Winters have started, unlike most Europeans, Americans, or anyone from the northern hemisphere, Indians in general welcome winters. I also enjoyed winter more than summer or monsoon. In summer it’s a dry heat and in monsoon, it is hot and unbearably humid. Wearing a light jacket, going out in the sun, road trips, bonfires, or drinking hot coffee, life thrives in winters. You will find most people outdoors and mostly happy. I feel charged in winters, eager to go out with friends and family to some known or unknown places, meet people, and live a few moments of life.
I spent most of my childhood in Allahabad (now known as Prayagraj) and have fond memories of winters. Our house is not far from the river Ganga. Ganga has a nature of changing path and in monsoon, its width increases to kilometers. Our house is at the edge of this expansion. In winter when the water is not that much, farmers sow mustard and peas in this sandy expansion. I used to go there often with friends for the entire day, eating peas and laying on the banks of Ganga was our favorite pastime. This distance from our house to the bank of Ganga was approximately 5 kilometers and there is nothing but mustard and peas fields. Just before the actual stream of Ganga, there are many narrow and shallow streams of Ganga. Depth is not more than our knees, water so clean that you can see small fishes swimming. It used to look like heaven. A place with complete silence, cold breeze, warm sunlight, clear water stream, white sandy river banks, and fields of mustard and pea till the horizon, I can not imagine a better place than this to relax. Tried locating the same place again in recent years, but was unable to find it. Sometimes it’s better to let something in memory rather than trying to relive it.
Another fond memory of my days in Allahabad is the bonfire. My father built a very big house, very much like a mansion, it has an open space in the center. We call it Angan (Courtyard, a quadrangle open space in the center of the house). I personally loved having a bonfire in that area, and then everyone who is shivering from winter used to come around and we used to chat for a very long time. We often use to cook (roast or BBQ) Bhauri (wheat flour dish, like chapati but thick, roasted directly on fire) in that fire and roast Eggplant and potato in that to prepare Bharta (a mash of roasted potatoes, eggplant with tomato, mustard oil, green chili, garlic, ginger, green coriander, and salt). It tastes awesome when it’s warm. Sitting around the fire and chatting with family members is something I have always cherished. I still fancy that. My 2 uncles house is adjacent as well, so we always had a lot of nephews and nieces, talking to them, pulling each other’s legs, and cracking jokes are what I always missed.
Winter is the time of the world-famous Maagh Mela as well, it’s happening every year at the riverbank of Ganga and Yamuna for ages. Every 6 years it’s called Ardh Kumbh and every 12 years it’s called Maha Kumbh Mela. Maagh Mela starts from Makar Sankranti (14th of January, the day when the Sun enters into the zodiac sign of Capricorn) and remains there for 1 lunar month. My father’s uncle used to go there with his wife and stay there for a month in camp. This is called Kalpvaas, It is mostly done by elderly people to get rid of their sins. One has to follow some rules to complete it, like staying in makeshift camps, taking a holy dip in river Ganga every morning before dawn, eat only once a day, sleep on paddy straw and spend the day listening to the preaching of Godmen (Sadhus) or praying to the Gods. It’s very cold in the month of January, some too elderly people die there as well, it is said that those who died there during this time will get Moksha. We used to visit grandfather and take a holy dip in the Sangam (merger of holy rivers Ganga and Yamuna). Sometimes we used to stay with them for a night. Eating homemade snacks and mostly boiled food and roaming around the area, It was like a camping and picnic trip to us. Luckily the vibe of this Mela is still very much the same, and I visit Ganga in every visit to my hometown. Maybe once I retire I will follow my forefathers and go there to spend a month praying to the Gods and get rid of all my sins (there aren’t many though).
It was a Christian village Muirabad where I was grown up, this was founded by Sir William Muir of Scotland in 1880-90. It was obvious that we had good exposure to this religion of India. Enjoyed Christmas with Christian friends and had great food with them.
Even after moving to Singapore in 2006, we used to plan a trip to India in winters until our final return in 2013. My European friends in Singapore used to ask me why in winters? They all used to curse winters and look for warmer places like Thailand, Malaysia, or Indonesia. It was difficult to explain to them so I used to tell them air-tickets are cheaper in winters.
One eye-opening dialog between father and me happened once. During a conversation I told him how much I like winters, wrap yourself in warm clothing, eat warm food and roam around, there is nothing better than that, he replied, “Yes indeed, if you have enough warm clothing and warm food to eat”. Growing up in a middle-class family and in the time when buying clothes is no big deal, I never realized that there was a time when people get scared of winters due to lack of proper food, clothing, and shelter, he has seen all those hardships which we take for granted. There were many incidences of my father’s life which I came across later, each added a lot of love and respect to him. He is still very healthy and strong because of the life he has lived earlier. Hardship in life makes one stronger.