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A SEASON THAT DEFIES COLD LOGIC

- Picnics, steaming dishes and a sense of longing turn Calcutta in winter into a fleeting wonderland

Long before Calcutta’s minimum temperature dropped to sub-ten-degree level — beating London’s cold just for a day — I had bumped into a man in a tea shop who kept rubbing his palms together furiously to keep himself warm. He was dressed in bright woollens — including a balaclava that Bengalis lovingly call ‘monkey cap’ — even though it was late November, and the weather had just started to turn pleasant. He not only made slurping noises as he gulped down the hot tea, but also emitted hissing sounds as if he was shivering. I suspected he had malaria. Having counted the woollen layers, the tea-stall owner suspected that he had escaped from Ranchi. But our man announced that he suspected that the weather office had got the day’s readings wrong. Winter, he said authoritatively, had already arrived. When he was reminded that Christmas was still weeks away, he said that for Bengalis, winter was a state of mind.

Winter — real or imagined — witnesses frenzied Calcuttans struggling against the coils of reason. It is not uncommon to see people scanning the day’s minimum temperature in the newspapers and then shaving off a couple of degrees from the celsius reading. For instance, nine degrees in New Alipore, residents of Tollygunge living barely half an hour away would nod sagely and say, implies that it is around seven degrees outside. Most of these human satellites have very little idea about, or interest in, the complex vagaries associated with reading temperatures.

This delightful triumph of imagination over reason is brought about by this tropical city’s brush with an all-too-fleeting season. It is winter’s ephemeral quality that turns Calcuttans fiercely protective of their own eccentricities, making them queue up to buy room heaters on sultry Christmas mornings or to turn up at work, sweaty, stinking but delighted, in a heavy cardigan which, unfortunate colleagues are reminded, is an heirloom.

The pleasures that winter offers are many. They range from spitting out orange pips from the terrace while soaking up the mellow afternoon sun to curling up with a book inside a lep, a private universe so warm and secure that it made a band of naughty siblings giddy with joy, as Lila Majumdar recounts in Ar Kono Khane. Not many fragrances are as heady as the sudden whiff of fresh jaggery from a shop selling mouth-watering sweets or that of ginger tea held in a clay cup on a desolate railway platform.

Winter is also the season of wistfulness. While watching wisps of white smoke gather low over fields at dusk or skeletal trees magically changing shape as they slowly cloak themselves in a film of mist, one often feels a sharp tinge of unspeakable sadness and longing, the kind that Pamuk immortalizes in his crystalline descriptions of snow in Istanbul.

In our part of the world, winter, which is a symbol of death and endings in the West, spells hope for rest and renewal after the fury of heat and floods. But the fog and the mist are rarely dense enough to hide the warts. For outside our warm rooms lies another world lit up by tiny fires around which the needy gather, hoping for the cold nights to give way to warmer mornings.