Musing on the winters of our imagination

Musing on the winters of our imagination

By SUMANA ROY | 12 January, 2013

Is there an English poem which could be an equivalent to the song, 'Thandey thandey paani se nahana chahiye ...', if sung in winter?" That was one of the first questions I had to face in my career as a teacher of English Literature. It was a late November day in Darjeeling and I was meeting a class of twenty-year-olds or thereabouts at the Darjeeling Government College. I was to teach them the American poet Robert Frost, the mention of whose poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, was enough to give us the shivers on that finger-numbing wet-nose winter day. Frost — his name begins with a cold wave — is a delight to teach to students in the hot plains of India, for whom snow is a fantasy that has been passed on in instalments by chiffon wearing superwomen of Yash Chopra's Switzerland.

In Darjeeling, which had a commercial investment in winter, selling it throughout the year to newlyweds, snow wasn't exactly exotic. My student's question was a joke, true, but it was also a commentary, one that would be clear to me only with time: water was a scarcity in this hill-station, sometimes even more expensive than milk. Was it possible that our poets had written about water in winter?

Soon after, I read Amit Chaudhuri's Winter Poem, 1990. Here was a winter poem and it had the audacity to mention water in its very first line:

Women were washing saris by the lake,
and the evening had a light - ash-grey or blue.

The water word 'lake' appears three times in the poem, each time at the end of the line, like the splash of water. It is a 'winter poem', but there is no mention of the 'cold' or 'snow', the usual suspects in such poems. Winter is mentioned only once, as wispy, something that is faint, something for the eye alone: "winter smoke loose and delicate as their saris". And though it's a winter evening, you don't shiver, not even when you learn that the women by the lake are 'barefoot'. Winter?

There is a lake in Janice Pariat's poem Late January too. In it winter is a smell, as those who have lived mountain winters know. And "near the lake, /poinsettias drop to the/ground — the season's scarlet tissue. In the/ water, fish circle/the boat wrecks, waiting/for hyacinth to bloom". And you are tempted to reiterate the old childhood question: Don't the fish feel cold in winter?

Thanda thanda pani ...

There are — if one reads these winter poems like I did, suffering from pneumonia — two kinds of cold: one that turned 'cold feet' into a metaphor, the other that did the same with the idiom 'out in the cold'. Anjum Hasan's poem The World as my Illness combines both:

January fever like the musk of a Bangalore evening when winter's going...
Northumberland boil on the sole of the foot...
when this language of grass and sheep hardly ever
needs the punctuation of mile-castle, turnstile, tree, when walking is
means without end, and then my foot understands and ashamedly heals.

Dropcap OnIt is easy to spot how Hasan is writing into William Wordsworth's poem The Daffodils ("I wandered lonely as a cloud ..."). In the cunning use of parody — "and then my heart with pleasure fills" in Wordsworth's poem is "and then my foot understands and ashamedly heals" in Hasan's — is diagnosis and cure, another humorous mocking of the English word 'cold' which is both a season and a disease.

Is winter an Indian season at all?

Priya Sarukkai Chabria, in The Gathering of Time: Dialogues with Kalidasa, calls winter "Sisira - the Season of Dew". Her winter is also a season of the mind, "the descent of whiteness:/More an emotion than a colour, /more a resolve than an emotion ..."; in this poem titled Winter is the psychosomatic declaration — "Into this bleach/ I must will myself to enter". And water? In Survival, which has this wonderful epigraph — "Polar Bears (Ursusmaritimus) ... are nearly invisible under infrared photography, only their breath and muzzles can be seen — the 'I' drifts, there's 'old fur', and (I) sniff the air .../Choked water holds my weight." Thanda thanda pani...

I notice how the three winter poems I read by male poets, the reading order completely random, mention 'winter' in the title but are not really about cold and chilblains. Not Amit Chaudhuri's Winter Poem, not Sudeep Sen's Winter, where "winter's breath is pink", not Kynpham Singh Nongkynrih's Winter Weeds (where the overwhelming question is not how to protect yourself from the cold but "but when shall I root out/the weeds from my heart?"). It's the same difference I notice between male and female attitudes towards air-conditioning in modern urban marriages: 'It's too cold' versus 'At 18 degrees?'

Two people. Two winters. Two continents.

So, whether it is Neelanjana Banerjee's poem First Melt, where "icicles unravel from the rooftops of this winter town", Tabish Khair's Couplets in Ice (a re-reading of the Snow Queen), or Koyamparambath Satchidanandan's Snow, a poem about winter in Moscow, winter — or a textbook winter if you will — is a foreign country. "Kerala does not have a winter. Only after I came to Delhi, it entered the realm of reality and also of imagination. Later, when I began to travel abroad," says Satchidanandan about his winter poems. In his poem, the snow "flock down like doves of peace/to crown the Pushkin statue.../like white bears with polar memories/ride the train-roofs of Kazan/... fly over the Volga like swans". Winter is a far-away, a there. I wonder whether there'll ever be an English colloquial that could hold the likeness of the phrase 'Dilli ki sardi' in it. Thanda thanda pani...

Is winter, then, an Indian season at all?

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