Wednesday, January 04, 2012

A Bengali Winter

Winter holds special meaning for a Bengali, very unique to him. A true Bengali values winter dearly, exposed as he is to a long sweaty summer.
The very thought of winter brings warmth. I grew up in Kolkata where we looked forward to the time when schools would shut down briefly and we would wait for "BoroDin" (Big Day) ,or Xmas. It is very common to call Christmas as Xmas. As a kid, when schools shut down during winter, I would go into hibernation.
Very like "Kumbhokorno", the giant brother of "Raavan", I would fall into delightful slumber, waking up only at the summons of meals. Munching baked, steamed, boiled, fried, deep-fried, delicacies I would ponder upon world peace, and such. Every Bengali ponders 95% of their time. If you catch a Bong, staring into nothingness, stand back! He is on the verge of a momentous discovery of his own. And perchance if you spot a Bengali with food in hand, mouth open, gaping in wonder at the air ahead of his nose, you know you have inadvertently fallen into the space-time continuum of a Baby Einstein. We tend to force ourselves as friend, philosophers, guides to unsuspecting friends and continually strive to come up with catchier remarks that will boggle the listener's minds.
I am one such person. On that far gone wintry day in Kolkata, munching a chocolate Monginis cake with a side of "Joynogorer Moyaa (special sweet balls from a place called Joy Nagar)" and "Puli Peethey" (sweet rice dumplings with syrup) I had come up with reasons for our love for Winter.
Well, really why do we love Winter so much and what does it mean for a Bong? I am one sample and it is a far fetched idea to extrapolate me and my observations into an entire community of people, but guess what that's what I am going to do.

The love for winter time is deep rooted in a Bengali's veins. It begins with waking up, feeling warm under the "Kaatha" stitched quilts and smiling at the bright shining sun. A hot chai never tastes better than in winter. Wearing the brightest and over sized sweater a Bengali ventures out. Wait! Before he can step out he steps back. The one clothing item a Bengali never leaves behind in winter, is his monkey cap. This ubiquitous cap in Kolkata, is just like the armor for Spartans in that crazy movie 300. The cap comes in various colors. Females prefer it in red while males settle for black or brown. The cap covers everything except the eyes and cheeks. The nose and the mouth are optionally visible. Every cold kid walks the street, looking (un)cool. Me and my sister did the same and have to this day retained our monkey cap and its legacy. As the Bengali Babu steps out dressed in sweater, dhoti, monkey cap, and an umbrella, he feels like a King. The umbrella serves multiple purposes in a Bengali's life. When not tucked under the armpits, it protects the precious head of a Bong against rain and sun, poke people in the queue to move ahead, act as a walking stick, but most of all, it is like the scepter of a king, establishing his imperial authority.
Winter time is magical. Cakes and baking aromas feel the corridors between the adjoined apartments. Neighbors squabble over superior cake recipes. When I was growing up, we had neither the baking oven nor the microwave oven. But my mother wasn't daunted. Armed with a pressure cooker, she set out to conquer the world of cakes. Her first effort involved packing sand into the bottom of the cooker and settling a flour mixture in a pan inside. We waited with bated breath as whistles blew. As the four of us huddled to watch, the cooker cover was removed. There, sitting cozily in the sand was our first fluffy home made cake. I shall never forget the joy of eating a cake that fresh. With ovens in my apartment and cakes that I have made a zillion times, the magic never recreated itself.

Christmas was a foreign concept until I heard about Santa Claus. I was in third standard then. This plump jolly old man in red and white uniform, distributed gifts to great kids on the Eve of Christmas. Buoyed by our newly acquired knowledge, we mentioned it to our mother, repeatedly. We believed it and somehow coming from the teacher's mouth, made it difficult to even disbelieve. I found out that stockings were required before anything could be gotten from this Santa Claus fellow. We had no stockings, chimney or fireplace, so our school socks went on top of our mosquito net that Christmas Eve. My mother ogled in disbelief. I looked up at my socks wondering what goodies would fill them up.
Waking up next morning, I looked up. Wrapped in Bengali newspaper, there was something on top. I pummeled and woke my sister up. As we both scrambled out of our bed, I reached for the gift. The smelly socks had not been touched. (I figured Santa Claus wasn't very giving when it came to smelly socks!)

Unwrapping like a maniac, we found our Christmas gift. It was a pair of Badminton rackets and shuttle cocks! More than delight, I was astounded! Santa Claus really existed! We brought the flat down, yelling for our parents to come and look. Once they were up, we rambled on and on in amazement, happiness and faith for Santa Claus, oozing from every word we spoke. I still recall my dad's remark to my mom (which I had ignored on that day), "Wow! They really bought this Santa Claus idea, huh?"

School friends, teachers, apartment bullies and neighbors were the next to know about our Santa Claus visit. Needless to say they tried poisoning our belief with logic and rationality. They finally won three years later.

It is the gifting idea, albeit foreign, but great that a Bengali likes about winter. Then there is the famous cake from the corner bakery shop. My favorite is Monginis and then my mother's office cafeteria. My mom bought fruit cakes from her canteen several times for us. Every Bengali buys the cake and the "moyaa" together for his family. A little bit of Christmas with a little bit of tradition. The holidays mean television shows filled with Uttam Kumar's movies or Shahrukh's prancing. And the end of the year synopsis which a Bengali remembers, revises and quizzes his neighbors on. Who died? Who won what? Whose record was broken?

I have found the Bengalis to be the most voracious reader. And a season of winter holidays translate into quilt, tea and a book/newspaper. My dad settled into his chair early in the morning with his newspapers and wouldn't budge until he had gone through every page. In winter, we would do the same. And then pick up a book and start reading till we dozed off into sleep. Every Bengali reads and sleeps to see what he has just read, come to life in his dreams. I am no different.

A hot sweaty summer is never as conducive to happy hours of reading as a warm cozy winter. We never had heaters, so colorful quilts with unique stitching adorned our beds. The workers knitted and sowed overtime for this month. Bengali grandmothers would be found sitting on rocking chairs on the terrace, during an afternoon, knitting sweaters for the little ones. The winter afternoons meant sitting in sunshine. It also meant running to the terrace with oranges,ludo game and a mat ("shotronji"). It meant supervision by mom and playing for us. Every time I smacked my sis in a game, I received an immediate counter smack from my mom. It was frustrating but that's how I learned world peace.

This winter I did much the same. Acted the Santa, ate a bunch of oranges in heat and bunch of sweets, played a game of Ludo with anyone willing, read a bunch of books, pondered upon world problems and felt ready to take on the world. New ideas formed seeds in my mind and like every pontificating Bengali, I am now on the look out for one whom to deliver my sermons! Happy Winter!


Sushant said...

Amusing description Meenakshi :)
One change is needed...I think you want to put Kumbhokorno and not Ghotoethkoch ;) for the giant brother of Ravana

Anonymous said...

Not all bengali women wear monkey caps. At least not after the age of thirteen. At least not the self respecting ones. Please do not extrapolate this personal peculiarity on the rest of them.

Meenakshi said...

Sushant and Tania (who has pinged me separately) THANKS to both of you for correcting me. I have made the change. It is Kumbhokorno!

Annonymous - an interesting read does not comprise of common habits and attires. It is the peculiarities that make my post funny.

Maven said...

maybe you should wear the red monkey cap to work one of these days :-D

Gargi Ray Datta said...

I always love reading ur blogs...its always refreshing...and to some extent some of your experiences of childhood are so similar to mine...only forgotten... :(