Winter Musings: Part One

The great thing about my school was the generous winter holidays we used to get. Those days our school sessions followed the calendar year- January to December. So the first week of December saw us appearing for our final exams, with a geometry box clipped smartly into the clipboard we used to carry to the classroom. The clipboard was employed to ensure that we did not drill holes into our answer sheets as they lay spread on the rough classroom desk. The temperature was still reasonably moderate till then, so we could get away with just a half-sweater. Some “weaklings”, as we used to call them, would come fully armoured with a thick full-length sweater and a monkey-cap!

Anyway, the exams were but a mere impediment to the 5-6 week long winter vacation which would follow. Of course there was the small issue of the annual reports to be dealt with but that was just an occupational hazard of being a school student. Thankfully my marks were pretty much ok and more often than not I would be one of the top three rank holders of my class. This meant that I was called upon the stage, in front of my justifiably beaming parents, to receive a prize from the school principal. Ours being a Jesuit-run school (Loyola, Jamshedpur), the prize ceremony also had the usual Christmas tableaux preceding the ceremony on stage. I remember being assigned different roles in different years. A tailor in one, one of the three Magi in the other. Or just a “Christmas tree” in another. And in good X’mas spirit we also would learn how to hum “Silent night, holy night”, “Rudolph, the red-nose reindeer”, etc.).

All good fun. In anticipation of the bigger fun which followed the prize ceremony, the winter holidays!

The one great thing about the winter holidays was that the books of the preceding 12 months were of no use. After all we were moving from one class to another! Hence, there was no homework either. What followed was an unadulterated month and a half of fun which got over only when the school reopened on the Monday after Makar Sankranti (14th January).

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Upon return home after the last paper of the final exam, I would have a quick bite and head-out to see what my neighborhood friends were up to. They would all be outdoors, playing in the sun. Winter season sports were varied. Cricket was, of course, the most popular one. We would all get onto the neighborhood field (an open patch with a sprinkling of grass on an undulating piece of land covered mostly with pebbles, really) attempting to become the next Bedi, Gavaskar or Vishwanath. Some would even fancy themselves to the next Salim Durrani who was the equivalent those days of Sehwag, if and when he succeeded in scoring some runs. Some other players who thought they were as agile as Eknath Solkar would end up with bloodied shins and elbows trying to take an impossibly placed catch right in the middle of a rubble in the “field” of ours.

The cricket session depended on whether the sole supplier of the cricket gear to our group was home or not. And if home, if he was in the mood to play or not. Often he would be found on the terrace of his house rubbing vigorously litres of mustard oil (sarson ka tel) on his body soaking in the winter sun before his bath. An application of mustard oil in winter was believed to give one strength to brave the winter onslaught besides of course making one’s skin more soft and supple.

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We never despaired if cricket was not possible, there were several options available. The two most popular winter season games were gilli-danda and marbles. Neither required any elaborate kit and we were not dependant on anyone to supply us that. We would fashion, impromptu, our gilli-danda with some branches cut surreptitiously from our neighbors’ guava or mango trees. If you do not understand what gilli-danda means you probably are reading the wrong blog and I shall not attempt to explain the sport to you. For those you do understand the game, you will agree that it was a magical day spent outdoors under the winter sun! Gilli-danda with all its multiple variants. Ditto for marbles!!

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The winter sun would set early in Jamshedpur, say around 5.30 pm. It would also get cold and there was no question of staying outdoors any longer. So off we trudged back home on our weary feet. Our grimy bodies longing for a wash, our parched throats aching for drink. A cup of hot Horlicks, more often than not. Our parents would also swathe us in elaborate winter clothing, the winters in Jamshedpur could be pretty severe. Suitably fortified with drink and clothing, I would proceed to my next- and very pleasurable- activity. No, not TV serials, there was no TV around those days. Books were what delighted me when indoors. As I lay tucked into my rajai.

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I have done most of my reading of Hindi literature during my school winter vacations. The very first day of holidays Pitaji would get for me some 8-10 books from his college library. Not only books written by Premchand, Dharmvir Bharti, but also translations of Bengali novels into Hindi; I then used to read the novels of Bimal Mitra and Shankar.  If the college library was not enough, there was another library those days in the city, the one belonging to Gandhi Peace Foundation which to my surprise had a lot of stuff even beyond Gandhian literature. Like American books on science and history. If there was nothing else available then there was always this library local Community Development Center run by the Tatas which had among other back issues of Readers Digest.

Winter, as you would agree, is a time for winter clothing. Those days these were confined to sweaters. Half or full. And nearly all hand-made. With balls of wool bought from a store in Bishtupur; “Dongarsidas and Sons”. There were the packaged balls, branded Modella (with the brand logo of a lion) if I remember correctly, and there were the cheaper “loose” wholesale variety. The store also helpfully sold knitting needles (called “kaanta” in common-speak). Mai and others spent many a winter evening knitting sweaters. The single-coloured ones with the following the basic patterns were the simplest to knit. There were more complex designs, the self-design in the single coloured ones, and they was also the dual-tinted wool. Women would kind of memorize the knitting sequence and would recite aloud as they sat knitting among their groups of friends, “Ek-ulta, do-seedha, do-seedha, ek-ulta.” Etc etc. And as the knitted piece of the wool lengthened, they would call whoever was available close-by to check the length.

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(To be concluded)

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