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Memories of a Kashmir Winter by Muzamil Jaleel

January 29, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

My first memory of winter is of an early morning when I woke up and looked out of the window to see the branches of a pear tree in my grandmother’s orchard surrendering to the weight of snow. I remember everything as white, silent and peaceful as thick flakes fell like cotton. I must have been five or six. For children, winter in Kashmir meant long holidays. With schools shut and the routine work of adults halted for several months, it was always a season of family get-togethers.

Winter in Kashmir has its distinct phases.

It begins with a mild chill that grows slowly and enters into the 40-day-long Chillai Kalan, the harshest phase which begins on December 21 every year. The legend is that the earth goes dead in Chillai Kalan; the air is the coldest and the water freezing. The snow is thicker and drier, and lasts till the warmth of spring pushes its way up, thawing the frozen life of the Valley. It is followed by Chillai Khorud, when the snowflakes are watery and have a shorter life. Ten days of Chillai Bachi – the winter’s child – is next. Next comes a fortnight of Ganda Bahar, literally the dirty spring, when rains drag the sludgy remains of the winter on to the streets.

Winter turns Kashmir’s inhabitants to a state of hibernation; they huddle around wood stoves, go to bed early and wake up late, and carry the warmth of kangris (small charcoal stoves) inside their traditional pherans.

Though snowed-out roads and long power cuts always accompanied the whiteout, winter in Kashmir’s villages somehow seemed less harsh then. Perhaps that is a young boy’s memory of winter — of munching snow and plucking an icicle to eat, things which would earn a rare scolding from my grandmother. Every time my ice-cold hands would give me away, I would promise never to touch snow again. But I would always break the promise.

Our houses were made of brick and mud and villagers would cook over the dhan, a traditional hearth. My home in an isolated hamlet in Bandipore, high up in the mountains in north Kashmir, had a thatched roof.

Before the onset of winter, we would buy sheaves of straw from neighbours to redo it.

The elaborate preparation for winter started as early as summer. Firewood was collected regularly and left out to dry. The branches of the mulberry tree burnt brightest and longest. It was, however, illegal to chop a mulberry tree and the government had employed special guards to protect the trees.

They were called Tulle raakhi or the mulberry guards and even their mention would give goosebumps to villagers. Villagers needed permission from the tehsildar even to cut a dead mulberry tree on their own property, which wasn’t easy to secure.

When my mother was a child, a family member had cut a dead branch of a mulberry tree and brought it home. A half-burnt piece was lying on the front lawn. Her uncle, a schoolteacher, saw it when he left for his school, several miles away from home. During the course of the day, he spotted a mulberry guard walk past the adjacent road. He was the only teacher in the school but such was his dread that he left his students, ran home panting, scolded his family and personally hid the half-burnt branch.

Pinewood, though, wasn’t good enough for the fire because of its smoke although it was readily available in the forests near our village. Our family would get willow, which was comparatively expensive, but outside the hassles of law.

Kerosene was a luxury. Its distribution was an exclusive mandate of governmentrun ration depots but its supply generally ran out in the black market. My mother would anxiously collect every litre she could lay her hands on to store it for the winter months.

Kerosene was essential to run lanterns or pressure lamps, known as ‘gas’ in Kashmir.

They would be used to light long nights or to fuel a stove and brew an instant cup of Lipton tea. The main meals, however, were always cooked on the hearth. The pressure lamp was an indulgence only the relatively affluent in the village could afford. They were precious objects, their burners handled delicately, as a little jerk could break them.

Once it started to snow, vegetables became scarce. Thus there was a tradition in Kashmiri households to dry all sorts of vegetables (gourds, pumpkins, brinjal and haak or Kashmiri greens), red chillies, fish and mutton and store it for the winter. I remember garlands of red chilies and vegetables hanging from windowsills or spread over the roof during summer. Every autumn after the harvest, the rice too was stored in lopun or large earthen urns. The bigger landowners had a separate wooden storehouse for rice called kouch.

Arming the house and kitchen for winter was an essential ritual. In a way, people worked, earned and hoarded the rest of the year to live and enjoy this hibernation. It didn’t mean that they stayed idle. The work would shift indoors. Several houses would hum with the sound of the loom, as groups of men and women sat around it, weaving colourful rugs and carpets. Their fingers moved in symphony as they worked and sang together. The rugs were too expensive for the villagers to own. Even the yarn came from the middlemen in the city who paid them meagre wages.

We had instead patej — a straw floor mat with a simple design — woven in winter around a large wicker basket. To give the weavers company through the night, storytellers would be invited. We had a few accomplished storytellers in our neighbourhood.

Jana Maas, an elderly woman who had a beautiful voice and an amazing memory, was my grandmother’s childhood friend. She would tell stories all through the night, breaking only for hot cups of noon chai (salt tea) brewing in a samovar. She would retell the epic of Gul Raze and Gul-e-Bakawali, through images that have remained with me forever. The mythical love story of Heemal- Nagrai, where a serpent king takes a human form to court a beautiful princess, was another favourite. I recall a roomful of people had moist eyes when Jana Maas talked about the pain of Heemal when she was separated from her beloved.

There was Rasheed Kakh, a mason by profession and an accomplished poet. When he sang a fable, his voice would resonate in the room. After a while, his voice would fade out, as the story would turn into images before our eyes. Outside, the snow was like a large monochromatic blanket spread over the entire landscape, swathing it in magic.

There were hardly any television sets.

When we bought our first black-and-white set, it always took hours to fix the antenna to receive a weak transmission signal from Pakistan TV. The screen would always stay snowy. The transmission signal from Delhi couldn’t pass the mountains and so, there wasn’t any Doordarshan for us. Then again, electricity was so rare that the TV set was more of a decoration piece.

In urban Kashmir, storytellers were called kitabkhaan or raconteurs who would be invited to tell tales over a meal of khecher, a delicious mix of lentils and rice.

Those fabled winters of Kashmir now live in memories alone, and with the violence that Kashmiris saw in the last two decades, one sometimes begins to doubt those memories too. In 1990, when the soldiers turned to the villages to crush the rebellion, snow fell unnoticed between gunbattles and explosions, yet it never fell enough to douse burning houses or cover the bodies of young men. Mourning wiped away the distinction between Kashmir’s distinct seasons, snow became just another hassle. In the first winter after the conflict began, we started seeing bloodstains on the snow. I remember one morning after a night of fear and gunbattle, a young man lying dead on fresh and soft snow. When the body was removed, it had left its imprint. I could never get myself to taste snow again.

The enchanting tales of love and lore, of princes and princesses had been replaced by death in Kashmir and these tales were told in whispers.

Like much else, Kashmir’s fabled winters have changed and, sadly, the stories are no longer about myth and fantasy.

-From The Indian Express

Writer is Associate Editor of Indian Express.

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