Winter in the city is changing. Never a long-drawn affair, the days that were really cold have been shrinking over the years. “When we were young it would last for more than a month — from December to January. Now it’s hardly a week in January, when you really feel cold,” rues Argha Bose, a 26-year-old business analyst currently working in Bangalore.
Reasons for the change are many. “Global warming is affecting Calcutta. Plus the pattern of development in the city is not very planned. The huge buildings in the heart of the city add to the heat, making the neighbourhood warm,” says professor Santosh Ghosh, the president of the Centre for Built Environment, an association of architects and environmentalists. He points to the frequent rains. “The weather pattern is changing. It is not enough to plant trees — we need big trees that can capture the rains. The water content is also depleting, amounting to more heat and less rain during the usual months. The Asian monsoon is affected by both the Arabian and the China sea,” he adds.
“The minimum temperature this time of the year should have been around 16 degrees Celsius, but it is around 17-18 degrees now. Winter over the years has been a little less cold,” says P.K. Chakraborty, the director of the Met office. “This year the wind patterns that govern the transition of the seasons are still fluctuating. Also the moisture from the Bay of Bengal has delayed the onset of winter. These are local effects. But we expect winter to set in in three-four days,” he adds.
And winter months bring the worst smog. The state pollution control board reports say the pollution is highest between October and March because of stagnation of air due to less air flow, which makes it difficult for pollutants to disperse.
Ways of enjoying the mild winter sun and chilly evenings, a favourite pursuit of Bengalis, have changed too. The mandatory visits to the circus are today the stuff that memories are made of, for circus companies are closing down. Picnics to Diamond Harbour have given way to parties and visits to the zoo to visits to entertainment parks. But despite the erratic showers and the lack of cold and the absence of many good old things, winter in Calcutta remains the best season that nature allows the city. There might be pollution, there’s still some magic in the air. A look at a few things that make winter the time of the year for the city. Some of these are old stuff in new packaging.
The poet Keats was wrong. Autumn is not the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness — winter is. Winter is the time for long lazy afternoons (when time can be taken off from office) and vacations spent doing nothing but soaking in the sun. From sitting in the sun and peeling oranges after a long Sunday lunch, to shelling peas while whiling the evenings on the verandah to koraishutir kochuri, to spending an entire morning on a seventh grade static electricity test, winter gives laziness a different dimension. “I brush my hair very hard and hold the comb against tiny bits of paper. The pieces fly up and stick to the side of the comb. It’s the coolest science experiment ever. I kill time doing it when I’m supposed to be studying,” grins 13-year-old Jayeeta Sen who studies in a Salt Lake school. “That’s one vivid memory I have about my childhood winters. After lunch, my mother, aunt, cousins and I would go up on the terrace and spend the afternoon there. It was pure magic,” remembers Argha.
Yet, rid of the exhausting heat, it is the time when the city comes to life. Long walks become enjoyable. Cricket gear is adorned, badminton nets are hung at every street — and the portly Bangali becomes sporty. “I don’t get so much time anymore, but winter is definitely the time for sports. You have cricket matches in every para,” says Arijit Nag, team leader at a content writing company.
You might live it up throughout the year, but December is the original party month. With Christmas and New Year in close proximity, it is one long party season. “The Anglo-Indians would often have barbeques and outdoor parties and invite friends over. The trend of private parties continues. Through the rest of the year you party inside, so there is a thrill to being outdoors during this time. And once the party starts people just carry on, preferring to end the night at some pub or discotheque,” says Irfan Ahmed of the night-club Soho. Winter is definitely a good time for his trade, he adds.
“Picnics were an important part of winter. Every year we used to go to this aam bagan near Barasat. We would catch fish and play cricket, badminton and frisbee. Lunch would be rice and meat curry,” remembers Argha fondly.
Picnics still survive. Only the informal family outing has given way to more company and corporate outings with caterers to serve lavish menus. Farmhouses in Calcutta suburbs are popular new destinations. “We went to a farmhouse near Madhyamgram for our office picnic on Republic Day last year. It was a catered affair, with breakfast, lunch and evening tea. I expected to be bored and didn’t want to lose a holiday. But what with sitting in the sun playing 29, my colleague’s excitement at winning a mixer-cum-grinder on housie and my husband playing cricket with my boss, it turned out to be great fun,” says 26-year-old technical writer Smita Datta.
Finally you can get your jackets and sweaters and caps and mufflers out, though perhaps they will only be needed for a week. “I love to dress up in colourful sweaters. The time to wear them is so little anyway,” says Arijit.
So you can be sporty in hooded jackets and sneakers, or classy in capes and coats, or ethnic in a shawl. Winter also gives you the chance to hide the uncomplimentary bulges and unpedicured feet under wraps. “I have always loved to dress in winter wear,” says Argha.
Malls and department stores made have made everything available round the year, but it’s fun to make the rounds of a fairground and picking up rustic artworks and knick-knacks. Winter means Milan melas, the book fair, Lexpo, Expo and daily articles in newspapers about whether to allow fairs on the Maidan or not. “Winter is incomplete without the Book Fair. Definitely it is one of the most important events of the year,” says Arijit. Says Devleena Chakraverty, a 26-year-old media professional: “You can go to indoor exhibitions through the year, but this is the time to make the most of outdoor fairs.”
The local bakery has given way to Kookie Jar and Monginis, and Christmas is no more about just fruit cake, but also the best of chocolates and yule logs. Plum cakes that you could buy from the breadwallah you now buy from the retail cake shop .
Winters have changed when it comes to food too. Says 78-year-old south Calcutta resident Hrishikesh Bandyopadhyay: “Shops used to put up banners announcing the availability of phulkopir shingara before. Aam sondesh from Sen Mahasay were a winter specialty.”
But some consolation remains. “You get a huge variety of fish during winter. Fish are easier to catch this season because the waterbodies dry up. So tangra, parshe, pabda, koi, topshe, bhetki and prawns are of the best quality in winters,” he adds.
And winter is the time to eat without care. “Ghee dripping gajar ka halwas — with generous amounts of raisins — winter is the time when you can enjoy all this. And I keep telling myself that I can eat more of meat too, for it will keep me warm,” laughs Devleena.
Coffee and Old Monk. Irish coffee in a fancy coffee bar. Pakoras with tea. Nolen gurer sandesh. Joinagarer moa. Come Sankranti and there’s pati shapta and pithe. Plum cakes. MBA aspirant Sonal Gupta says: “I remember gathering on the office balcony with colleagues for chit chats over hot mugs of coffee. And there’s something about steaming hot tomato soup with aloo and onion pakoras.”
And there’s something about anticipation. With December, the nip in the air has changed to a chill. Winter is here. Hopefully it will stay for a few days.