It was my first Christmas in Canada for over twenty years. Montreal was predictably cold … even colder than I remembered and the lovely carols from my childhood had been replaced with pop songs in all the malls. “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” had begun to grate on my nerves, making forays to the nearby shopping center even less appealing than they already were. The normal seasonal pleasures of shopping were supplanted with personal sorrow. My marriage had ended, I had left Bombay and returned to Canada to my little “summer” townhouse just outside Montreal and was now faced with the prospect of somehow making a living. And it was Christmas. My sisters and parents had moved to the West Coast when the Quebec situation had become unpleasant so I would be spending the holidays alone. But somehow gifts had to be found and for the first time since my years as a student, I was pinching every penny until it practically dissolved under the pressure.
I was miserable.
I decided that I would have to put up a confident front, since my parents had opposed my divorce and made it clear that they felt I should “see it through to the end” … a view on marriage which I felt so tainted with desperation that their stance seemed as painful as the divorce itself. My sisters were less judgmental and merely pushed the topic off the discussion page altogether. I was definitely rowing my own boat and it was listing badly under the assault of the cold, my loneliness and a terrible fear of my future.
So I decided I would make my sister’s gifts myself. I was an excellent seamstress, a skill I had honed in India where the local tailors tended to make everything much too snug. And a huge fabric store had serendipitously opened at the mall a few months earlier. BouClair was a cornucopia of gorgeous fabrics at reasonable prices. If you ferreted around you could find remnants of glorious brocades and velours stashed on the “dollar stage”, which was the focal area of the store. It was a large raised platform with three tiers of assorted fabrics, no two rolls of which were alike. But the yardages varied widely … you could hopefully unfurl a roll and find less than a yard or get lucky and find six. It was largely potluck.
I picked out two McCall’s sewing patterns from the “Stitch ‘N Save” rack which was partially hidden behind a large table, obviously to discourage thrifty customers while adhering to the bargain listings in the BouClair ads. I chose a dress pattern for my middle sister and a waistcoat for the youngest.
Then I mounted the dollar stage to choose the fabrics. A lovely gold and black brocade grabbed my attention and I unrolled it gingerly, praying it would be a large enough piece for a vest. It was. Then a beautiful purple and turquoise floral print for the dress. I could cut a flower applique from the material to trim a little corduroy top and it would be gorgeous. I could visualize both outfits as I took the patterns and the fabrics to the checkout counter. Perfect. Just perfect.
It took me a week to finish both outfits. And it was a week mercifully free of the anguish I had been feeling about my lost life in India. I turned my attention back to the whirring of my little sewing machine and concentrated on the memories I had of my childhood and the magical time Christmas had always been for us. I even baked a small batch of shortbreads, using my grandmother’s old recipe which relied heavily on butter. Lots of butter.
Finally everything was completed, the garments pressed and folded neatly into their boxes and carefully wrapped for mailing. As I tucked a little note into each package, I looked at the gifts and felt satisfied. I had splurged on a roll of expensive foil paper and several yards of real silk ribbon. But I had managed to save enough brown paper bags and grocery twine to tie the parcels up securely.
I looked at the foil a little ruefully as I calculated that it had cost almost as much as the fabric. And I felt a twinge of apprehension over the upcoming mailing charges. I hoped the Post Office wouldn’t charge me too much for the postage. Surely it couldn’t be more than ten dollars.
Then I looked outside. A storm had crept up quietly while I was busy wrapping the gifts and now I could barely see across the street. Huge swirls of snow rippled across the yard and swept over the windows leaving little drifts at the base of the panes. I stared out at the blizzard balefully. I had to go. The parcels had to be mailed before the weekend or they wouldn’t reach the West Coast in time for Christmas. I had to go.
So I fumbled in the closet for some sweaters. I hadn’t bought a coat when I arrived in October and merely layered sweaters under a large woolen poncho from Kashmir. Four sweaters and the poncho became my standard winter garb. But I had been constrained to buy a pair of winter boots … the cheapest pair I could find. Gray vinyl round-toed monstrosities with artificial fleece lining. They were truly hideous, but the edges of the poncho partially covered them and the overall effect was so eccentric that the boots were safely lost in the confusion of sweaters and fringes and flapping panels. And they were warm.
I set out for the Post Office, taking a short cut across the parking lot behind my condo. Rows of cars lay half buried in the snow and the sight of dozens of vehicles offering potential warmth and locomotion suddenly tipped my mood. I plummeted from mild frustration to a bitterness so strong I could taste it on the tip of my tongue. No one else had to walk half a mile in a blizzard to the Post Office. They had cars. No one else spent hours actually making gifts. They just whipped out their credit cards and bought them. No one else counted the pennies and hesitated over such little details as wrapping papers and ribbons and postage. Postage ….. even that damned postage would set me back another ten or fifteen dollars.
