A harsh winter night in Kashmir!

The day doesn’t entertain one much in Kashmir anyway and the nights shouldn’t be a surprise either. It only turns gloomier as the day breaks. Winters are harsh; it kills you silently, and the silence kills you separately. The darkness sets in at 5 pm, and as if we are trained biologically to get into our Pherans (traditional cloaks that protect you from cold). Soon after a competition ensues to secure a Kanger (hot embers in an earthen pot that rests in a cane basket), a Kanger is what keeps ordinary people warm in the most chilly winters. For most part it is an interesting inovation, it sends heat waves through your body and is easy to carry under your pheran.

Kitichen, in a typical Kashmiri house, is the warmest space of a generally spacious house. Since mothers spent most time cooking and warming meals that generally raises the temperatures making Kitichens a source of warmth and an escape from the brutal cold. Power cuts are forever, and can be particularly brutal. For where I made my stay, it generally was to last eight hours or so but often it went well beyond 12 hours. People always rush into their homes by 5 in the evening, and there are no night outs or any night bazaars. What matters is how the people manage to stay warm and kill the night.

Kashmir has had the worst days. During last twenty years, in it’s struggle for freedom from India, thousands of men, women and children were dusted to the ground, the nights at a household in Kashmir were scarier. Men come from where-you-have-no-idea about and snatch almost anyone they feel like, and you can’t fight against it, or go look for the missing ones in the morning. No one would tell you.

Here I sit in a kitchen, in an era when the conflict is relatively low key. But yet, the memories haunt all of them, you can’t find a soul who didn’t lose someone dear, who didn’t lose their own blood. They fear the nights. It’s important that we all sit together in the kitchen, where we all witness each other, our silence will speak for ourselves, and no one can drag us away in the silence. We talk, not too loud, and some fall asleep with the mild heat hoping for electricity to come back and disturb this precious moment. Mouj will recite the Holy Quran, softly. I wish I had understood what it meant. I am not sure if she understood it herself.

The Pheran is long enough for me to sit and cover my legs as well. I place the Kanger between my legs and absorb the heat into my soul. Heavenly it is. I can’t remember a single day like this back in Sri Lanka, where the blare of the TV didn’t fill in the living room, and candles melting itself away to give light. It was like everybody brought their share of pain and sorrow of the day and shed it across the Kashmiri carpet on the floor.

Dinner is almost ready, we are not gonna wait for the power to come back. Sometimes I wish, I could skip dinner and go jump into the bed, under the covers and sleep. I know how cold I’d feel if I move a muscle. But then, I remember the process of having to carry the mattresses from upstairs, unfold them in the bedroom, (oh, swipe  the carpet before unfolding the mattress there), and then bring down a heavier quilt, twice the size of the mattress, for which I would probably have to ask  a man in the house to help with. Ah, and then the other bed sheets, and the pillows, two maybe. That’s a humungous process. I’d rather have dinner and fall asleep in the kitchen until someone would ask me to wake up, and the beds are ready.

The only sound that would cut the silence is of the evening prayers, cascading from the mosque on the top of the hill not so far away from us. The voice is amazing and gives life to the so-far dead scene on the land. Everybody then sits straight from their weird poses of sitting and look serious. Mouj stands up then, spreads the dastarkhan (long sheet of velvet cloth) on the kitchen carpet and serves dinner. Rice is served from a steaming pot, and then I am glad I didn’t skip dinner. If boiled eggs and tomatoes accompany the rice, I am much happier. I always sit next to Abbu on days like this, because he can sense my love for the curry. He transfers his share of curry onto my plate. If I intend to stay bored, and not wash my plate after dinner, I suggest Asma that we eat off the same plate. She has no idea that it is a trick. I will eat up fast and sit back and relax until she ends up being the one to wash it. I can clean my hands in the finger bowl that Mouj gives and not move a muscle towards the skin-scraping cold water in the sink.

Abbu will send the boys to arrange the beds, saying Sakie is sleepy. But it is another trick. He is the one who is sleepy after all because the boys will take it seriously then since I am the guest. I really didn’t mind. I only wish that the power will not be back till everyone is settled in their beds, because if it does, the TV will become the king of the house and sleep will be postponed. The beds of the women are first arranged, and then the for the men. Asma and I always sleep in the first room with Mouj, and if Sobia is in the house then she too. They all tell me that I should take off my Pheran before I sleep, but I have gathered up too much warmth inside it that I am too greedy to let it go. Mouj tells me to wait for 5 minutes, as she places the Kanger on the bed and covers it with the quilt. Now it’s super warm and nice! I am supposed to escape into the quilt before the cold rushes in. I make myself comfortable and look around the room at the boys still running around fetching pillows and other things.

I can only see the top part of the windows, visible thanks to the pale moonlight, and few drops of water, steam maybe on them. It must be terribly cold outside. I sleep like there is no tomorrow. My phone is dead since many hours. Who cares, there is no reception up here in Kashmir anyways. I like this disconnection from the rest of the world.

(Sakie Ariyawansa is a community activist, and a travel blogger from Srilanka)

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