Living with Calcutta's record low temperatures
- 3 March 2013
- From the section Magazine
Dressing for the cold has become a major talking point in Calcutta, where the temperatures are the lowest for a century. One piece of cold-weather gear appears to be de rigueur in this city - the monkey hat.
When my newspapers started arriving two hours late, I asked the delivery man why.
He replied: "No-one can get up early in this cold so why do you need your papers? Go with the flow."
At least I think that's what he said, I could hardly hear through my earmuffs.
When you think of India you think of heat - whether it is the country's temperature, or its food.
So how do people here cope with winter? Well, that varies from region to region.
When I asked a friend of mine from southern India they laughed as they replied: "We do not have a winter, it is always hot."
My family in Delhi - in the north, where the temperature really does drop - just shrugged their shoulders and said: "We are used to it".
They also have a few brandies (sometimes more than a few) to help them through the cold months.
But here in Calcutta, in the east, there is a different reaction.
This year the mercury dropped to 9C (48F) - balmy for London or New York in winter, but here it was the coldest day for 100 years.
Calcutta is known as the "city of joy". But believe me, on that day there was little of it in India's former capital.
And all across one of the world's biggest cities you could hear millions of mothers frantically telling their children "Toopi por, thanda lege jabe," which means, "Wear a hat, otherwise you will catch a cold."
To be fair, it is a phrase they can use even when the temperatures are as high as 20C (68F). Whatever the thermometer says people here start wrapping up warm in December and keep their hats on until February.
And they do not just wear any old hat - it has to be a monkey cap. I had never seen one until I came to Calcutta.
When I told my cousin this, he looked at me like I was mad.
"You live in England," he said. "Surely you must wear one even in the summer?"
When I explained that I was from Yorkshire, and that even on the coldest days some people only wear T-shirts, I thought he was going to faint.
After recovering all he could say was: "To think the British ruled us for so many years and they do not even know how to dress."
For those of you who have never seen a monkey cap here is a quick description. It is a thick woollen hat that totally covers your head, your neck and your ears.
The only parts which are open to the elements are the mouth, eyes and nose.
It has come to be known here in India as the Bengali topi or hat. Basically, it looks a bit like a balaclava.
When an American friend of mine landed at Calcutta airport recently, to be greeted by the sight of everyone walking about wearing one, he joked that he thought that he had walked into a city holding a bank robbers' convention.
This year there is also a new fashion accessory to accompany the monkey cap.
With the temperatures dipping even more, ear muffs are the new must-have.
From a distance, it looks like some older Bengalis are wearing huge headphones.
And it can lead to some comical scenes.
Recently I noticed two elderly gentlemen attempting to have a conversation. They both appeared to be wearing half their wardrobes to keep away the dreaded cold.
One of them was trying to speak, but his mouth was covered by a scarf and, anyway, his friend could not hear anything as he had huge ear muffs on.
I politely interrupted their attempted conversation and asked them why they did not just take their winter paraphernalia off for a few minutes, so they could understand each other.
One of them laughed and mumbled, "But then we might catch a cold, it is not worth taking a chance like that".
And that is what many here feel. Winter means staying in.
So, at night, streets in this crowded city are deserted, except for those who have to live on them. The homeless huddle around fires as they desperately try to keep warm.
It also means days start later. When I asked my wife why she was going to work at 10am rather than 9am, she replied that everyone was coming to work late - because it was cold.
And that is what you have to do in Calcutta in the winter.
Anyway, I have to go and get ready. Now, what colour monkey hat should I wear today?
How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent:
BBC Radio 4: Saturdays at 11:30 and some Thursdays at 11:00
BBC World Service: Short editions Monday-Friday - see World Service programme schedule.