The expression “Winter is Coming” now has a new meaning, thanks to the television series Game of Thrones. People have watched the down-streaming visuals of bleak grey skies portending stormy blizzards and snowy gusts, blowing folks off their feet. Characters flounder about in an attempt to stay the course in gale-force winds and struggle to not sink in hip-deep mounds of blowing snow. While not quite so dramatic as the pictures on the TV screens, winter is indeed coming and our conversations in elevators and around the water-cooler are increasingly starting to include references to the impending “white stuff.” A few Canada Goose clad “walkers” have already been spotted around Union Station and on Bay Street!
Back in the 1980s in Bahrain, we would go for early morning walks to watch the sun gently emerge shimmering, an orange-reddish glow over the glistening silvery waves gently lapping the sand on the beach. A lot of our friends referred to the walk as their “morning constitutional,” perhaps not aware that this expression is a euphemism for the day’s first visit to the washroom! Towards early-December, when it started to cool (down to around 20 degrees Celsius) “winter” season’s arrival was proclaimed in a unique way. The morning-show host at Radio Bahrain would run a competition for listeners to report the first “sighting of the monkey cap” (balaclava) each winter season. In those days the bulk of the construction work force in Bahrain comprised of men, most of whom had come from much warmer regions in the Indian sub-continent and were therefore unaccustomed to the approaching wintery environment. Some of them would use a monkey cap to protect their head and face from the cool wind as they rode in open back pickup trucks to their work sites. Initial sightings of the monkey cap by people out for their morning constitutional would trigger a spate of calls to the radio station and the first few callers would win a prize!
In India, there was a series of well-established rituals that heralded winter for our family and so, when grandmother announced that “cold was starting to seep into her bones” it was time to get ready. The household staff would open several large sheet-metal trunks that were used to store “rajaais” (cotton-stuffed quilts) and “woollens” (winter clothing.) The trunks also included a liberal quantity of round, white, pungent-smelling Naphthalene (also called moth, or camphor) balls to protect the clothing from moth larvae, mold or silver fish. “Charpais” (literally “four-posters” – wood framed beds with the sleeping surface made up of hemp rope tightly interwoven in a crisscrossed diamond pattern between the frame) would be laid out in rows in the courtyard. Each morning, the servants would take the items from the trunk and spread them out in the sun on the charpais, to “air” them and get rid of the strong smell of moth balls. I recall going to school on a few occasions wearing my school “colors” (woollen jacket with the school insignia sewn on to the left breast-pocket) that had not completely been rid of the naphthalene smell. I cried, embarrassed that my clothes smelled “old!” I also recall how a maid would boil “reethaas” (soapnuts) in a large cauldron on an open fire in a corner of the courtyard, to wash our woollen sweaters.
Our grandmother would actively supervise, and, personally peel huge amounts of turnips, cauliflowers and red carrots to start the process of preparing “gobhi-shalgam aur gaajar kaa achaar” (cauliflower-turnip and carrot pickles.) She never used measures and relied solely on her instincts and years of experience to ladle out “sarson ka tel” (mustard oil), “gur” (jaggery), condiments and spices and prepare the well-balanced marinade that filled several large ceramic vats with tight lids, into which the vegetables were deposited to literally get “picked in the sun!” Every now and then, when an urn was opened to check the pickling progress, an intoxicating aroma overpowered everyone and salivating, we would beg to be given a small sample to taste with a piece of fresh bread. Our grandmother would good-naturedly admonish us to be patient.
It is amazing how all those sights, sounds and smells come alive through resurrected memories and generate a toasty feeling. You will know what I mean, by putting aside all else to listen to the attached song by the lyricist, philosopher and poet Sampooran Singh Kalra “Gulzar.” For the benefit of friends not familiar with Hindi/Urdu, I have attempted to provide a translation of the excerpted lines that relate specifically to wintery elements and request you to kindly excuse my shortcoming.
“Dil dhoondta hai phir wohi fursat ke raat din
Baithe rahen tassavur-e-jaanaa kiye huye
….JaaDon ki narm dhoop aur aangan mein let kar
Aankhon pe kheench kar tere, aanchal ke saaye ko
Aundhe paDe rahein kabhi, karwat liye hue
….Barfeeli sardiyon mein, kisi bhi pahaad par
Waadee mein goonjti hui, khaamoshiyaan sunen
Aankhon mein bheege bheege se lamhe liye huye…”
[(My) heart yearns (anew) for those nights and days of repose/freedom
Leisurely ensconced, contemplating thoughts of my beloved
… (Under that) cozy winter sun, lying about idly in the courtyard
(With the corner of) your scarf pulled to shade my eyes
Lying face down sometimes, (occasionally) turning over, on my side
…on any distant mountain enjoying the snowy winters
Listening to the echoing silence of the glen
Eyes moist with moments held (from times past)]