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Festivals, Food, Friendships & Longing

Christmas lights on a cabin

Staff Writer Anwesh Banerjee contemplates the bittersweet feelings of spending the holiday season away from home, family and friends.

I would like to believe that I was one among the thousands of people who in the aftermath of Matthew Perry’s untimely and tragic demise, took upon the mammoth task of engaging in a “Friends” re-run. If the anniversary reunion which aired a few years ago wasn’t enough of a reminder, this time around the glaring issues with the now cult-classic sitcom became more than evident to me.

The gender politics of the entire show is pretty messed up, its queerphobia is beyond comprehension and its understanding of comedy is derived at the expense of multiple marginal identities and promotes a culture of humour always coming at the cost of others. However, all these glaring problems notwithstanding, the one thing that the show got right all the way back in the 90s, and something that remains at the core of its universal relevance to date, is the sheer panache and ease with which it chronicles the messy intimacy and warmth of the friendships that you make in your 20s. 

In one of the latter episodes of the first season, the eponymous six friends celebrate their first Thanksgiving together. Rachel tries to arrange money for a trip back home, Chandler announces his absolute dislike for the Thanksgiving turkey, owing to the trauma he continues to associate with the festival, and Ross, Phoebe and Joey continue making unholy demands out of Monica as she sets out on the gargantuan task of fixing her friends a proper meal. Eventual chaos is unleashed as all their individual plans are foiled – trips get cancelled, turkeys get burnt and fights are had. The episode, which to be fair made me shed copious amounts of tears this time around, ends with Chandler carving a set of store-bought sandwiches for his friends – as they all raise a toast to being thankful for each other and what the gang famously describes as an upcoming “lousy Christmas and crappy New Year”. 

Beyond the narrative ploys of a festival gone wrong to bring together a bunch of fundamental misfits, this singular episode has a lot more to offer to everyone in today’s day and age. Everyone who finds themselves stuck in far-flung parts of the world, away from the warmth and embrace of family – a biting truth that raises its head viciously every festive season, because let’s face it – dreams come at a cost. And more often than not, the cost turns out to be little more than a buzzing sensation of overwhelming loneliness. 

Coming to London as a postgraduate student, for the first time in my life I was faced with the conundrum of being away from my family and friends during the festive season. In my undergraduate years as a student in Delhi, while I was away from home in the run-up to the festival, I knew home was physically accessible soon enough – even if it was only briefly, the welcoming pink rush of my room would embrace me for a night or so.

In London, however, things are slightly different. First, there is the cultural dissonance of having a festive season that refuses to coincide with the festive season your cultural calendar has raised you with. How do you celebrate at a time when an entire city and nation around you goes about their daily work like it’s an ordinary day? How do you explain to the people walking the streets in Camden County that you are not dressed in traditional finery just for the sake of it, but because your whole community back home has halted the entire nation to take time out to celebrate the biggest festival of the year? How do you explain, as an immigrant student, to the people around you squinting with loaded glances, that fireworks are the only token of homeliness that you have in this gigantic, lonely blob of a city? 

And how do you make peace with the fact that amid this festive season, while all your classmates go back home to be with family for winter break, you have no choice but to continue spending Christmas all alone in a city that you have just begun to understand?

While growing up, every December my social media feed would be flooded with the most glorious images of London all decked up and ready to celebrate Christmas. This year, finally seeing the lights in Regent Street made my stomach butterflies flutter. Seeing the tree light up in Camden for the first time made my heart warm with love. But, with this sensation of warmth also came a staggering feeling of loneliness. All this warmth and love yet no family is immediately around you to share it with. Walking into Christmas markets and catching the sight of mistletoe and wanting to share it with your mother — only to realise that she is far away, sleeping soundly in a time zone that is way ahead of yours. 

Festivals are a tricky business to navigate. But despite the seeming loneliness that might shrink your chest, there is still some warmth to be shared in this sprawling gift box of your city – the friends from home with whom you choose to spend your days here. Being in your early 20s, the friends you go on Pret runs with, the ones you attend lectures with and the ones who fix you a bowl of ramen after a drunk night at a club, are the ones who queerly enough become the families you leave behind when you step out. Go to them. And sit them down in a circle – on your floor or on your table (if you’re lucky to have one) – and celebrate with them. 

This Christmas, as I continue my melancholic relationship with London, I look forward to the promise of my friend Cherie who has taken it upon herself to bake a Christmas cake. I will be relying on Sweta and Rashika to fix us a meal that will comprise dishes traced from the very depths of our home. I will most definitely bank on Harsh and Nimish to fix us a playlist – comprising carols and other beats – to which we shall all dance while Suranjana and Uday continue to laugh and cheer from the corner. I look forward to video-calling my other friends back home; Aratrika who will be going home on a ticket she has bought with her first pay-cheque, Namit who will see his dog and our dearest friend Arunima for the first time in six months and Mahima who will be keeping me company with laphing, ajrakh prints and a smiling Suyog from the fog-drenched lanes of Delhi. 

Friendships in this modern world have a deeply complex affective cartography. They are defined by the multiplicity of the timelines we inhabit as global citizens of a world that, while growing increasingly shorter with each day and age, continues to feel farther and larger than ever before. But in that moment of virtual connection the Canadian snows, the brief afternoon sun in London and the gleaming moon in India will make me feel some brief peace with the outsider-insider identity that is central to the experience of an immigrant. At that moment, whether you are on the inside or the outside, you are just there – with each other, in a singular suspended continuum of love. And even if the network falters and offers poor video quality, even if the dishes we cook lack salt, even if the gifts we unwrap that day are paltry objects of affordance, loneliness loses – at least for a brief spare moment. 

Much like the sandwich Chandler carves, celebrating in your twenties is a messy affair. There is a deep-seated violence to such cultural dissonance that is the sheer curse of today’s urban immigrant experience. But, being in your early twenties also affords you an insurmountable courage to straddle the same. Because, after all, you have your friends right by your side!

If you are spending the holidays away from home and could use some support, check out the festive events King’s has planned for you here.

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