Article Published in THE HINDUSTAN TIMES

Winter Bonfires

Navtej Sarna

THEY said that it would be the last weekend with the snow. With luck, it may last one more week but no more. With the coming of the spring, the snow would have to give way to a tiresome slush that clung to wheels and came in with the boots.

The spring would be on the calendar only and the yellow and green days would take a few more weeks but the snow, that would go. But at the moment it lay firm, pure, white beyond the lace curtains. It looked like it would stay forever but then these were the same assurances it had given last winter.

The sledges began to line up outside the window, coming slowly down the village square. The horses were high and broadshouldered and their breath formed clouds. The sledge drivers sat hunched over the horses, blankets covering their shoulders. Strong, phlegmatic men with cold pinched looks on their faces, men who had known many such winters and feared them and loved them.

With a jingle of bells, the sledge moved off through the village and we pulled a blanket over our knees. Beyond the houses the track moved out straight into a sea of snow and wind became chilly. It was vicious on the tip of the nose and made one shiver and made one feel alive.

But when the track entered the trees, it lost its biting edge. The brown skeletons of the trees were all around us. Their leafless branches rose into the sky and burst the perfect circle of the sun and made its farewell fire flow down their unadorned, frozen arms. And the night began to fall, slowly….

Two huge bonfires had given their magic to a clearing in the trees. A song burst around the fire. In tune with the rich notes of an accordian and the richer, youthful, gypsy laughter of a girl in boots. Someone handed us sticks with meat and we clung to the circle of fire to keep warm and to roast the meat.

The fat dripped into the flames and sometimes the meat charred. Glasses of warm beer with cinnamon were passed around. As the music caught the mood, the beer began to slosh. A third circle of fire sparked off more warmth and life. If we looked beyond, it was dark, cold and forbidding where the horses stood waiting patiently…

It was all like home somehow. Like the annual farewell to winter on Delhi terraces with a small fire into which children throw peanuts and then wonder why their eyes water with the smoke. Into that fire go small branches, backs of broken chairs and pieces of old wooden crates on which the addresses of destinations reached long ago can still be read as the flames rise higher. Into those fires on the terrace went the winters of our childhood…

A fresh burst of song brings us back to the land of snow. The fires begin to go down but quite literally, the spirit won’t let them. A splash of vodka whips the licking flames into new life and a man sings plaintively of his nostalgia for the hills. Far away hills of the high trees and the low valleys and the evenings that fall quick and early… And the sledges move toward the village in a torchlight procession through the white night, each sledge holding a flame that flicks and bows in farewell to the winter.