The other day my better half returned from her trip to the bazaar, laden with a couple of huge plastic bags, each containing what is commonly referred to as a ‘comforter’. Now a ‘comforter’ is exactly what its name signifies, it is warm (thanks to a form of synthetic wool), soft in texture and light in weight.  That night as I slid into the warm embrace of our day’s acquisition, my mind flew back to a time, when the heavy quilted ‘lehaf’ reigned supreme and fortified all and sundry against cold weather.

The onset of autumn and winter in the Sub Continent was an event celebrated with great aplomb. It began with the extraction of warm apparel and bedding items from steel and wooden storage boxes. This bedding consisted of three types of quilts, each type customized to the weather and temperature. The lightest of these was a ‘dolai’ or a coverlet that was made by quilting two layers of material with no woolen stuffing in between.

As nights became chillier, another item of bedding would make its appearance. This was the ‘tillai’ or as the name denotes, three layers of material quilted together. One of these layers was sometimes reinforced with thin cotton wool stuffing. When cold made the use of a ‘tillai’ uncomfortable, it was time to bring out the heavy stuff - the ‘lihaf’. This consisted of two layers of sturdy material (ranging between cotton to velvet) stuffed with a thick layer of cotton wool and was classified according to the weight of the stuffing. 

The cotton wool used for insulating a ‘lihaf’ could be refreshed every year using the services of a character known as ‘panjira’. Our particular ‘panjira’ would trudge up the drive, carrying a large contraption, resembling a giant musical single chord instrument, on his shoulder. The tautly stretched steel chord was inserted into what had been a matted pile of cotton wool (now somewhat un-matted by hand) and twanged. The action caused the cotton wool to disintegrate into fluffy pieces, which could be recycled back into the quilt. This twanging action also produced a loud flat note, which could be heard from quite a distance. All ‘panjiras’ carried out this fluffing exercise in a rhythmic action, producing an eerie music, which attracted neighborhood children in droves.

Frosty weather also initiated a change in Lahori domestic menus. Nihari and ‘payas (trotters) began popping up for Sunday breakfast and lunch. A favorite hot treat in our family was the ‘harira’ and its cousin the ‘gurumba’. The former was a liquid version of the traditional ‘halwa’, while the latter was essentially a ‘harira’ with green unripe mangoes added to it, in order to create a tangy effect.

Wintry weather also brought a change in popular street food in the ‘City of Gardens’. Hot Carrot Halwa replaced the cool ‘Gajrela’, while piles of ‘gajak’ (a sweet confection sprinkled with sesame seeds) appeared on hand pushed carts in the streets of the old city. It was during winter that the ‘das kulcha and lonchra’ shop in ‘Chauhatta Mufti Baqar’ inside the historic Mochi Gate did roaring business. This was so because the traditional method of enjoying these two particular breakfast items was (and still is) with steaming cups of salted Kashmiri Tea.

As the first winter showers drenched Lahore, people began flocking to the used apparel market known as Landa Bazaar. This particular venue provided quality second hand goods at affordable prices to a vast number of people from in and around Punjab’s capital city. This market became so popular and symbolic that it eventually became part of Punjabi vocabulary by way of expression.

The synthetic comforter pushed out the ‘lihaf’ from well to do urban communities and the ‘panjira’ with it. Mercifully this ‘desi’ quilt and the eerie music of the ‘panjira’ continue to survive in rural areas as a living emblem of our culture as do traditional winter foods.

The writer is a freelance columnist.