A version of this appeared in Mint Lounge on July 19th, 2014. Do click through for more deets on planning your own trip there!
I was 27 years, one month, and three days old when I touched snow for the first time.
It had been a long wait. I had taken an overnight bus from Bangalore to Hyderabad, a day-and-a-half-long train to Kolkata, an overnight train to New Jalpaiguri, and a-day-and-a-half long bumpy drive along a mud-and-rock-road into North Sikkim. 2660km, four days, and six halves of the antiemetic tablet Avomine later, I had come far enough to see my dreams of snow crystallize into the here and now. I was standing along the snow-choked Gurudongmar Road in Sikkim, worried that my tears would freeze to ice.
The friends that I was traveling with and I had one thing in common: none of us had seen snow before. We – two Malayalees, two Kodavas, one Chennaiite, and one Bangalorean (me) – had all dutifully gone on Kullu-Manali/Darjeeling holidays with families over the years. We had been content to look at far off snow-capped peaks without ever touching or seeing snow up close. And so, our mission on this trip was to travel to Sikkim’s famed Lake Gurudongmar – the country’s second highest fresh water lake, at an altitude of 17,100ft. in the Kanchendzonga range of the Himalayas, frozen over this early in the year – to claim an ultimate glittering prize that had eluded us all these years.
About 105km from Gangtok, we reached the Lachen checkpost in pitch-dark, at 10pm. The guards granted us permission to stay the night at Lachen, but warned us that the road further up was snowed in. They said it was highly unlikely that our jeep could take us far on the snow-jammed roads, and that proceeding by foot would be… (meaningful pause). We fell silent. We wouldn’t be seeing what we had come so far to see. Sensing our disappointment, the guards told us that we could go as far as our jeep would go the next morning, but (firmly) suggested that we not take undue risks.
At 6:30AM, the AccuWeather app on my smartphone read 2°C. I paced the balcony of our homestay with a cup of yak tea, taking in more than what was in my cup. Just meters away, row upon unruly row of sugar-dusted pines defied gravity to stand at attention on mountain slopes. A road traced its way around the mountain, wound like buntings on a Christmas Tree.
I swallowed another half of Avomine.
Fortified with two t-shirts, a sweater, a sweatshirt, and a couple of scarves, I joined the others as we bundled ourselves into the jeep. Each of us sighed, lost in private fantasies of what the near-missed frozen lake would’ve looked like. We would’ve stayed in our worlds, if it weren’t for the view.
Gurudongmar Road ribboned together mountain after snow-heaped mountain. Scraggy arms of oak reached out to the sky, proffering white soot. Pinecones drooped, heavy with icicles. Blades of grass wore diamonds for dew. In the gorge far below, the slate-emerald river Teesta winked in the soft sunlight. The snow on the road ahead went from muddy to sullied by occasional tyre-tread to plush white duvet. At about 40km from the lake, our jeep began to fishtail. The driver killed the ignition and looked out the window, thoroughly bored – the universal sign for “This is it. We aren’t going any further.”
Snow, I soon found, does not crunch.
“Crunchy” is an adjective apt for wafers and chips. But here was a softer, more wholesome sound. This was something buoyant and light, like Soufflé, or sponge cake. Every descriptor I could think of was in relation to food, because my first impulse on seeing real snow was exactly the impulse I’d had as a six year old seeing it in National Geographic photographs: I wanted to eat it. The early March sun’s warmth touched my ears and told me this spectacle of white was a daily miracle; a transient one that was melting soon, and so I must grab this newness with both hands – hands that I promptly de-gloved and plunged into this inviting blanket of cake-icing. Every substitute I had made do with in my playing years, soap suds, cotton, foam, crystal salt, bubbles of thermocol, all failed as points of reference to process this new, bewildering texture. I didn’t know where the snow-flake ended, or where the flurry began. I threw a handful up in the air and watched it disintegrate and fall and catch at my hair and eyelashes.
What was I, as Kamala Das says in her poem, An Introduction, “South Indian, very brown”, unworldly in the ways of snow, going to do with it? Every snow-centric activity I could think of I had gleaned from popular culture: snowball fights, sledding, skiing, making a snowman with a carrot nose, fashioning a snow angel, Olympic figure-skating. Was there an Indian way of playing with snow? A snowball lagori, a snow cricket? An actual ice-spice?
How familiar is the rest of India with snow? What is Indian snow like? Is it as mercurial as its sibling, the Indian rain? What does snow mean to those of us so far away from the Himalayas? I thought of the word for snow in my mother tongue, Kannada, which borrows the Sanskrit word, hima. Hima, which is the root of the word, himalaya, had now become the derivative of it. It was how my grandmother likes to say, “Hima is what you would find on the Himalayas”.
Reaching snow anywhere in the subcontinent takes considerable effort. Snow dictates its appointments; who it meets, when, where, and how. Snow is found almost only in the six Indo-Himalayan states – Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, the northernmost wedge of West Bengal, and Arunachal Pradesh. And only March favours snow-tourism. Too early, and half the roads and viewpoints are shut. Too late, and the snow has thinned or melted. Perhaps this inaccessibility, this whimsical nature of snow is why it is perceived with some exoticism far down the country. Informing friends and family of trips to these northern states usually invites an, “Oh! So did you see snow?”
Down South, snow has a “foreign” status that’s usually reserved for travelling abroad. It is so far removed from our understanding, that until online shopping, looking for snow-gear was an expedition in itself. (Bangalore, for instance, had only Commercial Street’s Eastern, and eventually, Western Stores to turn to.) For couples of a generation, snow was a special aspect of honeymoons. And now, snow calls forth associations with grueling mountaineering, and increasingly, Bullet rides. Having seen snow was once an accomplishment, much like having travelled by air before the 90s. Now, having seen snow is a sign of being well-travelled, of being possessed by modern-day wanderlust.
Back at the jeep, dusting snow off my elbows and my knees, I struggled with how to articulate, translate, and internalize this quick-melting poem in my hands. A cold breeze tugged at a few snow-heavy branches overhead and stirred a pitter-patter. This was it: my first, private snowfall. And I found myself humming Vairamuthu’s words, scored by AR Rahman for the 1992 film, Roja.
Pudhu Vellai Mazhai.
New white rain.