From my TOI blog : Freeze Frame
“Melancholy were the sounds on a winter’s night.” – Virginia Woolf
What would be the earliest memory you have, of winter? A dark, gloomy, foggy day? A sharp, bitter cold morning? A nippy, sunny afternoon? Mellow sun? The silence that descended upon night when all sought a warm spot under the blanket, even the neighbourhood strays? White Christmas? Rainy and freezing cold? The frozen tip of your nose? Numb fingers and chattering teeth? Feet that refused to get warm under layers of blankets? Nolen gurer sandesh? Aromas of freshly fried koraishutir kochuri wafting in from mum’s kitchen? Men and children in trade mark ‘monkey caps’ (which for a long time was thought to be a Bengali idiosyncrasy, I beg to differ)? Maidan and boi mela, bags full of new books? Losing your way home on foggy Delhi nights? Chai-pakoda? Piping hot instant cup noodles thawing your frozen organs, from the inside, on a freezing cold November afternoon at Jungfraojoch? Fond memories? Dark, depressing thoughts, best forgotten with that long winter night of the past?
Are you wondering why I’m asking so many questions? Why am I romanticising about winters past? Don’t you see that I am wistful? Why? Because, I live in Bombay. Because the time on my watch is almost half past three, the sharp light has just started to mellow outside my window and the fan rotates lazily overhead. Because we are in the last week of November. Because the temperature in Bombay everyday adamantly ranges between 34° and 25°.
Anyway. My earliest memory of winter would be of a particularly bitter winter in the ’80s. That winter evening in Calcutta, when in all my five year old innocence, I went to complain to my mother about her sudden, unannounced absence from my life, she introduced me to this funny little bundle, swathed in a new blanket, called My Sister. That winter I had been strategically usurped by this little creature, who didn’t even know how to burp by herself, had no control over her fine haired, tiny, nodding head, could not even sit up and gurgled when she was happy.
Everyday, around noon, she would be given a massage with oil – perfected to a polish, packed off to the terrace and then put out in the sun, ‘to strengthen her bones’ – as my grandmother would put it. This evidently was a routine for a new born, I was told. And evidently once upon a time, even I had been subjected to this ‘ritualistic-bone-hardening’ pickling. A bevy of aunts, of all shapes and sizes, joined my mum on the terrace, draped in shawls of varied hues, soaking up the golden, mellow sun as their nimble fingers worked deftly at knitting needles. Balls of colourful wool fast transformed into wales of purl, ribs of cable and further into scarves, frocks, booties, caps – tiny and cheerful. I would loll, snuggle up to my mother, to warm my cold fingertips, toes, try to win back her love and then run away to join the giggling pride of cousins in their games. Soon, to my surprise, either the gurgling, tiny bundle’s warmth, or perhaps the long hours spent in the sun, not sure which of the two, thawed my resentment, and I transformed into a proud Didi.
A few winters later, the doe-eyed little riot was running around the same terrace, in woollen dresses that were once mine – her wild, curly mane following her as she chased me around, with a chubby fist full of orange peel – to squirt into my eyes. The devil! And a few winters further down in life, she and I lay on quilts put out to sun, on the same terrace, soaking up the same languid sun, reading, laughing, pulling at each other’s pigtails, with older cousins learning their ropes at the knitting needles while their curious, teenage eyes strayed from the wool, on to the neighbourhood terraces, boys etc. Winter spelt the end of school year, so only books of ‘consequence’ found favour – only lazy afternoons, on the terrace, spent with cousins of all shapes and sizes, had the permission to be a part of my winter day. No television, no mobiles, no video games, BBs, PSPs, iPods, iPads – nothing to distract the lazing mind rolling under the slanted rays that cast longer shadows.
