There is something magical about this time of year. The mornings start off with a mysterious mist, the evenings get a bit nippy, and basking in the sun becomes a real option rather than an ordeal to be endured. As George RR Martin would say, “Winter is coming.” But unlike Sansa Stark, I could not be happier about its arrival.
This has always been my favourite part of the year.
Growing up in Calcutta, we didn’t have much of a winter to look forward to. Yes, the days turned pleasant and a few nights were chilly enough to warrant the annual airing of our sweaters and shawls. But we still prepared for the season on a war footing.
Trunks of winterwear would be disgorged to awaken from their deep hibernation in the afternoon sun. Velvet coats, wool sweaters, pashmina shawls would be piled high on top of satin quilts on a sheet laid out on the verandah. And I still have vivid memories of rolling around on the pile, inhaling the smell of mothballs and marveling at how soft and sensuous (even though I didn’t know the word yet) the velvets and silks felt.
Winter would announce its arrival in other areas of the house as well. Pears glycerine soap would appear in place of Cinthol bars in the bathroom. The enticing smell of sarson ka saag would start emanating from the kitchen. White butter would make its appearance on our plates along with the mandatory makki di roti. And every morning, the gannawallah would stop by to sell us neatly-sliced sticks of sugarcane, and we would sit in the sunshine contentedly chewing cud all day long.
But I never really got a taste of real winter until I moved to Delhi as an adult. Working for a newspaper, all my budget ran to was a barsati, but much to my delight it came with a sprawling terrace, where I set up some wrought-iron furniture in the fond hope that I would spend my winter afternoons sunning myself like a cat that had had all the cream (or, in my case, desi ghee).
And yes, I did spend some splendid afternoons, curled up with a book, a steaming cup of coffee close at hand, enjoying the crisp beauty of a Delhi winter. But what I hadn’t bargained for was the cold.
The moment the sun went down and the wind started up, the thin roof of the barsati wasn’t much of a defence against the searing cold. And no matter how many layers I wore to bed or how many quilts I piled up on the bed, I was never really warm despite the heater valiantly dispensing a steady stream of hot air in one corner. And thus began my habit – that persists to this day; despite the fact that my bedroom is now warm and toasty thanks to an oil-based radiator – of going to bed with a hot-water bottle (which had the added advantage of making me feel like a character in an Agatha Christie murder mystery).
But despite all these minor inconveniences, I loved the Delhi winter. And I loved Delhi in the winter. The central roundabouts ablaze with purple petunias, red salvia, and chrysanthemums that covered the entire range of the colour spectrum. The subtle beauty of the flowering Alstonia tree. The smell of freshly-roasted peanuts being sold at street-side stalls. The sweetly-astringent taste of the first oranges of the season. The festive barbeques my friends set up in their backyards and front lawns. The bonfires around which we gathered as the temperatures dropped even further. I loved it all.
And yes, decades later, my love for the Delhi winter remains undimmed. In a recreation of long-gone childhood rituals, I still tip out all my winterwear to give it a good airing in the sun (though I stop my inner child from rolling around in it). I change my skincare regime in a nod to the season of chapped lips and cracked heels. I start my annual hunt for the tights and stockings put away after the last winter, before giving up the chase and buying a new lot – which I know I will inevitably lose by the next winter. And I carefully stagger my travel plans so that I don’t miss too many days of Delhi winter, because sadly, it is over in the blink of an eye.
How do I make the most of the season, you ask?
Well, let me count the ways. I schedule all my lunches – business and otherwise – in open-air restaurants so that I can make the most of sunny afternoons. Instead of staying cooped up in the gym, I go for long walks in Lodi Gardens (the flowering verges are a bonus). And I stock up on all my favourite winter treats – peanut chikki is my own Kryptonite – squirrelling them away for a chilly day spent in bed.
But most of all, I long for the barsati that was my first home in Delhi. It has long since been pulled down to make way for an international bank and a fashion design outlet, as part of the commercialisation of that part of Defence Colony. Nevertheless, every time I drive past, I am reminded of lazy afternoons past, and boozy dinner parties that made up my misspent youth. And that chill that never quite went away from my bones during that entire season.
And I am reminded once again why I fell in love with the Delhi winter. And I fall in love with Delhi in winter a little bit more.
From HT Brunch, November 27,2016
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