Winter this

January 5, 2020

There are countless age-old discomforts about winter in Pakistan

— Photo by Rahat Dar

What’s the right temperature to turn on the geyser? I’m not talking to the households that allow themselves to enjoy hot showers all year round. I’m posing the question to the select middle-class and upper middle-class Pakistanis that can well afford to have geysers and will eventually turn them on, but don’t until one desperate family member goes on a shower strike unless the geyser is reignited.

Every winter in my house begins with the same debate: “Is it cold enough to allow ourselves the luxury of hot water?”; “Do you know the rate of gas?”; “I’ll turn it on if you’ve figured out the gas slab system?”; “Is it more economical if we buy a gas cylinder?”; “Can’t you just boil water on the stove, transfer it to a bucket, carry the bucket to the shower and use that? It’s not that much work! Don’t be so spoilt, that’s how we showered all our lives.” Ultimately, it’s when the expats start arriving that the geysers are turned on.

Gas availability also defines when women must start cooking. One wonders if more women in the Parliament and the SNGPL, would cure gas load-shedding through the exact hours of lunch and dinner? After all, the men have never had to stand over a stove, matchstick in hand, and a prayer for enough pressure on their lips.

Then there are gazillion other familiar discomforts of winter: getting out of a warm bed, taking off the layers before a shower, skin so scaly that it can double as parchment for grocery lists, itchy wool sweaters that you can’t live with or without, icy toilets, clothes taking four to five business days to dry and the sun setting before you’ve had the chance to grasp the day.

But lately, apart from these age-old discomforts, urban Pakistan has also been witness to two newer phenomena: smog and the shaadi season – the latter has also been popularly titled, Decemberistan, and refers to the heavy concentration of social functions in December. For decades, Pakistan’s social studies textbooks have described the country as having four seasons: spring, summer, autumn and winter. But now, at least on social media, there seems to be a burgeoning campaign to convince the meteorological department to add smog and Decemberistan to the roster.

They have a point. Although smog is meant to arrive (and leave) before the real winter sets in, and the weddings are meant to start only after expats begin arriving from the UK, US, Singapore and Dubai during official winter vacations, both seasons have expanded so much that soon HSY will be designing gas masks for brides, and SFK will make her next million from shaadi-appropriate covers for air purifiers – personally, I’m more curious to see how bridal tailors in androon shehr, ever ready to diligently copy designers, will reproduce those on lower rates.

But these elite trials seem such trifles when we move away from our urban areas. Here, Decemberistan has not been an opportunity to revamp Instagram feeds; in fact, here this year’s miseries of winter are cutting more deeply than the back of hastily done embroidery on shaadi joras. Apart from the more regular struggles of staying warm without brick homes and gas connections, saving up for jackets and shawls, and finding doctors for the inevitable colds and pneumonia, and workers being laid off from factories because machines don’t run without gas, this winter there are newer miseries Pakistan has in store for its poor: a locust infestation.

In Thar and Mirpurkhas, for instance, the beginning of the cold weather invited locusts. Though it should be mentioned that locusts can and have attacked in summer months as well. This year’s attack was hardly the first in Pakistan, although the government’s complete lack of preparedness does make it appear so. My mother tells me that in her youth, when locusts attacked their crops in a village near Liaquatpur, she along with her deluge of siblings would be sent rushing into the fields. Armed with thaalis and bailans, they would make as much noise as they could to scare away the pests. Almost five decades on, kids in Thar are resorting to similar methods: filling up glass bottles with small stones and creating a cacophony in their crops, blasting firecrackers and lighting fires with diesel oil and insecticides. But according to news reports “just as one swarm flies away, another appears”.

Winter is tough: the Lahoris laugh at the Karachiites for feeling cold, and it’s all merry till we can afford chilgozas. But for the farmers in Mirpurkhas, the shivering bunches in Quetta and Swat, where temperatures actually fall below zero, and the huddles of displaced people and refugees that get smaller only to bloat again, there will be less laughter. It’s tough to fight your circumstances when the weather has killed everything around you. But no matter how long or harsh the winter is, spring will come, and if God and the government permit, bring the gas supply back with it.

The writer is a former staff member

Pakistan's winter woes