As I plodded along, the snow suddenly changed to little splinters of ice as the temperature dropped and from time to time I lost my footing and a sudden mini avalanche of snow tumbled over the edges of my boots onto my toes. My face became numb with cold and even the edge of the poncho I had pulled over my nose quickly began to freeze into a solid mask of ice. Every step was a battle against the snow. I could feel my throat tightening and tears threatening. It was so unfair.
Suddenly a particularly strong blast of wind shook a sharp splinter of ice from one of the trees at the edge of the parking lot. It slashed across my face and as I automatically reached up to touch my cheek, I could see a little smear of blood on my mitten. A small red spot. No bigger than the tip of a quilting pin.
And suddenly I remembered.
“Cavadee …..” A festival of penance and pain celebrated in Mauritius.
My husband and I had spent a year in that lovely and remote little island anchored in the Indian Ocean as we struggled to set up a business in the “zone franche” … an industrial park set up to encourage investments. I had loved that little speck of land from the moment our plane had dropped precipitously towards the sea only to hit the runway seconds before it appeared.
And now suddenly I remembered the Mauritian woman and that extraordinary festival.
She was walking barefoot through the streets of Vacoas in the midst of a large procession of people moving towards a Kovil or temple. A silver spike with arrowheads on each end was driven though her tongue. Several ornamental chains were draped from this spear across her cheeks. Her eyes were closed and she appeared to be in some sort of trance. Walking behind her was a man with a large flower-decked arch over his shoulders. His tongue was also pierced with a much thicker spear and a row of shiny needles punctured the entire length of his arms, creating what looked like silver centipedes.
The occasion was Cavadee, a festival of penance practiced by Tamil Indians in honor of Lord Murugan. And it is one of the most important of all the various celebrations practiced iin Mauritius by its wildly diverse population. The participants fast for ten days before their ritual ceremony begins with the piercing of their bodies with silver spikes or little hooks from which bells or lemons are suspended. Many worshippers carry large bamboo “cavadees” … heavily ornamented arches laden with flowers arranged around a pair of sumbhoo, or copper pots filled with milk. Most women leave the heavier cavadees to the men and content themselves with large sumbhoo balanced on their heads. All are barefoot, except for the occasional celebrant wearing “bed of nails” sandals. From time to time sympathetic onlookers pour cool water onto the searing pavement to ease their journey.
I joined the procession leaving my husband behind. Although he was a Hindu, this particular ritual was beyond his ability to view comfortably. It was a Tamil penance and he was a Punjabi. I on the other hand was fascinated by the combination of fervor and trance and was immediately caught up in the extraordinary spectacle wending its way down the road.
I fell in behind a young teenage girl with a single spike driven through her tongue who was one of the only females carrying a cavadee on her tiny shoulders. From time to time her boyfriend leaned over to steady it, with an expression of pure love on his face. I was unbearably touched by both of them. I removed my sandals and put them in my bag, feeling the least I could do was tolerate the hot pavement under my feet.
We marched along for a couple of miles. From time to time, one of another of the celebrants would suddenly begin to dance with eyes rolled back as he teetered under the weight of the cavadee. As my feet began to swell with the heat of the road, I welcomed the occasional splash of cool water aimed at my feet by some bystander and fixed my eyes resolutely on the dome of the temple becoming visible ahead on the top of a small mountain. When we reached the temple, the cavadees would be put down on the temple grounds and offerings made to them. Then the sumbhoo would be opened and the milk poured out into the palms of celebrants an onlookers. If the milk had remained uncurdled after more than four hours of marching and gyrating on the hot streets, then the offering was accepted by Lord Murugan. I extended my cupped palms and took a sip from one of the proffered sumbhoo.
It was still sweet.
I nodded and murmured “Achaaa … It’s good.”
Later I learned more about this remarkable festival. I learned that people often make promises of “cavadee” to propitiate the God, or to thank him …. or even to offer a sort of bribe. A child survives a serious illness and his parents offer a certain number of cavadees …. sometimes for a lifetime. And as they march, their pain is part of that offering. And somehow that pain is transformed into an almost ecstatic joy as they near the temple.
They offer their pain as a gift.
I shook the snow off my poncho and myself away from Mauritius and back squarely into the midst of a blizzard in Montreal. Which included struggling through ever growing drifts of snow and stopping every few minutes to scoop out the frosty flakes from my boots. But suddenly that tiny spot of blood on my mitten was oddly beautiful and sound of my boots crunching against the snow, almost pleasurable. The cold was refreshing, jolting me into awareness. I closed my eyes, narrowing them into slits as I plodded toward the Post Office. Which somehow had been transformed to a Kovil. The Temple of Dollard Des Ormeux Postal Services. I could see the rooftop of the largest store in the mall barely visible about the bare treetops ahead of me.
My heart was suddenly overwhelmed with love. For my dear sisters. I held the parcels closer to my chest and imagined a cavadee balanced over my head. I was celebrating Cavadee for my sisters. And had the four feet of snow allowed it, I would have done a twirl or two with my eyes shut in a delicious trance.
Was that the echo of a “red kettle” bell I had just heard floating on the frigid air?
Or ….. perhaps a temple gong …