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        Volume 10 |Issue 49 | December 30, 2011 |


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The earmuffs lend a certain insect chic to the wearer. Photo: Amirul Rajiv

The Arguments for Winter

Andrew Eagle

An Open Letter from Dhaka to the People of Norway

Dear Norwegian people,
I am liking the flies' eyes: in blue with white polka dots, in tartan straight from the Scottish Highlands, in military camouflage or leopard skin. It's those flies' eyes, the earmuffs that fit like sunglasses around the back of the head to cover the ears and lend a certain insect chic to the wearer, which are central to the issue: Winter. And as they've multiplied across Dhaka of late we cannot doubt that winter is with us. Nor can you.

I know your thinking, that in Bangladesh there isn't any winter. You used to say the same thing about Sydney when I was living in Norway, a city where winter is marginally colder than in Dhaka. But things are relative.

It's not that I've forgotten the first week in Oslo when I got used to wearing what felt like my entire wardrobe at the same time, just to step outside the door. I've not forgotten the preparation: the multiple socks, the boots, the gloves, taking off gloves again from having forgotten to do up shoelaces first and re-putting on gloves. I recall how, with so many layers of clothing, bending arms and legs conjured the image of a tin man in need of oil; and over time, yes, I learnt to tap the snow off boots before drawing them into a vehicle.

It was on that morning I was told that it was six degrees outside, which had sounded good. Sydney can occasionally be that cold. You know of course they meant minus six, which I discovered on stepping out the front door, that in your country minuses are sometimes just assumed.

It is common to find people with scarves surgically bandaged around the head during Dhaka's winter. Photo: Amirul Rajiv

And there was the problem with my hair, styling it with a little water. How was I to imagine that after several minutes outside I'd have a hairstyle of ice? I remember the slipping along footpaths, trying to find the sprinkled gravel you use in public spaces to create grip; and I walked home across a frozen river, following somebody else's footprints. I know what you mean by Winter.

I learnt the meaning of your temperatures: up to minus ten was okay, towards fifteen meant icicles on the chin and loss of feeling in the cheeks and nose; beyond that the pain in one's frozen ears really set in. I don't remember you having the flies' eyes like they do in Dhaka; maybe you should.

As said, things are relative. How else could it be that in my first Australian winter thereafter I barely bothered with jumpers? The reverse happened: after most of the year in Bangladesh I once found myself wearing a jumper during the Australian summer. It had been over thirty degrees and I noticed people around me were in shorts and t-shirts; but to me it had felt a little nippy. It takes time to adjust, climatically speaking, please understand.

I want you to know that despite the lack of minuses, and the usual winter sports like skiing and shovelling snow off the roof, the Bangladeshi winter is real. Don't consider please the middle of the days, without the evening to morning chill in

the air, the time of day you might be tempted to label 'Summer', if not a particularly warm one. Forget that it may come to pass in December's Dhaka that you consider swimming around noon.

Just know that in Sydney, if you made one of your 'this is not winter' comments in the middle of August, on one of those gusty, rainy days, nobody would be amused as they slipped on their caveman-inspired Ugg boots, an Australian specialty, and turned up their electric heaters. And neither would people be amused in the Dhaka of December.

For while I am not in the habit of speaking on behalf of Bangladeshis, I would take a risk on this occasion to let you know: we feel cold. Just look around Dhaka and you'll see it, the public rugged up in intricately embroidered chadors or shawls, with scarves surgically bandaged about the head; or western-inspired jumpers and jackets. Yesterday I saw a man walking by the National Parliament wearing a thick blanket, straight off his bed! There are all those beanies, sometimes gloves and scarves, here too, even if the thermometer readings aren't as impressive as yours.

It may look sometimes, nonetheless, as though many Dhakaites are prepared for the impossibility of imminent snow; for we who live here, impossible is not how it feels.

While it's true in Dhaka nobody has to change their car tyres to cope with the slippery conditions on winter roads; while the days are not short and dark as occurs in what you call winter; and while I understand the reason you talk so much and often about the weather is simply because there's a lot of weather to talk about; please bear in mind that in Dhaka also, we have our ten degrees, we have our fifteen. The pluses are assumed, absolutely, and the trees keep their leaves, but of course the CNGs and rickshaws are not enclosed vehicles, remember that, so as we get around there's a wind chill factor to be accounted for.

Oh, and I almost forgot about the water. It was actually my grandfather who pointed it out; he was more practical than me. Back in Sydney after Norway he had asked how you stop the water from freezing in the pipes during winter. I believe you spiral a small copper wire around the pipes and send a low current through it to prevent the water freezing, is it so?

And in the mountains I recall such a system can be unavailable so that the water does freeze and it becomes necessary to find fresh snow to boil down for drinking. But this alone is not the measure of winter and besides, there are many in Dhaka who know the feeling of turning on the tap and nothing comes out, be it for different reasons.

So don't mind as we find ourselves rugged up under a blanket at home in the night, in my case with the ceiling fan still running on full as safeguard against any lingering mosquitoes.

In Bangladesh many people look forward to winter as their annual hill-station away from the heat, but still, you mustn't scoff as we shiver at the tea shops holding our tea cups with both hands, as in Christian prayer, to promote heat transfer to our palms, or as we devour those piping-hot chitoi pithas and bhapa pithas of rice and molasses from the roadside stalls in the foggy evenings.

Try to understand our winter in Dhaka, though it may slip in and out of the city as readily as a foot into the bindings of a Telemark ski. It is winter. Perhaps you might even find room for sympathy. Enjoy your snow, skiing and rømmegrøt or sweet cream porridge; and spare a thought for the people of Dhaka as we face winter, we too.

And just on the side, I tell you I bought a pair of fly's eyes, in urban grey camouflage for thirty taka from a vendor at Farm Gate. I mention this thinking you could pick up a pair or two for home, though the material might not be thick enough for your Decembers.

Best Regards, Yours Truly, Happy Holidays, etc.

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