Some memories just stand out for no particular reason. They may be subjective, unreliable, completely inaccurate, but they mean so much to us as individuals
Memories affect us more than we think they do. I like summers because they remind me of holidays — summer vacations to be precise. As a child, the free time and all that we could do with it was a lot more important than the harshness of the season.
Logically, there must be a reason, a strong memory, to make me dislike winters.
Besides being an antidote to summers, winters remind me of exams. I did not like exams; I was petrified by the idea of being judged in this manner about subjects I wasn’t really interested in. It was a huge burden on our tiny shoulders that we had to carry twice every year: in December, and again in March. So the entire winter was spent preparing for those two exams. The classrooms in public schools were unheated, quite like our homes then, and writing an exam paper for two to three hours with frozen fingers wasn’t easy. It did get better once you started writing though I still haven’t figured how.
I can’t remember if there ever was a winter break, because it must have been spent thinking of the exam result.
The staff rooms in the schools were cosier somehow. Once you opened the door to leave or pick the copies for your favourite teacher, you found many of them gathered around an apology of an electric heater whose burning rods kept their hopes alive.
Not all memories are unfond though. Some just stand out for no particular reason. They may be subjective, unreliable, completely inaccurate, but they mean so much to us as individuals.
In my growing up years, in the 1970s and ’80s, Christmas and New Year were not celebrated the way they are now, in this age of plenty. I have this vague recollection of holding my mother’s hand and a Shezan cake in the other to take to my brother’s tuition teacher, Ma’am de Silva. An Anglo-Indian widow, a mother of two sons, she was his oldish teacher at my brother’s school, Saint Anthony’s. She used to coach students at home to supplement her income. Her house was in the fascinating by-lanes behind what became Naqi Market on the Mall Road. It was a small, tidy, nicely done apartment, on the first floor perhaps, with hard board partitions, the front room reserved for teaching. She spoke in what seemed to us impeccable English and taught sincerely. A Christmas cake pleased her no end.
As a child, I always thought that Christian houses were much nicer, tidier and tastefully done than ours.
A major part of our day was spent on the happening rooftops: the knitting aunts, the exam preparation, the kite-flying. And of course, the oranges.
Another memory that has stayed in the mind is of us children and a lot of family members being huddled in a train compartment at the Lahore railway station. It was the usual journey to Multan to my maternal grandfather’s house. It was a night train and exceptionally cold. I don’t know why I remember this image of mother trying to fit me on a sleeping berth, and making me wear two socks on each foot. I don’t remember wearing two pairs of socks ever again, leading me to conclude that Lahore winters had become less harsh over the years.
Winter also meant women knitting endlessly. These were your own teachers in schools and aunts at home. My working mother would not indulge in frivolities like these but my aunts, phuppis and khala, did. Sitting with their bundles of colourful wool and needles, weaving interesting patterns and showing them off while conversing in groups is what I remember vividly. Those hand-woven sweaters, scarves and shawls did not just warm us physically; they tied us all in warmer relationships.
They mostly did this on the rooftop, under the winter sun. The smart ones would start their knitting before the actual winter began. The season left us all exposed in every sense. The houses were cold; hence the sunny rooftops were a life-giving alternative. So a major part of our day was spent on the happening rooftops: the knitting aunts, the exam preparation, the kite-flying. And of course, the oranges. You could not imagine winters without oranges, peeled and consumed by the dozens.
Honestly, I can’t remember a lot of fancy winter foods except gajar ka halwa that I really relished. I have vague memories of a few women around me wearing long coats over their saris and looking very proper. Others flaunted their Kashmiri shawls.
As I grew older, I started associating winter with grief because there were more deaths in the family, especially in December. And then that phase passed too.
Personally, winters don’t seem as vulnerable now as they used to. Many of us have crossed over to that side of the divide where plenty rules. But the two sides have become far more distant than in my childhood. The early morning vapour rings from the mouth and the accompanying sense of wonder; these can only be evoked in memories.