Hurriyat (G) chairman’s memories of ‘chilai kalan’

Syed Ali Geelani
SRINAGAR: These are strange times. The sun shines brightly in winters and the weather is too dry for people to hide indoors. During my childhood, winters used to be a different experience altogether. A season of thrill and ecstasy in which the warmth of family’s togetherness and fairytales from grandparents eliminated the freezing cold and knee-deep snow. Things have certainly changed a lot.
Back then, it used to snow a lot in Kashmir Valley. The soft, white blanket cloaked everything that existed, and thickness of the snow submerged up to the knees any adult human who dared to step outside. Snowfall was always followed by an immense drop in temperatures, freezing the snow, and forming thick, long icicles that hanged down the thatched rooftops of houses. The icicles outside the window appeared like the iron-grills that are a common protective feature of the modern structure. And it was the same everywhere—in cities, in towns, and in the villages far separated from the urban areas.
Life came to a grinding halt with the snowfall, and water supply was always foremost causality. Every household was rendered waterless, leaving us with the single option of extracting water from the snow. Bucketfuls of snow was carried indoors from lawns and compounds and melted down using firewood to yield water, which was used for drinking, cooking, and for cleaning purposes.
Knee-deep snow on the ground challenged anyone’s intentions of stepping outside the house. And tackling this challenge required a method. A group of adult men first walked over the snow to carve out a path, and then others used that path to move around.
On rooftops, the snow threatened to collapse the houses. I remember every household in those days possessed a wooden staff that had a horizontal-plank fitted at its mouth. It was meant for clearing the rooftops off snow. The men of the family risked their life to climb the rooftops and used this tool to push snow to fall onto the ground below.
Harshness, however, didn’t dull the ecstasy that winters brought. We children stayed indoors most of the time, and for us evenings were the time to listen to the fairytales narrated by elders in the family. Past sunset, all children in the family cuddled around the elders to listen to the stories of fairies, and of ghosts. Tales of Yusuf-Zulaikha or Laila-Majnoo were most common.
I still wonder how those uneducated elders remembered the stories. There used to be Urdu storybooks in the house, and these elders could actually read from the books. They had memorized the stories also. Tales engrossed us, and we even missed arrival of the night. Listening to the stories, we didn’t even realize how the evening passed and the night arrived.
One winter, I was sitting in a room at my home wearing pheran with a kangri inside it. I was a kid then. I tried to get up and the kangri overturned, and the spilled-over embers burned my thighs. Doctors and health centres were unavailable in those times; people usually used the traditional methods of treatment. My family burnt to ash a straw-rug used on the floor, and that ash was applied to the burns on my thighs. It was the common treatment to burns those days. It worked on me too.
That was an age of self-sufficiency for Kashmiris. Despite abject poverty we all lived in, each family was self-sufficient in everything from food to firewood to livestock, ready to take on the rough winter that was an invariable feature of every year. We didn’t depend on market supply of the essentials, almost nullifying the impact the closure of roads and highways could otherwise have.
Preparation for winters started during the summers only. We dried almost every vegetable that was available in summers. Most commonly used vegetable, ‘haakh’, was exposed to sunlight for drying. In winters when the vegetable didn’t grow in frozen soil, the crisped green leaves were ground, and cooked. Allah! Allah! I can’t express the sweetness of that dish. Likewise, every vegetable was sundried in summers for consumption in winters. Surprisingly, no diseases were caused by the use of these dried vegetables. Nobody required to visit doctors and health centres frequently.
Most families used to possess chicken and a few had cows too as pets. Thus the eggs and milk were also produced locally, limiting our dependency on markets for these products. The families used to consume the eggs produced in their own backyard, and the surplus was shared or sold to the neighbours or the needy. Milk was shared among neighbours by the same principle.
It all seems a forgotten chapter of our history now. The weather has changed, and so has the culture we follow.
It snows very little in winters these days. The icicles are a rarity. People can walk around in winters as they do in summers—something that was near impossible in the good olden days. This natural climatic transformation is affecting our agriculture, and health.
Unfortunate, however, is the way we are ignoring the culture. Fear enough that heaters and hamams replaced kangris, but the other symbols of our culture have become victim to our urge to ape the western culture.
We are deficient in everything for we have made ourselves dependent on markets. Thus the sober winters now look harsher. Our elders could read stories written in Urdu without having received formal education, but our younger generations are strangers to the language. And the sundried vegetables cause disease now.
Things have certainly changed a lot!—As told to Kashmir Reader correspondent Danish Zargar