When she was a girl, so my mother told me, the extended family would gather at her family home for food, drink, and fun on Christmas Night. This was in the 1930s and 1940s, times of hardship and scarcity. Mum could remember one bleak year when the children were sent to bed early on Christmas Day because there was no food: her father was unemployed. But Christmas was usually a time of plenty, even extravagance, when the children ate their fill and more and so did anyone who came to the house. Mum would describe those girlhood feasts in mouth-watering detail, the succulent roast meat with the golden-brown roast potatoes cooked in its juices, the rich brown gravy, the many accompanying vegetables, the flaming Christmas pudding with a silver sixpence hidden inside and currants on top, followed by bowls full of mixed nuts in their shells and the once-a-year treat of fresh tangerines. Then, when everyone had eaten to their hearts’ content, came the evening festivities and the entertainment.
In those days people entertained themselves, everyone in turn presenting his or her “party piece.” Uncle Ted remembers their eldest brother Charlie giving his soulful rendition of Besame Mucho while accompanying himself on the accordion. One family member did an over-the-top Carmen Miranda impersonation every year, dancing the samba with a long, flowing skirt and a hat, in Uncle Ted’s words, “with no end of tropical fruit attached,” and singing I-Yi-Yi-Yi-Yi-Yi Like You Vairy Much, from the 1941 film, That Night in Rio. (Funnily enough, Mum told me that it was an uncle or other older male relative who did the Carmen Miranda piece, but Uncle Ted remembers, quite differently, that it was their elder sister Rene.) They both remember their father—my grandfather—in fine form after having successfully cooked and presided over the massive Christmas dinner, giving his dramatic recitation of Kipling’s Gunga Din, by heart, in its entirety. How I wish I could have witnessed that performance just once! (This was long before his youngest daughter ever dreamed that she would marry an Indian, in a union to which my grandfather, to his credit, readily gave his blessing.)
While we were growing up, we too created our own family entertainment. As children, my sister and I regularly stood to attention at the other end of the living room to perform for my parents’ benefit poems and songs we had just learned in school. When called upon at a party in Greece, my father would give a sultry rendition of Mandoubala, a Greek adaptation of a popular Hindi film song, to wild applause; and even in America, until quite recently, when we were relaxing after a big family meal, we would beg Dad for his kurta story, an Indian shaggy-dog tale which he told in his own inimitable style.
In India, people would put on impromptu entertainment programs, especially when family came to visit. In honor of our infrequent visits, a space would be cleared in the living room and our cousins’ children would step forward to sing and recite the English songs and rhymes they had learned in school, perform a bharatanatyam dance piece, or give a demonstration of their prowess on the tabla; our cousins would sing bhajans or golden oldies that they knew we or our parents would remember; and our aunts might invite a neighbor over to give a classical music performance. No one, not even the shyest among them, would hold back out of false modesty. They would happily allow us to tape-record their performances, someone acting the part of emcee, someone else sending a message to my father in Marathi, yet another recording an English greeting for my mother. Meanwhile, round after round of fresh tea would be served, accompanied by large quantities of homemade savory snacks and an assortment of mithai fresh from the local sweetshop.
What a contrast when we returned in 1998, after satellite TV had gained entrance to the Indian home! On one memorable—and sadly, not atypical—occasion, we paid a visit to a family in Delhi related to us by marriage. The mother of the family, of our own parents’ generation, welcomed us in the grand old style, laying on tea and an array of specially-ordered delicacies. But she called in vain for her teenage daughter to join us. After a time she excused herself and went to the girl’s bedroom, but returned alone to explain that her daughter was watching her favorite programme on television and could not be dragged away from it. Again and again we visited family, friends, and friends of friends only to be ushered into the living room to join them in watching whatever happened to be on TV at the time, the wife a model of hospitality as always, but the husband and children’s eyes barely leaving the screen for a moment for fear of missing a precious word. We were used to such behavior in the US; it was disturbing in India only because it was in such stark contrast to the kind of entertainment with which we had always been regaled in the past.
It is telling that in looking up the word “entertainment” while writing this story, my search repeatedly yielded “entertainment center”—meaning, of course, not a place where people gather to entertain themselves, but a product around which people gather in order to be entertained.
Now that satellite and cable TV are commonplace almost everywhere in the world and the economic crunch in the United States means that even a night out at the movies is becoming prohibitively expensive, creating one’s own entertainment just might be making a comeback. Karaoke is surely a new manifestation of the old practice of pub singing and storytelling is certainly experiencing a revival, as are neighborhood gatherings in living rooms and community centers for the sole purpose of coming together to sing. You might be interested in massmouth, a new organization (“committed to making the timeless art of storytelling an integral part of 21st-century life”) that has been holding scores of “story slams” in cafés and clubs throughout the State of Massachusetts and is just one of many such efforts springing up everywhere. And you might consider putting your reticence aside and doing a little preparation, so that the next time you are asked to perform you will be ready with your own party piece.