It is cold as a well digger’s arse in Srinagar. The valley has just slipped into the nippiest part of winter, locally called ‘Chilay-Kalan’, which lasts all of 40 days. There is something about the 40-day Chila [epoch]. If the Tabligi jamaat [band for spreading faith to the faithful] somehow gets hold of you around this time in Kashmir they are likely to whisk you away for a period of 40 days. And you will never ever be the same, I swear. Apart from mosque Hamams, Harisa pinds [joints] are just about the best places to recline and indulge in a free-flow of the juiciest gossip in town.
So in every sand and brick home, little kids – each cheek a shade cherry -- are wrapped up in layer upon layer of woolens and kan-topas [monkey caps]. They move around like miniature astronauts, muttering away in Kashmiri-accented Urdu [but mind you, no Kashmiri, else you sound like a Groos]. Grown-ups hug the ubiquitous Kangri, to not let it go even for a heart-beat’s span, periodically handling the fire with a stoker, tied to all wicker-and-clay Kangris. There is no fighting the CRPF when you wake up in the morning to fight the frozen-oven tap. The wintry lull is not without a reason.
With little news happening, except for the cut-and-dried-and-shrill news-bytes offered by the old man of Hyderpora (still intense) the mike-wielding gang is a worried lot. In absence of political news they occasionally dash off to the shores of Dal to report the ice floes [called Tula-katur] to their ignoramuses in New Delhi. The lake freezes over in parts every winter and long years back, someone drove a Jeep on it. That is folk-lore. There are ice-roads in northern Canada, Russia, Alaska, Scandinavia and elsewhere where truckers and motorists drive regularly on frozen waterways and ice roads but let us not digress too much from our fore-shore. Oh, Harzatbal rises like a florescent dome in glacial climes.
Despite the night temperatures dipping dangerously during the wintertide, the call for prayer [Azaan] always comes on time. In the countryside it is immediately followed up by an utterly pleasing cackle of coots, shovellers, pochards and wigeons. The songbirds tweedle upon treetops, singing in an almost melodic fashion, who knows, songs of winter and the joy of warmth. Deep in the pine jungles of Kashmir, which hide European Hoopoes and dark secrets in them, little indigo columns of smoke can be seen coming up from the Kothas [pit-houses]. It smells of simple wood-smoke at day-break.
When my generation was growing up in Kashmir, during the era of tea-colored bullets and power-less wintry nights, we thought in our juvenile abandon that Chillay Kalan must be an old, fat, Karakuli-wearing spook who exits his mountain cave at the onset of winters to bring all the frost and icicles and snow. Just like Santa Claus minus his goody-goody image. It does not snow like it used to when we were growing up. For the contemporary and politically conscious breed of Kashmiris, Chillay Kalan must be someone like Farooq Abdullah. Theatrical. All bark and no bite.