No, that's just Kashmir in November.
Hello, again. I haven’t updated in a while not because I’ve been too terribly busy but more because nothing terribly noteworthy had happened. Sure, I took a little detour to Turkey, which was really something, and just before that I enjoyed a wonderful dinner celebration for Agha’s 84th birthday, an evening during which I chatted with an amiable Delhi University professor who’d been tortured for thirty days and then sat on death row for about a year. But nothing really smashing, at least in my mind. Or maybe I’ve just been lazy.
Either way, the torporing doldrums ended this evening shortly after dinner. But first I have to back up a bit. Ever since I began to even consider the possibility of moving to and living in Kashmir I had heard tell of its fierce winters, of bitter cold nights that lasted a lifetime, of entire villages buried in snow, of roads closed, of frozen guns unable to fire, of the long-winded trials of a frigid Himalayan season in a region without indoor heating. Upon hearing that I planned to live in Kashmir an entire year, Rafiq Kathwari, a Kashmiri journalist cum photo-documentarian who now spends much of his time in New York, bluntly warned: “You’re staying there during the winter? You will die.” But as September waned the days were still warm, and then October brought little change: the sun still shone nearly every day and even if the nights had grown chilly the rising of the mercury became as reliable as that of the sun. That is until these last few days. The sun has taken a siesta. The Kashmiri pheran, a long, roomy dun-colored overcoat-poncho, has become ubiquitous. By the time I arrive home from work in the evenings after the ten minute bike ride my hands are nearly numb. And then this morning I saw a man maneuvering something unseen under his pheran, and when I walked closely past him I felt its warmth: a kangri! The mythical earthenware pot that Kashmiris hold underneath their outer coverings during the winter months, it holds perennially burning coals and is generally a substitute for what the developed world all but ignores: heating. The slang term is winterwife, a phrase that sounds much more pregnant in Kashmiri. But these things I shrugged off, girding myself for what still lie ahead. (And truth be told I haven’t heard a temperature number in months. But even if I had, it’s in Celsius, so 13, for instance, what does that mean? Sure, I could do the math, but I know offhand that it’s not the 13 of a Wisconsin November, I can tell you that much. It’s just nicely nestled in there somewhere between hot and cold, between pleasant and less so, between summer and winter. Cool. Sweater weather, as they say.) And of course I still felt generally warm enough in my home. And around the compound a few developments have taken place as well: the gorgeous maroon and yellow and deep blue winter flowers have bloomed; Mrs. Iftikhar – this is what Hussain calls her and I’m either not bold enough or too frightened to ask her her name – has become imperiously queen-like: ignoring me if I’m at her door asking for her husband, boldly strolling into my house unannounced to go upstairs and retrieve some knickknack or use the bathroom to wash her hands (apparently only my bedroom/living space is considered mine, the remainder of the house I live in is for all and sundry. This was not in the lease. Oh, that’s right, there is no lease.); and Tom, my pet stray cat, now feels comfortable enough to come into my room and sit and watch me eat from a few feet away, awaiting the chicken bones that are sure to be passed down. I am still not allowed to touch him, however.
But just before dinner, as a rainy chilly day turned misty evening then bone-chilling night and I put my wool cardigan on over my zipper hoodie, which was already on over another sweater and a t-shirt, winter arrived. And as I finished dinner and let Tom have at his bones outside rather than in, so I could shut the doors to keep out the chill, I saw it. Literally. Right there in front of my face as I opened a book. Hovering and vaguely opaque. It looked like smoke but I wasn’t smoking. And then it hit me. It was my breath.
And so I begin to understand. In Kashmir the winter will not be kept away with the shutting of a door and pulling closed of a window. It is a season, just like any other, and when it comes, it’s everywhere, in our kitchens and bathrooms, our living space and our bedrooms, and for five months or so, we must grin and bear it.
I’m cold, sure, but also rather excited.