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The Hindu
The Hindu
Shelley Walia

Warmth of winter

“How many lessons of faith and beauty we should lose, if there were no winter in our year!”

— Wentworth Higginson

Winter can be cruel and yet warm if you make it so. Depends where you are and with whom.

One such winter that I remember was in Oxford many years ago. I was alone, I remember, and most of the students had departed for their Christmas break. Very few of us were left in the college. Sitting in the common room, one often felt all alone; not a soul in sight or a perceptible whisper. The dining hall had also closed and so it was thrilling when some of us took turns in making the evening meal.

We would gather in turns at a friend’s flat around 7, have a glass of Prosecco and share a meal, often the German currywurst, sausages or pretzels followed by black forest gateau. And sometimes sauerkraut, a popular dish in my German friend’s village on the Rhine. I would cook chicken curry sometimes which was keenly awaited by most of them. Winter kept us warm in each other’s company, huddled as we were around a fire engaged in discussions on the fall of the Berlin Wall or the Bloomsbury Group.

Snow had begun to leave a tinge of inert dullness on everything. The tone of my life would on some days take a sombre turn. I mostly stayed indoors wrapped in my layers of thermals bought back home. On sunny days, I would go for a walk on Banbury Road and sometimes spend hours at Blackwell’s browsing and planning to buy the books I had long wanted to possess. Inside, the book shop was warm. One had a coffee in its cafeteria and a slice of chocolate truffle cake while reading a short story by Italo Calvino.

There was tenderness in observing the various movements on the campus, the ever-changing hue of the skies and of the age-old elms and the oaks. I remember the gentle punting ride with my few friends past Magdalen College, through Christ Church meadows where Lewis Caroll was teaching students in the mid-19th Century, when he wrote the famous Alice in Wonderland. Often, I would saunter through the university parks and watch the ducks prancing on the banks of the Cherwell. By the time I would reach my room, I would find my legs heavy and my hands frozen.

I would read Milan Kundera for much of the evening. I love him for, like Kafka, he “tells an unlikely story that chooses to be unlikely!” I love the theatricality and the dominating farcical quality about him. I too would try to put the heterogeneous elements in my life into a homogeneous architectural unit like his structured novels but the wayward counterpoints of those days often broke the symphony of my existence. However, Kundera’s novels were of immense inspiration, of comic relief and the joy of lampooning the oppressive days of his youth in Prague.

Elevating music

I always dreamt that winter of some great unexpected event in my life. But life seemed to ramble on within the shroud-like snow that covered everything. I would break out of a mood of morbidity and listen to Chopin’s Nocturnes or the classical mix of saxophone which brought back the pulsating buoyancy, the joie de vivre I needed so much. Music became and remains my greatest interest, a joy and comfort for me. I, therefore, sometimes went to see an opera which I began to regard as one of the highest forms of art combining the orchestral and vocal music with the visual beauty of costumes and the set. The effect of celestial harmony has often left me spell-bound with unalloyed pleasure.

Living so far away and being alone worried my father who cared for me deeply. Are you eating well? Do you go out? Are there any friends in the college who have stayed back? Circumvent dark corridors, he often advised. Don’t go out late at night. After my mother passed away, when I was still an undergraduate, he began to worry about me, my health, my studies, my affairs with a few women I met earlier on in life.

On a cold day, I sent my father a picture of the snow falling onto the tennis courts, which I knew he found calm and equable, beautiful even. But when I looked out through the window and remembered him sitting in his study alone and forlorn, my heart went out to him. I could feel only the dead earth and a frozen moment in time far away from the robust Symphony No. 9 of Beethoven’s or the beauty of Verdi’s opera La Traviata. But still, in the words of Andrew Wyeth, the American visual artist, “I prefer winter and Fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape — the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.”

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