“As if we are living in Antarctica”: When will Kashmir’s long winter end?

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For 27-year-old Hamid Ahmed, the winter season has been the perfect time to have fun. A glimpse of snow drove the resident of north Kashmir’s Baramulla to the excitement. That, however, changed on 15 January this winter.

Ahmed woke with facial weakness, his eye had turned dry, and was unable to smile or frown. Worried, he went to a family doctor who told him that he had developed Bell’s Palsy, a condition that causes a temporary weakness or paralysis of facial muscles. It can occur when the nerve that controls your facial muscles becomes inflamed, swollen, or compressed.

The condition also causes one side of the face to droop or become stiff and makes it difficult to smile or close eyes. In most cases, it is temporary and the symptoms usually go away after a few weeks. According to Ahmed’s doctor, he had become a victim of the condition due to the persistent cold weather in Kashmir.

The young businessman was shocked and scared, however, the temporary nature of the condition was something that brought in hope. “My doctor told me not to worry because it would go off on its own, and that’s what is happening, I am recovering and recovering fast,” he said.

He, however, now makes sure that he does not venture out of his home during early or late hours of the day — when the cold is harsh. “I never, in my life, thought that I would dislike winter,” he rued. “I have always loved it for the diversity it brings,  the food, the kang’ir etc. Everything about winter was amazing but not anymore.”

Kashmir’s winters have always been challenging. However, with global warming affecting the region, Valleyites had forgotten the harsh winters of yore as dry weather accompanied by warmer temperatures had become the norm for about a decade or more. That had lasted until 2018. Since then, temperatures have plummeted to new lows and snowfall has broken records of decades. The chilling cold now begins to take its toll on Kashmiris as soon as early November and it becomes unbearable as soon chillai kalan (the forty-day period of harsh winter) arrives.

The first month of 2021 in Kashmir will be remembered for frozen lakes, huge icicles hanging from roofs even in the Valley’s plains, the snow turned to rock on the roadsides, and one persistent question: when will Chillai Kalan leave us?

On the last day of Chillai Kalan, severe cold waves gripped Kashmir as the mercury plummeted to minus 8.8°C in Srinagar, the coldest January night in the past thirty years while Shopian shivered at minus 15°C.

According to several accounts and conversations with elderly residents of Srinagar, this chillai kalan is one of the harshest that the Valley has seen in decades. “This winter took me to my childhood days,” said 63-year-old Srinagar resident Altaf Hussain.

Kashmir’s tryst with hardships began with the snowfall in the first week of January. The blanket of white initially brought joy to the populace who have little other avenues to cherish. However, the joy soon turned into a nightmare as authorities failed to clear the roads, leading to massive traffic jams and accidents. It was, as if, Kashmir had witnessed snowfall for the first time.

If that was not enough, the consistent sub-zero temperatures over weeks made sure that little snow melted and turned the accumulations into large mounds as hard as rocks. Those who knew no bounds of joy at the sight of the first snowfall — wishing each other sheen mubarak — complained and ranted against both the administration and chillai kalan.

With no sight of administration, many local residents took it upon themselves to clear the snow — hiring machines and men. “This is the worst winter I have ever seen,” said a 40-year-old sprinkling salt on the roads in downtown Srinagar’s Nowhatta area. “Look at the icicles, it seems as if we are living in Antarctica. God should have been kinder to us, He knows how irresponsible our administration is.”

The cold has been so intense that it dominates the conversations almost everywhere. From the early morning gatherings at baker shops to cafes to offices and shopfronts, this year’s chill is on everyone’s lips, “I would prefer the summer heat a hundred times over this weather,” said Manzoor Ahmad, a baker, as he kneaded flour in his bakery.

The conversations have transformed to a meme fest by Kashmiris. A video doing rounds on social media has been a huge hit among the netizens that features an iconic scene of Zanjeer movie; Amitabh Bachan and Shashi Kapoor, two leads, have been dubbed into Kashmiri as Bachchan says: “Mia nish chu daraaz, kambal, heater, keh chu tse nish?” Kapoor replies, “Mia chu nalkan aab pakan.” It hit right where it hurts: the frozen taps and water tanks.

While temperature has seen a considerable drop at the beginning of January, it has gotten worse as the month — and chilai kalan itself — neared an end. On 30 January, the summer capital Srinagar recorded a minimum temperature of minus 7.7 degrees Celsius. The Meteorological Department (MET) informed that the temperature recorded was six degrees below normal and that it had happened for the first time this season.

A MET official in Srinagar said that this year was the coldest in over three decades. “This year’s winter has been very harsh both in terms of precipitation and weather. Srinagar saw over three feet of snow and temperature plummeted to decades low,” said Mukhtar Ahmad, the MET’s deputy director.

While it remains to be seen what is in store for February, Kashmiris will remember the Game of Thrones-esque long winter for years to come.

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