In Bleak Midwinter

First off, is it bleak? Midwinter in Calcutta, that is. Not at all. It’s just a handy, attention-getting phrase, poetically fitting for any applicable occasion. Calcutta definitely qualifies, because of its inherent poeticism, if nothing else. Granted, such impressions can be found most anywhere, but because around here, we happen to concentrate on Calcutta’s version of such, no further explanation is needed.

In any case, its colours muted, its populace bundled-up, its temperatures ranging from bracing to median, with Durga Puja, Deepavali and Christmas done, and Saraswati and swan not yet in view, it’s because, in this season, an interval of sorts has descended on the city.

After the given holiday, the ‘stage crew’, so to speak, moves quickly. Santa and all his flamboyant trappings are hustled off to make way for the next act in the constantly revolving show. (I used to work in the theatre, and backstage, we had to change sets and settings with non-negotiable dispatch.)

As far as collective energy is concerned, there’s a palpable easing-up from the more hard-driving characteristics of Bengal’s other five seasons. The fidelity of the Calcuttan spirit is not particularly transformed, but its persona is rendered in gentler tones. More contemplative, too. For many, perhaps a time of study, of reading… and more device-addiction than usual.

Way, way out here in the wild centre, the meadowy morning mists of the wide Maidan veil the topless towers of Chowringhee quite agreeably from our treasured and thoughtful solitude. My Delhi vest, Himachal cap and Madras scarf complete the strolling townsman’s kit of the season. The Maidan is sacred ground, so that anyone can witness the epic that is Calcutta, firsthand.

Sometimes, perambulation in Cal’s coy winter can become downright arctic.This is because, if a comparatively chill rain falls after some period of dryness, the particulate matter gathered on both footpath and street becomes liquified, and as slick as Canadian ice after Moose Jaw’s first wintry storm.

Winter is a choice time to appreciate the city’s nocturnal side. Always enticingly attractive, the nightscapes have their own special ambience. I’m especially drawn to the pictorial nuances found in the lanes of the core city, when the naked lightbulbs don’t seem to glare as much, and the shadows above are elegant, even monumental. Glowing panes here and there speak of day’s-end cosiness.

The bustle and its associated effects remain, of course, but the winter mood allows them to be a bit more restrained, even though the range may be measurable in subtle increments.

Before the burst of LED luminescence turned Calcutta into a Parisian City of Light, there were great gulfs of cosmic emptiness out in the Maidan, and along Hooghlyside, instilling not a little unease for the lone walker, but still, the pull was irresistible. Good heavens, it was all so grand, so mysterious, so Calcuttan: a vast city holding its own, in its own ways, on the edge of the universe.

I so relish the ‘new’ streetlighting in the city and the theatrical virtues it reveals. In past days, I may have fumbled in the dark sometimes, but never stumbled, and certainly never tumbled. There was always enough ambient glow in the brown night to ensure a parade of magic images would materialise along whatever route was chosen. Strand Road, Esplanade, round the Raj Bhavan, to Chowringhee, the great routes always got you home.

Speaking of nocturnal images, a long time ago, when trams still plied over Howrah Bridge, and I slumbered in my Chowringhee Lane quarters, I dreamt I was in a tram, mid-span, at night. And it was snowing, quite heavily. I thought nothing of it, as I was enjoying the familiar rumble as the girders slipped by.

However, the flakes were really piling up, and I wondered if a snowplow brigade was on its way. I awoke, as the punkah above had stopped (‘twas in the old load-shedding days), and I felt the closeness of late May take over.

A wintry fantasy – a wish perhaps – to be in some abode of snow, instead of that defined by urban struts, streets and bricks? Not likely. Thoughts out of season are rare here, mainly because the Calcutta of the moment has so much to offer, whatever time of year. Right now, it’s midwinter, and things are not necessarily bleak.

Still, intrigued with the notion of a Calcutta covered with snow, if only for a few minutes, I made a photo-painting of the moment, to capture the dream.

Stay curious, have fun, and be sure to come when Calcutta calls!

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