In Like a Lamb, Out Like a Lion

Winter in Kashmir -- an extended, revised version of an earlier post.

When last spring I began to consider moving to and living in Kashmir for an entire year I often heard tell of bitter cold nights that lasted a lifetime, of entire villages buried in snow, of roads closed and power out for weeks on end – of the confounding trials of a frigid season in an under-developed, Himalayan region without indoor heating.

"You're staying there during the winter?" asked Rafiq Kathwari, a Kashmiri journalist cum photo-documentarian who now spends much of his time in New York. "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 daily rising of the mercury became as reliable as that of the sun.

Then in the early days of November the sun took regular siestas and that long, roomy overcoat-poncho, the Kashmiri pheran, quickly became ubiquitous. By the time I'd arrive home from work after the ten minute bike ride in the evenings my hands were nearly numb. And one evening I saw a man maneuvering something unseen under his pheran. When I walked past closely 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 winter wife a phrase that sounds much more pregnant in Kashmiri. But feeling generally warm enough at home, I shrugged off these developments and girded myself for what lie ahead.

A few days later just before dinner – as a wet, chilly day turned misty evening then bone-chilling night and I put a heavy wool cardigan on over my zipper hoodie, which topped another sweater and t-shirt – winter arrived. And as I finished my meal and shut the doors to keep out the chill, I saw it. 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 understood. In Kashmir the winter is not the one with which we Westerners are familiar. Yes, in New York temperatures drop below freezing, great snowstorms interrupt normal life, and ice mocks us on the roads; we have to bundle up against the cold, and plagues of flu can temporarily lay low entire towns. But no matter how cold, no matter how hard the wind blows or the snow falls, like an ill-mannered neighbor winter can be brushed away by shutting the door and pulling closed the window. The furnace clicks on and our home or office or wherever we happen to be – and we are mostly indoors – becomes a womb of one's own. We forget the world outside, the time of year, the cold, and go about our lives. But in Kashmir winter is a season just like any other, and when it comes it's everywhere, in our kitchens and bathrooms, our parlors and our bedrooms, and until it recedes we must pile on the layers, grin and bear it.

For the last four months plus I had done just that. But the infamous blizzards never came. The frigid cold mostly stayed away. And then in early March – right about the time my patience had worn thin – the season started to roar: a sanity-sapping fortnight of snow and rain, wind, chill and incapacitation.

First, three days of fat flakes buried Srinagar under more than a foot of snow. The Srinagar-Jammu National Highway , Kashmir's unreliable link to the outside world, was closed to traffic. For several days the Valley was without eggs, chicken, mutton, milk and most vegetables. Schools were closed for a week. All flights in and out were cancelled. The power went out for three days and for the next week flicked on only intermittently. The snowstorm would've been the last straw if it hadn't been so beautiful and so much stinking fun.

And then just when Srinagar had dug itself out and the snow had mostly melted, we were whalloped with three days of nonstop rain. The roads of my Rajbagh neighborhood flooded, along with many others. Schools closed again, as did the National Highway. Meals consisted of breadstuffs and rice and pre-made packaged curries. Mobile networks and Internet connections were woefully inconsistent; cross-town friends might just as well be in Bangalore. And without power, again, I couldn't work.

Now, I'm not saying it was hell – people are suffering through vastly worse days, weeks, even lives, across the globe. But after the long cold winter it was enough to drive a man, at least this man, half batty. I was short-fused and fussy for most of March. I hated Kashmir, the government, my computer, the Internet, my phone, my colleagues, even my market vendor. The longer the harsh weather lingered, the more I growled.

And then, without warning, April rose up like a dream. I looked out the window and praised Allah, Buddha, and Jesus – ten days of on and off precipitation and the 100-odd hellish days that preceded it had apparently come to an end, at long last. Today the sun is shining, and children are playing cricket in muddy open squares. Women are out chatting and shopping in twos and threes. Men stand laughing at tea stalls and snack shops. The mynahs are singing. Kites and pigeons are getting amorous on rooftops. Grass is greening, buds are sprouting; spring is swing in Kashmir.

And I'm still here. Slightly shaken, perhaps, a bit stirred, but alive and well. Take that, Rafiq.

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