Winter is not good for a polluted city like mine. December, being the main month of winter in India, is always the coldest.
All things in nature huddle together in winter, trying to find, or steal, some warmth from the other.
The clouds creep towards the ground. The fog and the smoke meet and embrace, and together try to steal the little sunlight before it touches the earth. The smog becomes denser, trying to wrap the earth in a heavier, grayish blanket, like the people sleeping in woolen quilts in their homes. Evening darkness approaches faster than before, as if the smog did succeed in robbing the sunlight. Even after twilight, the smog refuses to diffuse. The air becomes thicker, but the world puts on an old, dull, sweater and wraps a muffler around its neck and walks on.
Some evenings, it coughs and some mornings, it can see its breath. But most days, it can’t peer into the distance.
This year, my father decided to travel to escape the harsh winters. ‘Migration over hibernation’ he called it and 'Better to get the sun somewhere than get closer to that old, rusty heater at home' is what he said. We decide to journey to the western coast around Mumbai by train. Indian Railways was a part of family, as all cross-country trips; from Himalayan foothills to the Rajasthani deserts, were made by train.
As we take a cab to the New Delhi railway station, the moon is rising. The moon is a blurred piece of white in the black sky, clouds and smog. The street lights, though, filter through this, illuminating every speck of dust. The cars zoom past on the highway.
One can rarely see stars in my city.
We are sitting on the platform bench, (except me, who is sitting on a suitcase due to lack of space). The station is mostly grey walls and wide pillars and overhead bridges connecting different platforms. Tangled electrical wires hang across the platform roofs. Numerous white tube lights glow along the roof, with the occasional digital clock providing the time in red numbers. People walk along, focused only on the information boards. I hug the plastic cup of hot tea closer, my cold fingers desperately trying to steal its heat. The tea seller at the station has a very successful business, compared to the other newspaper stands and food stalls, as people surround him to get a cup or half of hot tea – ‘hot’ being the key word.
As it seems, this smog even intimidates mighty vehicles. Most of the trains crawl slowly through this haze, like a man walking towards a cliff. Some trains even get cancelled during denser days, preventing others from meeting their families and some from meeting their goals.
Our train is three hours late.
December is always cold. Cold is absence of heat. Heat, is scientifically energy, which is the capacity to do work. No wonder that people in December are lazy. The sun is lazy, shining lightly, rising later and setting earlier, perhaps trying to sleep in.
Probably the train driver is lazy too. Along with the tea seller who is now reducing the amount of tea in the cup, and the station announcer, who has stopped with the blaring (indistinguishable?) announcements. Even the porters, or 'coolies', dressed in their crimson uniform are taking a nap in their dusty black blankets on their ramps. Some of them are sitting against the grey, tobacco-stained pillar, warming their hands in a fire.
My mother makes polite conversation with a lady sitting across, while my father is busy reading the paper and swatting mosquitoes at the same time. The platform is almost crowded with passengers and impatience. After a few minutes of rare silence, all heads turn towards an old woman in a sari, sitting on the bench adjacent to ours. She is passing the box of 'gajrela', a sweet dish of red carrots that are available only in winter. A sweet aroma drifts all around. My mouth waters, but I quickly look away to alleviate the temptation.
December has truly arrived.
December. The word itself brings on a sense of finality. The rolling year slows down; giving time for the fact to sink in that it is closing. The years are like chapters, each one different but advancing the life, the story forward. December is the last line and the remaining blank space on a page, before you turn it to begin the next chapter.
It is also a month full of celebration. Celebration of the end or the start, I am not sure. They celebrate if they have a good year, trying to elongate it, the hopeful feeling at the end of a good chapter. They celebrate if they have a bad year, trying to forget it, the eager and tensed feeling at the end of a sad chapter. Who doesn’t want to start the new year fresh and clean? Either way, the closing is celebrated, because hope never dies for humans.
Just as hope hasn’t died for the people sitting here, waiting for the late train.
When the Rajdhani Express finally arrives, the station fills with frenzy and smiles and sighs. Porters stand to attention as fathers get up carrying their luggage, and mothers, their kids. People align themselves with their compartments and start boarding. The happiness of the arrival of a late train is contagious, spreading quickly around the platform.
The wait is finally over. The last train of the night has finally arrived. The last month of the year has finally arrived. They are both going to depart soon. People zealously lift their bags to move on to another chapter, eager to know what happens next.
This was one of my experiences of December, as my family waited for a train for three hours on the station at night, which was delayed due to fog (or smog).