Christmas in India
Dim dawn behind the tamarisks – the sky is saffron yellow –
As the women in the village grind the corn,
And the parrots seek the river-side, each calling to his fellow
That the Day, the staring Eastern Day, is born.
O the white dust on the highway! O the stenches in the byway!
O the clammy fog that hovers over earth!
And at Home they're making merry 'neath the white and scarlet berry –
What part have India's exiles in their mirth?
Full day behind the tamarisks – the sky is blue and staring –
As the cattle crawl afield beneath the yoke,
And they bear One o'er the field-path, who is past all hope or caring,
To the ghat below the curling wreaths of smoke.
Call on Rama, going slowly, as ye bear a brother lowly –
Call on Rama – he may hear, perhaps, your voice!
With our hymn-books and our psalters we appeal to other altars,
And to-day we bid "good Christian men rejoice!"
High noon behind the tamarisks – the sun is hot above us –
As at Home the Christmas Day is breaking wan.
They will drink our healths at dinner – those who tell us how they love us –
And forget us till another year be gone!
O the toil that knows no breaking! O the heimweh, ceaseless, aching!
O the black dividing Sea and alien Plain!
Youth was cheap – wherefore we sold it. Gold was good – we hoped to hold it.
And to-day we know the fullness of our gain!
Grey dusk behind the tamarisks – the parrots fly together –
As the Sun is sinking slowly over Home;
And his last ray seems to mock us shackled in a lifelong tether
That drags us back, howe'er so far we roam.
Hard her service, poor her payment – she is ancient, tattered raiment –
India, the grim Stepmother of our kind.
If a year of life be lent her, if her temple's shrine we enter,
The door is shut – we may not look behind.
Black night behind the tamarisks – the owls begin their chorus –
As the conches from the temple scream and bray.
With the fruitless years behind us and the hopeless years before us,
Let us honour, O my brothers, Christmas Day!
Call a truce, then, to our labours – let us feast with friends and neighbours,
And be merry as the custom of our caste;
For, if "faint and forced the laughter," and if sadness follows after,
We are richer by one mocking Christmas past.
This biting, wistful dramatic monologue takes us through an entire Christmas day – dim dawn / full day / high noon / grey dusk / black night – as seen behind the very un-English tamarisk trees. The regularity of each stanza's opening line not only provides a sort of guidepost and refrain through the poem; it perhaps also reflects the monotony and the slow pace of time in the life of the speaker, a disillusioned minor functionary of the British Raj, an Englishman self-exiled in India, thinking of home on Christmas day.
Yet he takes an acerbic view of home, and Christmas barely registers apart from his complicated views of home and India. It certainly doesn't seem to have any religious significance for him; what is born on this day is not baby Jesus but the staring Eastern Day, and the wreathes are not of pine but of smoke, above the ghat. (According to Hobson-Jobson by Henry Yule and A C Burnell, which is described on the cover of the Oxford World's Classics edition as "the Definitive Glossary of British India", the first meaning of ghat or ghaut is a "landing place; a path of descent to a river; the place of a ferry &c. Also a quay or the like.") The major event of the day is not a birth at all, but a funeral. His attitude to the funeral rituals is not unsympathetic; he refers to the dead man, feelingly, as one past all hope or caring, and he calls him a brother, though perhaps he means of the other Indians rather than of himself – his phrasing is ambiguous. Though he will later refer sarcastically to the screaming and braying of the temple's conches (presumably the shells are used as trumpets), he suggests – ironically, perhaps? with perhaps a touch of sincerity? – that Rama might hear the calls from the Hindu procession. (Rama is an avatar of the god Vishnu.) The repetition of Call on Rama may suggest that he's finding the cries a bit monotonous (he seems to find much of his life monotonous).
He's aware of Hindu rituals, and not dismissive of them, but he is also aware that they are alien to him. Religion here seems mostly a national marker, rather than a theology or an approach to life. Christmas is the day on which he and his compatriots bid "good Christian men rejoice" , but the rejoicing seems more social than anything else. The phrase in quote marks comes from John Mason Neale's mid-Victorian translation of the old carol, part German and part Latin, In dulci jubilo. Germany, in the person of Victoria's husband Prince Albert, had quite an influence on the English celebration of Christmas; perhaps this explains in some way the speaker's odd use of a German word, heimweh (homesickness). The sudden appearance of this non-English word increases the sense of dislocation. What does it tell us about the speaker? We know he's not quite at home even when he is at home, taking a cynical or perhaps just realistic view of the indifference of those he left behind. They are making merry; he immediately asks what part he – one of India's exiles (self-chosen as that exile most likely was) – has in their mirth. In England the late December day is wan, contrasted to the insistent, staring blue of the Indian sky. He doesn't specify whom he left behind – parents? siblings? a wife and children? – but the Christmas feast brings a momentary, perhaps misleadingly sentimental, connection, when those who tell us how they love us will drink a health to those distant in the colonies, before (the speaker immediately adds) they forget them again, until next Christmas.
Why is he in India? It was the place to go for ambitious, restless young men who couldn't find their way in England (regardless, of course, of whether the Indians wanted them there or not). Just as it's in the cultural air these days that high finance or tech are the places to be for advancement and riches, so were the British colonies then (think of the end of David Copperfield, and the number of characters whose dilemmas are solved by shipping them off to Australia). Only, of course, just as in finance or tech these days, the riches and advancement are for the few, and drudgery and difficulty are the lot of most others. The speaker here analyzes his motives: being young, he did not realize how precious youth is; he traveled to India for gains that he obviously has not seen. And to-day we know the fullness of our gain, he notes ironically: that is, to be isolated in a foreign land, not really belonging there, but not really a part of the land he left, either. Perhaps this self-knowledge is gain enough, in some ways. And [the sun's] last ray seems to mock us shackled in a lifelong tether / That drags us back, howe'er so far we roam: he's imagining the sun's last rays over "home," but most of the stanza describes the hold India now has on him, and it's ambiguous which country has him shackled: probably both. And he's reached an age at which he realizes he's taken the wrong road, but it's a little late to do much about it. He too is caught up in the mechanics of empire, and of life.
The speaker's uneasy suspension between two worlds is affirmed in the last stanza, in which he refers to his home-style Christmas celebrations as the custom of our caste, using a word associated with Hindu social customs to define his English ways. As the day closes in the last stanza, our exile offers a more sardonic view of his adopted land than he had earlier when describing the funeral; now the hooting owls compete with the screaming and braying from the temples. He sees fruitless years behind us and hopeless years before us. In between is this single holiday, Christmas Day, on which he can feel some connection, however sentimental, faint, or fleeting, with the people and traditions he left behind. "[F]aint and forced the laughter" is in quotation marks, but I'm not sure where it comes from; when I search for it, the results are mostly this poem. (Does anyone have any idea?) Regardless of source, the phrase shows the speaker's acute awareness that the good feelings associated with a traditional Christmas Day are an aberration in a world of struggle, pain, and indifference (after the toasts, those at home will forget him until next Christmas). Nonetheless he embraces the day: Christmas, with its traditional good spirits, is inherently mocking him – yet he feels himself richer for it. For the momentary connection and joy? Or for the mockery itself, which gives him some enlightening truths about his life?
This is from Christmas Poems, selected and edited by John Hollander and J D McClatchy, in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series.