Memories of a Kashmir Winter

My first memory of winter is of an early morning when I woke up and looked out of the window to see the branches of a pear tree in my grandmother's orchard surrendering to the weight of snow. I remember everything as white, silent and peaceful as thick flakes fell like cotton. I must have been five or six. For children, winter in Kashmir meant long holidays. With schools shut and the routine work of adults halted for several months, it was always a season of family get-togethers.

Winter in Kashmir has its distinct phases.

It begins with a mild chill that grows slowly and enters into the 40-day-long Chillai Kalan, the harshest phase which begins on December 21 every year. The legend is that the earth goes dead in Chillai Kalan; the air is the coldest and the water freezing. The snow is thicker and drier, and lasts till the warmth of spring pushes its way up, thawing the frozen life of the Valley. It is followed by Chillai Khorud, when the snowflakes are watery and have a shorter life. Ten days of Chillai Bachi the winter's child is next. Next comes a fortnight of Ganda Bahar, literally the dirty spring, when rains drag the sludgy remains of the winter on to the streets.

Winter turns Kashmir's inhabitants to a state of hibernation; they huddle around wood stoves, go to bed early and wake up late, and carry the warmth of kangris (small charcoal stoves) inside their traditional pherans.

Though snowed-out roads and long power cuts always accompanied the whiteout, winter in Kashmir's villages somehow seemed less harsh then. Perhaps that is a young boy's memory of winter of munching snow and plucking an icicle to eat, things which would earn a rare scolding from my grandmother. Every time my ice-cold hands would give me away, I would promise never to touch snow again. But I would always break the promise.

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