Yesu Masih Baap aaj paida hua hai”.

It’s a translation of “Children Come to the Manger” and set to the same tune, Sam explained to the two British girls. “Then there is the rendering of “We Three Kings” (“Hum teen badshah mashriq ke Hain”). “Silent Night Holy Night” had its vernacular version in “Gadaryon ne dekha sitara adhi raat ko”) shepherds saw the star at midnight), Sam added. The two girls got to listen it on New Year’s Day at church and then planned another visit to “The Cellar” but a sudden thunderstorm held them back.

They must be still harboring memories of the exquisite joint where they had enjoyed themselves on X’mas Day 1970.