Michigan diaries: Songs of the snow

Michigan diaries: Songs of the snow

By Debotri Dhar | 26 December, 2015
Sometimes the snow can be a dear friend, his flowing white beard glittering like diamonds.
“I am younger each year at the first snow. When I see it, suddenly, in the air, all white and moving, I am in love again and very young and I believe everything,” the American poet Anne Sexton is said to have written to the poet W.D. Snodgrass, in a touching letter. Sexton committed suicide, like Sylvia Plath, after fighting a long battle with depression. Yet her poetry palpitates with love, the sharp measure of life, transforming bleak snowscapes into songs of hope.
As a child, my first taste of snow was on a balding hilltop in Kasauli, when I caught a rare snowdrift on my tongue and was astonished that it should taste of…nothing. I even tried to catch it, only to learn that snow can be sneaky. At Oxford, the bones experienced their first serious winter; it snowed continuously, and the river Cherwell flowing through our college became frozen and tight-lipped. But I remember the happy Welsh wintersong a friend would hum along the river’s bend. That was also my first year away from India, and the trees outside our Iffley Road apartment stood shivering, their naked branches twisted and blue. I would sit by a fireplace and sing many, many songs. The Hindi song Ruk jaana nahin tu kahin haar ke from the film Imtihaan, Urdu ghazals like Ghalib’s Jo aankh hi se na tapka toh phir lahu kya hai, Bangla Tagore songs like Nuton juger bhore, its line jaagbe totoi shakti jotoi haanbe tore maana referring to the shakti, power, in each of us, and harnessing it in positive, creative ways. Another favourite was Whitney Houston’s (Give me) one moment in time/when I’m racing with destiny. In those days, I came to see travel, and indeed all explorations of the unknown — new idioms, interpretations, art forms — as acts of courage.
Many snowy winters have passed since, in several different states of the United States: New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and now Michigan. Snow has become almost human, its pale face a mirror to the heart’s own desires and desperations. The first flurries are youthful and trusting (and so Sexton’s lines on love resonate), while older snow is reproachful, like an embittered snowman who only understands the rusty language of the shovel. In between comes a long, beguiling season with many slippery layers, an innocent misstep here, a nasty fall there. Sometimes the snow can be a dear friend, his flowing white beard glittering like diamonds. But in wintery worlds propped up by the meticulously constructed (un)truths of the powerful, can one really lean on, well, frozen water? Remember that song from Guide, based on raga Pahadi: Kehte hain gyaani, duniya hai paani, paani pe likhi likhayi/hai sabki dekhi, hai sabki jaani, haath kisike na aayi? Oh snow, both friend and foe…
Michigan is an interesting story. Some years ago, the University of Michigan had offered me a full scholarship for a PhD, but I chose to accept an alternative offer, one reason being the weather. “It will be too cold in Ann Arbor,” those in the know (and snow) had warned. That I should be back lecturing at the same excellent university following a series of happy coincidences teaches me that life often comes full circle, and one cannot always avoid harsh weather. That said, one wryly notes that some big snow days notwithstanding, this year has been warmer than usual…
With the university closing for Christmas break, we tried to help, in some small ways, those who for structural and other reasons undergo more suffering in winter than us. Afterwards, hugging my students goodbye and walking home in the twilight, the thought occurred that the good we do today, our love, affection, difficult acts of forgiveness, will perhaps be forgotten tomorrow. 
On a whim, I hummed again that once-forgotten Welsh riversong. Snow can stoke both faith and fire, I decided, despite this cold business called life, which ultimately spares no one, not even the powerful. And there is always some joy, always. So shall we sing our favourite songs of winter, and ring in the New Year with the poet Shelley’s optimistic “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

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