Winters kept descending upon Calcutta. And oh, the joys it brought forth! Book fairs, nolen gurer sandesh, nolen gur, bowls of diced tomatoes sprinkled with salt, freshly rolled, still-warm-to-the-touch narkel narusprinkled with khus-khus and smelling faintly of camphor, the aroma of Koraishutir kochuri frying in the kitchen, afternoons on the terrace and long wintry nights. One particular year, the terrace changed address. I was older. The new terrace had a new skyline, more palm trees peeping from behind neighbourly terraces, pots full of zinnias, dahlias, marigolds nodding their heads from balconies, new faces lazing in the winter sun on their old jute carpets, some interesting, some curious, a few who spoke loudly, from across terraces – our new neighbours, in another part of my city. Some knitted, some read the day’s paper, some were lost in a siesta under blankets put out in the sun and some, young buccaneers, who hid in the shadow to steal glances at pretty, long haired girls who, in other seasons, barely graced their terraces.
And I had thought winters were all the same, perhaps everywhere, other than the places where it snowed, as suggested by pictures in the Readers’ Digest. I had also imagined, in my teenage folly, that my winters would forever be the same. Like a winter’s day, short but full of promises. Camping by the banks of the Brahmaputra in December, winter nights spent at the foothills of the Mathaburu hills, watching the winter sun rise on the Ghats of Banaras, the crispy Christmas dawn in Shillong, the icy slopes of Rohtang Pass did correct my presumptions of teenage but every time I returned to Calcutta and these brief experiences became part of memory.
But Delhi decided to teach me a different lesson about winters, in particular. The mild, sunny Calcutta winter had been replaced by a long spell of bitterly cold winter. I would no longer return home to Calcutta. The gloomy, foggy, cold Delhi was home. The long, lonely park across from my balcony started to look barren with tall trees and their bare branches stretching skywards and one cold December day the children that came to play did not return any more. The long French windows on the western face of our C R Park house were visited by the setting sun’s tepid, slanted rays before evening descended with thick, dark fog that turned everything of the night into dark, eerie shadows. The cold and lonely terrace did not seem inviting either, not a soul to share it with, no one to chase me around, no cheerful chatter, and no clicking knitting needles weaving fancy patterns. Later, in the winters that followed, I had made enough friends to chatter away the winter blues, with steaming cups of adraki or elaichi chai, crispy, piping mirchi pakodas, had learnt to soak up the early winter tepid sun as long as it lasted and also the secret of drying stubbornly wet clothes with the help of a room heater. Foggy nights did not scare me any more – not even after we lost our way home a few times and once up the hills, on our way to the camps on the slopes of Mukteshwar, overlooking Ranikhet. I was warming up to the winter in Delhi, though every year, the tip of my nose refused to ‘unfreeze’ till winter left us.
I had never imagined that of all cities, I would reminisce about Delhi, about missing Delhi, that too, missing the winters in Delhi. I guess, it may not have been so, had my current ‘permanent address’ not been in a city that has only two seasons and winter does not figure on that list. Three years back, when we had wanted to run away to the distant Swiss Alps, in November, to renew the feel of winter – we went hunting for winter wear and Maximum City sprang a surprise on us. No malls, no stores in town or in the suburbs had any stock of woollen wear! We were finally directed to ‘that-market-even-sells-tiger’s-milk-if you-can-afford-it’ Crawford Market – to a particular departmental store, perhaps one of five in the city, where we found woollens for our trip. And that memory, of thawing internal organs over piping cup noodles – yes, that was from the Swiss Alps, under scarves, multiple layers of sweaters and jacket lined with down, one that I keep going back to as much as to the ones from Delhi – as I brave the 33°, in the last week of November, in Bombay.
But curiously enough, this year departmental stores in Bombay have, take a breath, sweaters, yes, woollen sweaters, shrugs, pullovers et al, being displayed on shelves. The afternoon sun is sharp and golden outside my window, the fan is still running at a high speed and I am wondering, ‘what do those stores know, that I haven’t guessed as yet? Do they have news of the ‘missing’ winter finally descending upon us?’