My winters in Toronto and Dhaka

Afsan Chowdhury
Published : 22 Jan 2015, 10:20 AM
Updated : 22 Jan 2015, 10:20 AM

It seems I have spent quite a bit of time travelling and living in different parts of the world, and some of those travels coincided with winter. Dhaka is sweltering through one right now, and even though summers make me very unhappy, I can feel the cold. In most places, seasons are not just issues of weather, but also of culture with class factors coming into play as well. Our winters are cruel for some and pleasant for a few. Still, thank God there are seasons still left in our lives, and that we can experience them, however differently.

I lived in Canada for a while. It is a truly cold country where some parts of it are colder than others. I was in Toronto, and marvelled at the snowfall more than the cold. The sight of white flakes descending to earth is truly beautiful, and like rain, it is both majestic and graceful to watch. Of course there are several variations of snow. From gentle, silent, and slim flurries covering the ground in a soft blanket in early winter, to the more voracious and angry snowstorms coming in long sustained downpours, piling up everywhere, becoming a sight of Mother Nature's overwhelming power. The sight of snowfall bullying down on every manmade objects is a very humbling experience. That kind of snow sends the message that we live because we are allowed to live by nature's grace and mercy. I liked that lesson.

But the most unusual snow is sleet, which is a mix of snow and rain. It's strange but beautiful. I remember being in a shopping centre when I saw it for the first time. Everyone stood still to watch and admire it with me. A Tamil girl standing next to me looked very impressed. I asked her if she was seeing it for the first time like me.

"Yes, sir," she said. "I have been here for five years but my duty hours cover the entire evening. When I get off I have to take the bus so I don't even notice the outside. I am from Jaffna."

Jaffna is a Tamil stronghold which was brutalised during the Sri Lankan civil war. There are many from that land in Toronto. I wondered how they experienced seasons with memories of another land while stuck inside shops, unable to discover and find their new alien land.

But snow necessitates cleaning up, which is quite a chore. Frankly, I enjoyed it. It's real hard work which I didn't realise until I started to get Hypoglycaemia attacks regularly. The doctor told me that this was an intense physical activity, so I had to be very careful in winter and adjust my insulin dose or it was a health risk. Once, I nearly froze in the cold. But one had to do it because if caught with piled up snow on the pavement, one faced fines.

It was about negative 20 Celsius with a wind chill of negative 30, and yet I had to go and buy groceries. I lived about eight minutes' walk away from the bus stop and calculating that time, I made my walk in that cold. I was properly dressed, but the snow on the pavement slowed me down making me miss the bus by a minute. The bus came every twelve minutes, so I couldn't go home and return to the stop, and since standing in the bus shelter was too cold, I decided to walk towards the shopping centre ten to twelve minutes away. A big mistake.

As soon as I hit the pavement, the arctic winds hit my face, and I was in pain. I put a hand on my face and tried to walk. My nose immediately started to flow and breathing was difficult. I had thought that walking would keep me warm, but I was directly exposed to the elements. I reached the mall and saw that all my shordi had flowed out my nose and frozen into icicles hanging from my nostrils. The pain in my face declined immediately and I felt much better, but then I noticed my beard had frozen and hairs were breaking down like twigs at my touch. I panicked. I was ready to die, but not part with my beard. So I waited for ten minutes, and once properly thawed continued my shopping. My lesson was the cold can freeze you even when you don't realise it.

In Toronto, you never feel the cold, because you are always inside properly heated rooms, offices, transportation et cetera. No matter how cold it gets, you are safe and comfortable as long as you are not on the street. Even the homeless are collected by the social service and taken to safe homes when the weather turns extreme. In Dhaka, this is not the case. Without heating, our rooms are cold, travelling by rickshaws is cold, and the pavements where many sleep, are cold indeed. Colder than they can ever be in Toronto. Cold weather is not only a matter of season, but also, if not more so, a matter of building human environments or the lack thereof.

We do not even know how it feels to be cold. I realise at this age, the greatest pleasure is lying in a warm bed, snuggled under a warmer quilt filled with Jhut. Something quite else happens to many others. For the children of the poor, quilts are there but the room descends into much greater cold than mine and they spend the night in ways that make winter pleasures like sleep, forbidden. The even poorer ones don't sleep but survive the night hoping that they will not freeze to death. The pavement dwellers fight the cold with paltry bonfires, and perhaps survive because the art of death is as yet unknown to them. Nobody asks them how they feel. For them, winter is not a physical experience, but a social, and perhaps moral one. Undoubtedly, it is most informed by class.

There was a well-known case with death by freezing, in Toronto. An elderly couple had a fight and the wife left the home in a fit of anger. She walked around for an hour to calm down and return home. By that time the husband had gone off to bed, also in a fit of anger, after switching off his phone. She knocked, phoned, and called out, but he kept on sleeping. She took refuge in the garage and froze through the night and died. What stood between her and safety was a door. She couldn't enter. We too have shut the door on many. It's during winters in Bangladesh, that we are reminded of what we should choose to do; how heavy that door is.


Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher. He has worked for the Dhaka Courier, the Daily Star, and BBC among many others. He has also worked as a Human Rights specialist with the UN and other agencies. Afsan was the Oak Fellow on International Human Rights of the Colby College in the USA in 2008.