Winter can be quite miserable in Lahore. For about a month, starting from the middle of December to the mid of January, the sun remains hidden behind a thick blanket of smog. In the night traffic comes to a complete halt as the city is embraced by the cloak of fog. For a city that in the summers almost touches 50 Celsius followed by a dragged and taxing humid monsoon, the cool respite has its romantic charms – tava machli, dry fruit and gajjar ka halwa. Grouped around the glow of the gas heater, covered in thick blankets, my entire family used to savor these winter delights. But then under the “economic boom” of Pervez Musharraf, thousands of CNG gas stations were given permission to open up all over the country seriously affecting the gas supply to households especially during winter when there is a higher demand. With no warm water and heater, and no sun in the day, all idealised notions of wintes quickly faded away.
According to the Gregorian calendar, winter in the Punjab begin from end of October and finish around the mid of February. But the Gregorian calendars can be misleading. Designed for a different culture with different climates, imposed upon us by the colonial administration, the calendar fails to capture the nuances of the weather in this part of the world. So does the traditional divisions of weather into four seasons. Any resident of Punjab would be able to identify the differences in the summer of June and July, with August. Both are intense and grueling yet in their own idiosyncratic manner. From the mid of May to the mid of July are the months of Jeth and Harh, according to the Punjabi calendar, when the temperature reaches its peak with sun blazing from the sky, blinding in its heat.
In August, the air is loaded with humidity, weighing heavily on the surface, even if the temperatures are temperate. It is narrated that after a long spell of summers the Punjabis are on the verge of losing their minds in this season, referred to as the month of Bhadon. Even the donkey, who, it is said, doesn’t mind the heat of the former two months, seeks shade in this season. There is then this subtle change of season sometime in the middle of September, when the shade is pleasant but direct heat still exhausting. That is how the month of Assu is described.
Another peculiarity is that of Sawan. Even if it doesn’t rain throughout the month of Harh, which begins from June 15 and finishes on July 15, Punjabis believe that it will rain on the 1st of Sawan the next month, the month that lends the monsoon, a distinct season in South Asia, its name. Last year, it rained on the 1st of Sawan.
If one is to continue accepting the testimony of the Gregorian calendar and the British-imposed seasons then it could be believed that these winters will continue through January, ending sometime around the start of February. The word winter, and even the dates of the month however would fail to recognise the slight change in weather that would begin from January 13, starting the month of Magh. Traditionally if it didn’t rain, this month marked the end of the intense spell of winter. For many years, now that I have begun noticing, in Lahore, it is around this time that the sun finally emerges from its hiding.
On the night of January 13, as one month ends and the other begins, from Poh to Magh, Punjabis celebrate the festival of Lohri, one of the most important seasonal festivals of the year, a festival that has died in the land of its birth. Every year on this night, the entire village used to gather at the village centre, circling around a bonfire. Eating seasonal dry fruit and sharing folk tales and stories, they would cast the shells of the dry fruit into the fire. Little children would run from one house to another, similar to Halloween, gathering sweets, referred to as Lohri, while womenfolk would cook kheer. This kheer would then be placed somewhere outside where it would cool the entire night. Early in the morning as the sun of a new season began to rise and the fire of the night passed out, the villagers would perform ashnan at the village pool and eat their kheer.
Not long after, at the end of this month and the beginning of the month of Phagun (mid-February), the splendid festival of Basant used to be celebrated in Lahore, before it fell victim to the puritanical brigade. Two months later on the 1st of Vaisakh, Punjabis would once again resort to dancing and singing, celebrating the season of Baisakhi, the beginning of harvest.
Every year the seasons come and go, unnoticed. The desi calendar that encapsulated the essence of seasons has been lost, as Punjab today rushes towards modernisation. The colonial legacy of enforcing its own reality and categories has taken root. Only the “uneducated” in Punjab today can name these calendars and the corresponding seasons they represent. For the “educated”, there is only winter, spring, summer, and autumn, cut-off as they are, from a reality, oblivious to them, as they are oblivious to their language and the past experiences that it has captured. Knowledge only of colonial representation of weather and its months renders it irrelevant for the “educated” to note the difference between Poh and Magh, or Bhadon and Assu.
As if this was not enough, further damage was wrought by the paranoia of a new ideological state, that felt insecure with everything that had not been Arabised. Traditional festivals that marked these slight changes in the weather were slowly either forgotten or banned, in an attempt to purify the land. These festivals, the last vestige of these diverse seasons were also eventually forgotten. Alas, Punjab, the land of 12 seasons is now only left with four seasons. Lohri will come and go, unnoticed in the land of origin, as will Basant and then Baisakhi.
Haroon Khalid is the author of the books Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail.