One of the familiar refrains I hear from friends whenever I leave the US for India in wintertime is, “Oh, you’re going towards warmer weather! Lucky you.” Well yes, of course it’s warmer in terms of the thermometer in Delhi than it is in Elsewhere. BUT — and this is a big “but” — the interiors of homes are not usually heated. So, even though the mercury never dips below zero, we all tend to feel the cold more sharply.
Not content with shivering in the glorious capital city, Bins and I increase our appreciation of central heating by going North, to spend the New Year gazing at the snow peaks of Nanda Devi and Trishul. We stay with our friend, who lives all year round on her beautiful hillside estate in Sitla. We arrived on Monday, to a gloriously blue sky and the peaks sparkling in clear view, the range filling close to a 180°-arc of the horizon.
It always takes a while for my body to register the cold. By evening, I’m wearing multiple layers — long johns, light-t shirt, turtleneck, Fabindia leggings, socks and a chunky cardigan. My hands and feet are blocks of ice. Bins, of course, is impervious to cold weather. “Tropical weakling,” he scoffs, wearing nothing more than a t-shirt, jeans and fleece jacket.
On Christmas Day, we go to the home of a friend who lays out a formal Christmas feast: Turkey, ham, stuffing, gravy-sauce, quiche, roasted potatoes, two salads, peas, the works. It’s rounded off with the traditional plum pudding, flickering with blue flames and served with big dollops of yummy brandy butter. There are at least 15 others, plus three children. We eat outdoors. The food and sunshine warm me up. The moment we step indoors, I freeze up. Bins tells me I’m like those marine lizards on the Galápagos Islands. “They’re cold blooded, just like you,” he says. “If they stay out too long after sunset, they get stuck. Can’t move.” “What happens?” I ask. “They die out on the rocks,” he says, cheerily.
Having a shower is an ordeal. The water is scalding hot, but it takes several minutes to adjust cold and hot. During those minutes I am alternately shivering and being parboiled. I stand on tiptoe, reminding myself of my good fortune, to have any water at all, never mind hot water, in this world where all vital resources are scarce. As soon as I’ve towelled dry, my clothes feel like they’ve been carved from ice.
At night, there’s a crackling fire and the cosy TV room in which to stay warm, while we weep over various on-screen tragedies. Then I sprint back up to the room, where I change into pyjamas at lightning speed in order to jump into the bed with the world’s best invention: An electric blanket. It’s like diving into a warm, snuggly cave. “I’m a hibernating bear,” I want to tell Bins, “not a lizard!” But he’s already snoring, in his own warm cave.
Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column
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