Ashraful Alam

Once upon a time in a small suburban town centre called Sunshine, I was in desparate search of Sunshine every morning. That was my first winter down under, in this Terra Australis Incognita, thousands of miles away from where I spent 30 winters of my life hitherto. The gloomy days and chilling nights of winter were suffocatting me. The icing on the cake was flue, finding an easy prey and welcoming host in the form of my vulnerable body. I would literally pray for the sun to shine and for the drizzle to pause. A few dry sunlit days once in a while seemed like divine prizes. I would stroll through a park and walk around the brick-laden alleys of the town centre, leving a pawn broker shop or a fruit shop behind. Aromas of vietnamese cooking from the nearby restaurants penetrate my nostrills and remind me of an old, romantic world that I was exiled from long ago. On my way back home, I would sit on a bench in the park and savour the sunlight, while sipping from a fizzy can of Victoria Bitter.

Winter back in my early days, the 30 winters that I have spent elsewhere, were different. I needed neither prayer nor intoxication to enjoy the sunlight. Winter back then was romantic, specially when I was still in my village – that’s about 15 winters, with foggy dawns spent at paddy fields or watering the newly planted cabbage seedlings from a nearby pond. Date juice and rice cakes await me, I know, but there was no rush in going back home. A walk through the narrow aisles between vast expanses of ripening paddy fields would soak my feet with dew drops on the grass, while the sun is coming up in the horizon. A journey to the heavens would look pale to this.

And there were other winters as well – of a different kind. Uprooted from the village, I travelled to the city to seek blessings of Goddess Swaraswati, the Goddess of knowledge. Goddess Laxmi, others would say! Goddess Laxmi endows her subjects with wealth and riches, once happy with their devotion and prayer to her. Those winters in city were not coloured by date juice and rice cakes made by my mother and sister in law anymore. In the footpaths of Nilkhet and Ramna, people uprooted from villages by unbearable poverty would live on makeshift tents, and make rice cakes for the ones who still miss it. There would be lines of temporary shops of old books and magazines, of pornography and pirated textbooks, of pulp fictions and serious literature. A stroll from my university through the Arts building, the footpaths of Nilkhet all the way to the Hawker’s market and then taking a rickshwa to my dorm, this journey was a regular fixture for me. These winters were marked by newspaper reports on cold waves and loss of life, and by the procession of homeless people sleeping under the foot overbridges or market varandahs. The romanticism of winter that I had back when I was little, and knew little too, was over. Winters were getting harsher and harsher. The might always have been harsh, who knows?

Winter stroll through Swanston street from Flinders Street station, with a crowd where everyone seems to have a purpose, is not very easy for me, specially without a purpose. I see a congregation of school kids in front of the McDonalds, KFC, Hungry Jack’s. A homeless man sitting on an old rug in the footpath begging for gold coins. A would be singer busking here, a young lady devouring her food sitting on a bench there. Preachers on footpath are declaring the greatness of their tribal God, while the next block, a group is collecting signatures to legalize same sex marriage. I see a long line of patrons waiting to sit inside a Chinese restaurant. The aroma seizes me, or rather hallucinates me. I miss my winter strolls back in the olden times, through the paddy fields and the city footpaths.

Winters are getting harsher, I must say. Winters are getting harsher, I must say. Maybe they always do; it’s us who fail to discover. We discover as we grow up, and as we keep spending from our quota of sunlit winter days. Today was sunlit in the morning, and now I am taking shelter from the sudden rain drops. The day becomes gloomy again. I am waiting for another sunlit winter day…