Remember the Cliff Richards number – “ In the summertime when the weather is fine..” ? In India, I guess it should be “ In the wintertime …” !
Yes folks, it is one of the best times of the year. Even hot and sticky Chennai becomes pleasant. This drop in temperatures can be felt slowly towards the end of September. There is a subtle change – I don’t know if I should call it Autumn because it is so subtle that we can sometimes miss it. Chennai ofcourse has a spell of cyclonic rain during this season but towards the middle of November the skies clear up.
This time of the year always takes me back to my childhood in Calcutta. The Durga Puja in Sept-Oct heralds the change in the season. As a child I could not identify it as a seasonal transition but used to link it to the festivities.
Winters in India are not bitter as in temperate climates. We do not have snow in most places but the nip in the air and chill around are most welcome. It is the season when we have a profusion of lovely flowers- most of them attract you with their colors and not so much by their smells ( as summer flowers do). I do not see much of these colorful flowers here in the south though I remember them from those days- marigolds, snap dragons, dahlias and others. There is a special beauty that can be seen around- even in urban centers. Among the metros I guess Delhi is at her prettiest best during these months. But Calcutta is not far behind.
Midmornings in winter spent on the lawns of the Victoria memorial having a picnic suddenly come to my mind. The sunlight really soft and pleasant – Gulzar expresses this beautifully in his song “ Dil Dhoonta hai” where he calls it “sardiyon ki narm dhoop aur aagan mein let kar”
Getting ready to school during this time would involve a lot shivering as we quickly rushed out of the bathroom and got into our clothes and that light blue school cardigan. Those were times when I used to wish that we had trousers as school uniform. Some of us had “half sweaters” which would be brought out at the start of the season progressing into the “full sweaters” by December.
An old building, our school was full of unexpected dark corridors which would make our teeth chatter. There would be a general smell of ponds cold cream around people. December was also the time for the annual exams ( those days our schools followed the calendar year). It was the season when we would also be practicing for the Christmas play. Come 20th of December the school would close for winter vacations.
Winter holidays were great fun as the academic year would have come to an end and there would no nagging from parents to study. These were also the holidays when we stayed home and did not travel down south. Quilts would be out and afternoons spent lazing around reading books. Oil massage with mustard oil would precede bath time –sometimes we would use olive oil and feel very exotic.
Winters were the time for lovely vegetables like cauliflowers, peas, carrots, radishes –unlike the all round stuff that we get these days. Food always tasted better during winter.
There would be trips to New Market especially to the dry fruit section which would be abuzz with shoppers buying dry fruits and cake accessories. One would also get a lot of party hats in anticipation of the impending new year celebrations.
Very few of us actually bought sweaters those days – you see most of them would be hand knitted by our mothers and other benevolent aunties. My mother had this habit of every two years or so unraveling a sweater and re knitting it. She once came up with a brilliant idea to dye the wool a different color. Dyeing technology not being what it is now, I ended up with itchy arms and neck after I got into the once red sweater now dyed navy blue! Knitting is something that I don’t see anyone do these days. In fact, I have forgotten those images of balls of wool with needles stuck into them.
My father used to don his evening attire which consisted of an old sweater and a “muffler” tied sardar style around his head with his ears covered. He had also developed an affection for the famous Bengali “monkey cap” which of course neither me nor my sister favored. Windows would be shut by 6.00 PM and the mosquito net up by 7.30PM with the smell of “flit” around ( yes there were lots of mosquitoes and we grew up inhaling the pesticide as we slept). Washing hands after dinner would involve a lot of shrieking when the cold water hit our hands. Sometimes we would cheat – not washing them well enough and having to go back to washing them again. Drying our hands quickly we would snuggle into our quilts drifting into blissful sleep.
Waking up in the morning would be the most torturous experience as Appa in sheer exasperation removed the quilt off us forcing us to get out of bed.
I don’t know what it is that I miss – the winters or the memories. The temperatures in Chennai are cool enough in the mornings these days to evoke that nostalgia. When I go for my morning walk I see people bundled up in sweaters watching me curiously as I walk about in my T- Shirt and sweat pants. On my way back, I see the children getting ready to go to school . It is then that I realize that they do not have a uniform cardigan here- not required I guess.
My daughter tells me that she would never like to live anywhere where it is “cold” . I remember as a teenager being very surprised when some visiting relatives from Chennai borrowed our warm clothes. “ There is no winter in Chennai. So they do not have any sweaters” explained my mother. I told her that I don’t think I would like to live where there is no winter. Ironic… because I have now lived for nearly eighteen years in a place where winters are almost non existent!
Life takes you to places where you least expect you would ever be. But memories remain with us transporting us in a moment to any time or place where we want to be!