Chilai Kalan, the 40-day harsh winter period in Kashmir that begins towards the end of December, brings back fond memories from childhood. As winter vacation began in early December, there was a long break from school. Unmindful of the cold and minus temperatures, we looked forward to a lot of snow and a lot of free time to enjoy it to the fullest. I remember waking up to a blanket of snow after nights of heavy snowfall. Outside, on chilly winter mornings, we could see our own breath. The trees, their branches robbed of late autumn leaves, were all bent, drooping with snow. The silence of the snowfall that heightened the quietness around, was broken by the chirping of birds.
Traffic on the streets was thin. Everything slowed down. Snow also brought along the prospect of a lot of fun activities for children. We would make tall snowmen by piling up and chiselling mounds of fresh snow with other kids in between quick breaks to warm up our cold hands. We would engage in friendly fights of shene jung by lobbing snowballs at each other. Some slightly more adventurous kids would smuggle out a kanger and some unusable bulbs, then place them inside the fire pot before lobbing them into frozen water streams. The resulting thuds on impact and the shattering of the glass, would delight them. Other kids went on random sprees of breaking long icicles (sheshar gant) hanging from the rooftops as the accumulated snow froze in the following days.
At home, we would warm ourselves, both hands inside our little winter cloaks called pherans. We were allowed to hold and warm our hands on kangris for some time only in the presence of elders till we were adult enough to have one of our own. The kanger was considered too hot to handle for the kids. With the onset of winter, young and elder family members carried it around inside their pherans like a prized possession. One could not rely on electric gadgets as power cuts were long and persistent. But kanger was ever reliable. An essential part of every household in Kashmir during winters, it’s like an indigenous personal heating system everyone could afford. It could warm up anyone who kept it close. Kids were allowed to share the kanger held by an elder by keeping their hands on it inside their pheran but under their watchful eyes.
Sometimes, as soon as the elders would fall asleep, seeing a quick opportunity, the kids would carefully slip away with their kanger. The sleep-inducing heat of kanger would do the trick. I remember that childish delight we kids would get, seeing elders suddenly waking up from their sleep after accidentally dipping a finger into their kanger. Sometimes the complete possession of a kanger came with a price. On numerous occasions, the children would end up toppling the firepot on the winter matting, especially the warm namdas. And the guilty party knew that the most difficult job was to clean up the mess leaving minimal traces of the damage caused by the embers and the ash. That was the only way they would escape with a mild scolding from the elders in the family after they had found out about the crime.
Winter also brings changes in food habits as most of the households relish what is commonly known as hokh syun— different vegetables sundried for some time in late summer and autumn and later stored for consumption in winter. Hokh syun includes many dried vegetables like dried bottle gourd, locally known as alle hachei; dried brinjal (wangan hache); dried collard greens (hokh hakh); dried tomatoes (ruwangan hachie); dried turnip (gogge arei); dried quince apple (bam choonth), etc.
Growing up, chilai kalan was also the period when kids spent more time indoors with plenty of time to hear stories from their grandparents. I remember how my late grandmother would lovingly place a potato, sometimes an egg, to bake for me inside her kanger. I would impatiently wait for it to cook. In the meantime, in order to divert my attention, she would narrate a story from her yesteryears. I would immediately place my hands in the front of her pheran on her kanger. My cold hands would slowly warm up with that velvety, warm touch of her exquisitely embroidered pheran as I waited for her to narrate yet another story.
She would narrate stories and anecdotes of her growing up years and youth in her unique, grandmotherly style full of different intonations and gestures at appropriate occasions. She was the best, the most entertaining storyteller. No book, no movie, and no cartoon show can ever bring alive those stories the way grandmother would. She was a walking, talking storybook. She was my school at home. In winter, after tuitions in the afternoons, I would fling my bag aside and sit in front of her holding her kanger, which was always warm. I remember that loving touch of her wrinkled, warm hands on my little hands, as she would begin digging into her wealth of memories to narrate another exciting story.
I would listen to her tales in rapt attention, misty-eyed, always in awe of her storytelling skills. Every ordinary character and every trifling detail would come alive in her unique narration. And she always kept the rest of the stories for another day. She was never short of fables that warmed the hearts of children. Sometimes the only distraction while listening to her stories was that potato or an egg she had kept inside her kanger for me. It had to harden fully, deep beneath the embers and ash in the kanger before I could taste it at the end of those story sessions. And after all that wait, she would lovingly uncover and unpeel the fully baked hot potato. It tasted even better. The onset of winter, and the silence of the accompanying snowfall, rekindle warm memories of childhood. They’re precious. You only live them once, but they stay with you for a lifetime. Like a warm, loving hug of a grandmother long gone and forever missed.
ALSO READ: Lost And Found In Untrodden Kashmir
RELATED: An Adventure In Snow