I have this clichéd shade for every memory: sepia. When someone refers to a memory I happen to be a part of, I think of it as something wrapped in brown parchment paper. For me, memories — no matter if they are important or trivial, old or new — are brown paper parcels.
But there is one recent memory which is different in colour. It is white. In fact, it is snow-white.
I grew up in a dusty little town called Varkala, dreaming of the coldest countries in the world and their long winters. The books I read kept reminding me what I missed by living in a place that didn’t have winter. And snow became my element the day I read The Mimic Men by V.S. Naipaul, in which the protagonist, a Caribbean politician living in exile in a London boarding-house, recounts his first snow. I have forgotten most of the book, but the details of the boarding-house owned by Mr Shylock and Ralph Singh’s first encounter with snow have stayed with me.
Unlike Ralph Singh, snow kept eluding me for decades. And finally, in the first week of December, I travelled to Hungary on work and lived on the bank of the Danube for nearly a fortnight. Every morning, I woke up and looked out of my window to see if it had started snowing since I had gone to bed. I had been to places where it snowed, but never when it snowed. So this was going to be my first snow.
The winter was fierce, and the streets of Budapest were almost too cold for me to stay outdoors for long spells. Whenever I pulled on the gloves in preparation for going out to the freezing streets, I felt like a professional killer stepping out for an important assignment. When I put on the hood, I even looked like one.
Most trees had gone bald, and the ones that still had leaves shed them at the hint of a breeze. Those naked statues, which you see at every turn of your head, looked in dire need of warm clothes, winter caps and woollen gloves. Whenever the winter threatened to numb my senses, I stopped for mulled wine and goulash, and the warmth radiating from heaters of roadside cafes. And morning after morning, I looked expectantly out to see if there was snow on the trees that stood on the banks of the Danube, or on the roofs of trams that slid silently past my window.
“The flakes didn’t only float; they also spun. They touched the glass and turned to a film of melting ice.” I remembered these lines from The Mimic Men every morning as I brushed aside the curtain and peered out. No sign of snow yet. No film of melting ice on the windows. I did not want to ask the concierge about snow; he had this irritating habit of apologising profusely for anything he was unable to provide.
Outside the hotel was a taxi rank and I often ran into a thin young driver who leaned against his car and smoked thin cigarettes, his hands inserted into the deep pockets of his winter jacket. Sometimes I availed his service, sometimes I took another taxi. But he always smiled and wished me good morning, even if it was late in the evening. His name was Stephen and he claimed to have majored in sociology. One day, while he was driving me to an Indian restaurant, I asked him when it was going to snow.
“You want to see snow?” he asked.
When I said yes, he turned the car around and headed to the opposite direction, driving through thickening traffic to the other end of the city, past many major tourist attractions of Budapest. Throughout the 20-minute drive, I kept wondering why it snowed in one part of the city while the rest was left dry. The moment I spotted the towering column of Hosök tere (Hero’s Square) in the windscreen I began to doubt whether Stephen had mistaken my query about snow for one about the most-visited landmark in Hungary. I had already been to the Hero’s Square twice and photographed it from every possible angle. So this trip was a sheer waste of time and money.
“But I asked you about snow. S-N-O-W. Not about Hero’s Square,” I said when he pulled over by a fenced area across the road from the Hero’s Square.
“Yes, mister,” he said irritably, pointing a finger at what looked like an open air stadium. “There is your snow.”
And there indeed was snow, but not my kind of snow, not the “floating and spinning” type as in The Mimic Men. Snow was already on the ground, covering most of the oval pitch behind the fence.
“Did it snow last night?” I asked. Stephen thought for a while, then shrugged his shoulders.
Children were skiing on the snow, parents cheering from sidelines and tourists taking pictures, mostly selfies, from the gallery. Then I noticed something strange about this snow-clad scenery. There was snow only on the ground. There was not even a flake on trees, roofs, lampposts or even on the fence that surrounded the huge snowy oval.
“Why is there snow only on the ground?” I asked. “And why not anywhere else?”
“Mister, this is artificial snow,” he said. “Made in a factory.”
After that day I avoided Stephen, and once I heard him say something to another driver and roar with laughter as I passed them. I was almost certain that they were laughing at me for the snow episode.
A few days later, I was told by the concierge that the car that would take me to the airport was waiting for me. Much to my dismay, it was Stephen. But somewhere along the hour-long drive to the airport, we got chatting and I found myself telling him that I hailed from a place which had one of the first democratically-elected Communist governments in the world. That got him instantly interested, for his parents were ardent Communists. He rang up his mother and put her on the speaker, and for the rest of the journey I heard the tired voice of a woman talking on and on. All I could pick out from her dragging commentary were words like János Kádár and kommunista. Then, as we drove into the airport, Stephen interrupted his mother to say something, his eyes on me. The line went silent for a long moment, and then she burst out laughing. I was sure he said something about the snow that did not fall from the skies.
Anees Salim is the author of, most recently, The Blind Lady’s Descendants.