Skip to main content


December 21, 2010

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: Christmas with My Grandfather

Posted by Anonymous

divakaruni-chitra-banerjee_.jpgChitra Banerjee Divakaruni is an award-winning author and poet, whose bestselling books --- including ONE AMAZING THNG, available in paperback today --- have been recognized for their excellence around the world. Below, she reminisces about the Christmases she spent with her grandfather --- and the greatest gift he gave of all.

Christmas is not one of our big holidays in India --- not like Diwali, the festival of lights, or Navaratri, the nine-day celebration of the divine feminine. But while I was growing up, Christmas was always special for me because of my grandfather. Though he lived in the countryside, he came to Calcutta to visit us during the Christmas holidays, and he and I had a special ritual. Each year, a couple of days after Christmas (when prices were lowered), we would go to New Market, where we would do three special things.

New Market, contrary to its name, is an old shopping conglomerate that has been around since British days, so large and labyrinthine that I always feared we would get lost in there. To me, even though the shops were too expensive for our middle class family, it was a magical place, brightly lit and glittery. When I accompanied my mother there, usually to buy wedding gifts for relatives, I would gaze longingly --- and a little sadly --- at its many treasures, knowing not to ask for anything. But matters were different when my grandfather took me there.

Our first stop would be outside the Market proper, on a street corner where many beggars congregated. My grandfather would hand me a few rupees and tell me to decide whom I should give them to. It was a difficult choice, and it made me uncomfortable. All the beggars looked to be in desperate circumstances, their ribs showing from under their ragged clothing. They called out to us in piteous voices, wrenching my heart. I usually gave the money to a mother with a baby, or to a child, and felt a warmth inside as I saw their faces light up. I didn’t realize at the time that my grandfather was teaching me something important, something central to the spirit of Christmas --- to see another’s misery clearly, to care, and to do something, however small, for him or her.

Our next stop would be in the bakery corridor, redolent with delicious and unfamiliar odors. Unlike the homely Indian sweets, the sandesh and rasogollahs that my mother made for us, these bakeries specialized in Western delicacies. Cakes and pastries of many kinds filled their glass cases. We spent a long time looking at the éclairs, marzipans, petits fours and numerous other exotic delicacies, the names of which I didn’t know, debating what to buy. But we always ended up with the same thing, our favorite, a one-kilo slab of fruitcake studded with jewel-like cherries and pineapples and candied orange peels, which the baker would wrap in waxed paper for us to take home to the family. An unspoken lesson there, too: to share what you love with those whom you love.

Our final stop was the used books shop, a warren stacked with shelves full of volumes that reached all the way to the ceiling. If you saw something you liked, you pointed, and a man climbed onto a ladder and brought it down for you. But what I was most interested in were kept in big boxes on the floor in front of the counter: comic books. But not the usual comics, with flying heroes in strange, skintight costumes. These were titled Classics Illustrated, and they retold, for younger audiences, the great stories that I would read in full later, in high school and college. It was through them that I became familiar with THE THREE MUSKETEERS and IVANHOE, with TREASURE ISLAND and THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN and THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO. After much deliberation, I would choose my comics --- my grandfather said I could have 10, which made me feel like a princess --- and he would pay for them. We didn’t even bother to have them wrapped. We read them --- both of us equally avidly --- sitting next to each other on the bus home, breathless with happiness. Much of the happiness came from knowing that once we’d both read everything, we would discuss it, exclaiming over especially dramatic moments or particularly villainous characters, and how cleverly the hero had outwitted them.

I still think of my grandfather when Christmas comes, though I now live halfway across the globe, and he is long gone. I thank him for the many wonderful memories he made time to give me, woven with precious lessons about caring and generosity and love. But most of all, I thank him for opening up the magical world of books, for gifting me the joy of reading --- a joy that is as eternal as anything in this changing world can be.

To learn more about Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and how you can purchase your copy of ONE AMAZING THING, visit her on the web at And join us again tomorrow, as bestselling author Chelsea Cain tells the holiday tale of a secret, book-giving goddess.