Places and People

The gorgeous sunsets are back. After a disillusioning, grey, warm Christmas which felt nothing like the ones we’d been promised by books and cinema, we are quite ready to embrace the cold weather. January has shaken up the errant seasons: a strong wind, which I’d like to pretend comes from the Arctic Circle, is swirling the dry leaves gathered on the concrete and making people bend over as they negotiate the rough terrain of the pavements. For a little while, I’m reminded of Brighton. Of course, staid Virginia has none of the eccentricity and colour of Brighton, nor the vicious and greedy seagulls, but being buffeted by the wind reminds me of walks on the chalk cliffs overlooking the sea. (Oh what a year it was!)

“Why would you want to go for a walk in this weather?” asks the lady at the reception, as I place my freezing hands on the counter. My face is numb as I struggle to reply. It will take a little bit of convincing for her to understand that this really is a pleasant change from the relentless heat of the tropics, from the oppressive weather of cities where heat and humidity accompany each other in unbroken circles year after year. She, on the other hand, longs for summer.

“I need a break,” I tell her. “I can’t stay in the apartment all day.”

“Read. Meditate. You can do those all day.”

My past experiences shape how I feel about the little pleasures I have discovered here. I have to tell her how alive I feel when I walk out into the cold, mild sunshine and the sight of human beings enlivening the senses. She probably doesn’t know what it is to discover that you can walk unmolested by leering eyes, that you can cross the road without having to put your hand out to a speeding car; she doesn’t feel the abandon of thumping on broad pavements where you don’t have to jostle with two-wheelers for space. Looking up from insignificant chores at four in the evening and staring into a light sky gives me an immense amount of pleasure: the kind that I discovered in Brighton four years ago. Winter, to me, isn’t the drop in temperatures; instead, it is the impenetrable dark, the setting of the sun at an ungodly hour. Shakespeare and Steinbeck didn’t talk of the winter of their characters’ discontent for nothing. And now, when I realise that it is twenty minutes to six and the clouds still haven’t merged into dark velvet, my spirit soars.

***

I got my third library card last Saturday. It is the most beautiful and inspiring card I have – it celebrates Martin Luther King Jr., an important commemoration in the times we live in. Reading about his work is on the agenda, but not right now. Unlike last time, when I tried to read mostly American fiction, I’m veering towards fiction that has been on my to-read list but inaccessible in India – Rumer Godden, for example.

The library itself is roomy and well-stocked, and in one hour there, I discovered enough to remind me, for the hundred thousandth time, of my remorse at the wastage of the infrastructure at the Anna Centenary Library. The DC Central Library encourages people to read, learn to code or to waltz; on the other hand, the library at home is mired in politics, and is about symbolising the victory of one political faction over another, without a thought for the value it can deliver to the people whose tax money must have been poured into the infrastructure.

As we finished our selection at the Popular Fiction section, the librarian asked me about my earrings – a pair of galloping horses. She was enamoured by how alive they seemed. It was a very brief conversation, but one that reminded me that librarians weren’t really frowning, mechanical people (I say this from a couple of experiences from school). In an alien country where we’d been disappointed by Christmas and the absolute desolation of the streets, the lights were being turned back on.

My usual walking route takes me past an ice skating rink and a huge Christmas tree, more bauble than wood or leaf. On a blustery evening like this, only the most hardy are out skating. The end of the vacation seems to have left many people listless and dispirited. The snowflakes on the trees and the lights strung up on balconies will come down shortly. However, in a perverse manner, I’m glad to see everyone coming back to work, to watch the streets fill up with cars again. The Christmas-jumpered librarians are back in their neutral blues and greys. Complaints about the freezing cold are getting louder. A happier winter, all hot chocolate and cosy reading, is on its way. All I’d like now is one night of snow, and my joy will be complete.

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