The season I have always savoured, like one savours pickle on an idle afternoon, is winter in Calcutta. And this season has always gone by too quickly — before I could fully enjoy its warmth. The word, warmth, may sound ironic when one is talking about winter. But in my city, winter’s chill does bring about an aura of warmth, a lightheartedness only possible through the willing suspension of disbelief.
Winter — in this city clogged up by clamminess and dust, stink and grime for most of the year — is like being transported to a different reality. Middle-class Calcuttans, ever dreamy-eyed about Darjeeling, get to relish the fantasy of chilly evenings and foggy mornings without having to board a train. The lure of air-conditioned homes, offices and shopping malls starts waning: we enjoy the open air of the Maidan. Suddenly, the sun doesn’t scorch our skin but caresses our senses.
But like Cinderella, we, Calcuttans, know only too well that our winter wonderland won’t last long. So, there is a rush to make the most of it while it lasts. This is why, perhaps, most of the fairs and festivals — the book fair, the craft fairs, the Baul Fakir Mela, the film and theatre festivals — take place in Calcutta during the winter. In many a middle-class family, summer is the time when you leave the city to enjoy a holiday, and winter is the time when you explore your own city — visit the zoo, spend a day in the museum, arrange a picnic at the Botanical Gardens. During the three months, four if we are lucky, we see our old, lacklustre Calcutta as a refreshingly handsome stranger.
Walking the streets of Calcutta in December, one is bound to feel a little squashy. The Calcuttan’s obsession with Christmas and New Year — manifest in the dazzling lights on Park Street through the last week of the year and the bakeries overflowing with delicious cakes — has got as much to do with the city’s colonial history as with the citizens’ ecstasy at the advent of winter. Sweaters and shawls wrapped adoringly on their bodies, their faces glowing with cold cream, the people of this city have wonder in their eyes as they browse through the hawkers’ wares in New Market or set off on a trip to the circus. On Park Street, the girl who delights in the warm touch of her coffee mug on her cheeks wears a look of bliss; no longer do we mind the huddle in the Metro. Calcuttans, ever wary of crowds and eager to escape to some place quieter, suddenly seem to relish the hustle and bustle of their city — all because of a drop in the temperature, a layer of fog in the air, and the absence of the stench of perspiration.