On a cloudy January evening, sixteen kilometres from home, half-numb, I wiped the glass on my side of the bus with my hand. Where the metallic sill of the pane met the air outside, a mossy substance had begun to slowly pile. It seemed as if the sky had begun to unburden itself along the edges of the coolest surfaces it could touch. Breaking through the cold-induced lull inside the bus, peopled turned hysterical. Phones were whipped out, men and women prepared to capture for posterity this example of climatic anarchy. It was perhaps the farthest they could feel from their own lives; only heaven could possibly compare to the landscape. I, on the other hand, knew the snow would be hell.
For a country that is largely tropical, congested and with climate change's foot constantly pressed to its backside, the sight and feel of snow is alien. It makes busy the months till March, for places like Manali, Dalhousie, Mcleodganj, Shimla. People flock to the hills, like birds that have caught the wind of a faraway mill. Not that summer doesn't bring a glut of tourists as well — and these places wouldn't have it any other way — reasons, unlike the seasons, don’t change. Winter though, ushers in a new decorum. Plight packaged as pleasure, the savageness of nature, drum-rolled to the keen sound of footsteps. Winter in India, is one of those times, when life, at least for the well-heeled becomes a miniature display of the concord between affordability and affability.
I was 15 when I first visited Manali. People were packed into giant buses headed for Rohtang Pass to get a glimpse of snow. They shook as they picked it up. They shivered when they eventually walked away. Having been born and brought up in Shimla, there was no walking away for me.
The first time I appeared for an exam in the month of December, I walked four miles in the white sheet of snow; at least 15 minutes of exam time were taken up in warming my hands and feet. I returned home a little red in the eye, and blue in the face. The beauty of the hills decked under the carpet of snow, its contrast with the sky and the roads that slowly warm to traffic in the aftermath — these couldn’t make me any less miserable. I wasn’t here to delve, I was here to dwell. Dwelling that is a sort of defiance, when daily life has to navigate biting cold, freezing water and the pain that bruised limbs or even the slightest over-cutting of nails can bring.
Most of the foreign culture we consume and aspire to comes from either Europe or America, places that look haggard and spent from centuries of cold and unforgiving snow and sleet. It is natural therefore that the most ambitious of cultural productions in India seek to translate that palette to our screens and minds. Consider films like Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black(2005) or Geetu Mohandas’ Liar’s Dice (2013): two films that aspire to use snow as some sort of third lever at the heart of the story but really only manage to append it to the postcard cinematography, the characters hardly interacting with the environment other than being predictably over-clothed. Literature fares even worse in this context.
My grandparents moved out of Shimla more than a decade ago; said it was too hard on their knees and too cold for their skin. In contrast to the unfettered movements of heroes and heroines dancing in the snow, film and television have never really come close to separating fantasy from the actuality of it all. A portrait of the uneven snow-covered mountain in the backdrop, essayed as your salvation. Those who live in its icy shade thirst for water that is frozen, supplies that stop, food that won’t cook or electricity that will eventually be cut. And that is just someone like me, tasked more often than not with staying warm, as opposed to those who fix wires, clear roads, carry supplies, deliver cylinders on their backs or get water to run when nature ensures it won’t.
Places like Shimla, Manali or Dalhousie are erratic in the way they are recorded, discussed or experienced. There are probably more articles and stories on the web that speak of the ‘perfect time’ to visit them than there are stories of death, disease and degradation of these places. There was a time when we watched television in winter and found joy for what the precious little it said about the place — “Snowfall in Shimla”. The only thing that put us on the map. What that consistently campaigned idea of a town that suddenly came alive in winter did was steal its reality of a hard life, and the humanity of those who carried its traces in their hands or spines.
On that January evening, our bus had to be pulled over miles from town. Not because everyone was merry and wanted in on its making, but because the roads were blocked, the electricity went out and everything stood still. Not for a moment, but eternity. I walked six miles, luggage in hand, to the nearest hotel I could find. I couldn’t feel my feet until dawn. I saw women and children cry, men furiously type numbers that if they weren’t dialling God, were pretty much useless at that time. Nothing the most important of men can do has any effect when nature unfurls the cloth of its lap. You may spell snow whichever way you like, call it cotton or white water, but the hurt and pain it inflicts, the debility it forces is real. It feels like rock to those who have to live with it, so they can live a little more.
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Updated Date: Jan 30, 2018 13:08:54 IST