Walking on snow

The first rule is not to take giant strides. The second, to walk along the path taken before you, following footsteps

People amid heavy snowfall in Oslo. Photo: Paul Kleiven/Reuters
People amid heavy snowfall in Oslo. Photo: Paul Kleiven/Reuters

The runway stretched out like a dark line surrounded by glimmering frost. From my plane’s seat window, Oslo looked like Winter Wonderland. The airport terminal was being refurbished and instead of the air bridge, we would have to take the bus to the terminal.

We disembarked using the stairs. It had snowed all night, and the steps were slippery from ice. The handrail was freezing. I had left my woollen coat and gloves in the suitcase I had checked in, so I had to let my palms rest briefly on the railing as I tried to walk down the steps. Part of me wanted to run down because it was so cold and the bus seemed so far, but I remembered the horrible fall I had suffered the first time I had seen snowfall and had thought nothing of walking briskly on the surface, not realizing how slippery it could be. That was in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1983, when I slipped at the entrance of my dorm, learning to walk again on crutches for the next few weeks.

I knew a bit about walking on snow and I should have done better. In 1975, a bunch of school classmates and I had defied our head teacher’s instructions and made off for the top of Rohtang Pass with a Garhwali guide and one teacher. There were no cellphones or text messages then, and our head teacher was furious when he saw us returning hours later than expected, ignoring the exciting stories we wanted to tell him of how it felt sinking our feet in snow as we climbed.

Experiencing the New England winter had taught me to respect snow. I had learnt to walk sensibly by observing others. The first rule was not to take giant strides. The second, to walk along the path taken before you, following footsteps. The third, to step on untrodden snow, which was pure white, where your feet often went down softly, because the trodden path can get treacherously slippery as the surface turns wet. Robert Frost had a point—the road less travelled did make all the difference. The trick was not to put all your weight on each step. And the fourth rule, to keep moving, briskly. There were railings to hold on to, but they were often covered with fresh snow, and unless you had good leather gloves, the snow had the habit of seeping into your woollen gloves, leaving your fingers numb.

I recalled those old lessons as I walked down the stairs and into the bus. On the horizon were tall trees shorn of leaves, layered with frost, looking like Christmas decorations. As we drove from the airport to the city, the landscape was stark and white. The frost on the trees shone momentarily, capturing sunlight, as if someone had placed tiny diamonds on their bare branches, and little bits of grass and rocks tried to emerge above the carpet of white dust sprinkled on the fields. Then the wind came in unexpectedly and shook the trees and the snow clinging precariously on the branches would collapse, sending a flurry of snowflakes all around.

Thick fog had enveloped Oslo the next morning. The sky was a dull grey and visibility was poor. As I walked along to the edge of the fjord, it was difficult to see beyond a few feet. I could see the handrail disappear a few feet away. The water was grey and still, and the curtain of fog made it look viscous. I could not see where the water ended. I heard faint sounds of water parting and a sailboat emerged, moving slowly through the haze, but I did not see anyone in it. It felt like a scene from a ghost story. The water parted reluctantly as the boat moved. Within moments, it had disappeared. Had I seen it, was it an apparition?

My mind went back to that afternoon I had spent in Bangladesh a couple of years ago, at the Tagore family estate, known as Shilaidaha Kuthibari, when there was only Bengal, and entities like India, Pakistan or Bangladesh had not yet emerged to mark out territories. I had gone to the Padma river later that evening, and as the sky turned golden at the twilight hour, I had seen a boatman disappear in the mist. It was grey that afternoon in Oslo, and another boat had disappeared.

It was too cold to contemplate poetry at that moment. The temperature dropped further, and the only flash of gold I saw was later that night, when the yellow lights along the water shone, trying to pierce through the fog.

Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.

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