And Then the Smog Struck


And Then the Smog Struck

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Today, my cab driver and I – in an enclosed, air-conditioned Toyota Etios (second only to the Wagon R in terms of Uber circulation) – were doing this little round of jugalbandi. He sniffed out loud. Mazaa aa gaya, Pandit ji, I said, and wheezed in return. Waah, Ustaad, he said. Then he wheezed with greater force, so I sniffed a snotty sniff back. We both waited for a round of applause for our phlegmatic performance. Then we coughed in unison. After that, we rolled down our windows one after another, depositing – hacking out – a big, floaty, yellow-green chunk (each) of our lungs on to the street. It was poetry in motion.

Something weird is happening in Delhi, my city of birth, the love of my life. My people – and me (to a much lesser extent) – are actually doing something. Delhi is allegedly the single-most polluted city in the whole world right now, by quite a margin. And we’re talking about real, actual, scientific pollution with data and measurements and markers and studies and surveys and analyses here, not just the mental corruption that Delhi had already mastered years ago.

For once, just this once, we’re scared. We’ve woken up after a lifelong slumber of lethargy and lack of concern. We’re buying masks, for starters. Sitting down on the internet, asking around, sharing WhatsApp forwards, doing tangible research, to find out what is most effective. I just ordered a bunch of N99 masks off Flipkart for ₹225 each just to deal with what’s going on, after reading extensively on the subject. In the meanwhile, I’m trying to save money for air purifiers. Can you imagine? Air purifiers! Until as recently as a week ago, I believed these things to fall in the same category as wheel alloys or car spoilers, or sparkling water, or cuff-links, or shoe polish. Aka rich man’s unnecessary luxuries. But no. Here I am, thinking of spending a five-figure sum on a fucking air-purifier.

People are carpooling and actually considering public transport (yuck, so smelly and sweaty) instead of sitting in AC-ed cars and heading off for some much-needed hijinks. Or even choosing to sit at home. They’re asking questions of the government, and not in a vague “I want to appear to be a responsible adult citizen of my nation” way. Hell, they aren’t just asking questions; they’re even seeking answers. That too, in a point-by-point fashion, with clearly delineated tasks. Actions and results. Planning and execution. Fellow citizens are being implored to join in and fight against the perils of smog. Those who don’t abide are being named and shamed; same with the ones who burst crackers or exceed the acceptable carbon footprint, even the ones who choose to remain quiet.

Why is this happening now? I’ve always taken great pride in belonging to a passive race of people that prefers the joys of oblivious sleep. In remaining steadfastly indifferent and apathetic in the face of great turmoil. For as long as I’ve been alive, the people of Delhi have been mostly concerned with the abstract and vague, the frivolous, the doesn’t-quite-affect-us-much, the theoretical and the rhetorical. The anger has mostly been intellectual, rarely practical.

As always, it boiled down to a sense of entitlement and our ability to live in denial. “It’s those uneducated, nouveau-riche twits from Haryana and Punjab who’re too backward. It’s those barely-Indian northeastern folk who’re too modern and western.” We’ve blamed Pakistan and China and South Indians for everything that’s happening in the world. We’ve blamed Modi and Manmohan Singh for all that’s wrong in India; and Sheila Dikshit and Arvind *cough* *muffler* Kejriwal for any mishaps in the city. Even when 26/11 happened, as genuinely sad and angry as we felt, we were also secretly relieved that there’s no sea connecting Delhi to international waters. That all we have is the Yamuna, a gloriously water-free water body for nine months of the year, a puddle of black goo for the remaining three. The war, passionately as we may feel about it, has always been about faceless soldiers personifying our imaginary patriotism on the borders, where it actually matters. Individual opinions have always varied, naturally, but the level of proactivity, in terms of the critical mass (me included), has hovered around the zero range.

But then, a day before Diwali, the city was enveloped in this absurdly thick layer of haze. The pollution here, since, has been palpable.

Forget that; when there was a surge in crime in the city, we even managed to pin all culpability on to a fictitious, fairy-tale character we named “Monkey Man”.

But we’ve never actually done anything. At best, we’ve pointed out the flaws and the issues plaguing us; at worst, we’ve done our best to exploit them. We were always smug. Until the smog struck.

It started with the annual dengue outbreak a few months ago – something we’ve learnt to deal with. But that was followed by an unexpected chikungunya outbreak (which, in the Sood household, meant buying multiple big bottles of HIT on a twice-weekly basis). This was getting far too real, with only the looming prospect of Diwali offering some kind of respite.

But then, a day before Diwali, the city was enveloped in this absurdly thick layer of haze. The pollution here, since, has been palpable. And not in a vague, abstract sense where there’s stuff happening inside your chest cavity that you don’t really notice. This affects you real time, to the point where you can’t see your neighbour’s house through the thick haze and you have to read about 20-car pile-ups on the DND; where you realise you have lungs only because you can actually hear them screaming in pain; where the US elections don’t matter all that much. Where people wear masks even though they have no plans of doing something illegal.

Just this one time, we’re worried that what’s happening in the world is actually affecting us too. And for what it’s worth, we’re trying to do something about it, and it doesn’t entail using our influence or calling for back-up or eating butter chicken or treating women like shit. Maybe, just maybe, the people of the city are realising that we too may be at fault.

Yes, we’re only clutching at straws, grasping in the dark, throwing our toys out of the pram, scrambling for sanity. Who knows; maybe it’s too late. But it’s something.

So, congratulations Delhi, for pouring out into the streets like this (I mean metaphorically, of course.)

There is the teeny tiny question, though: Why not sooner? Committees and tribunals have cried themselves hoarse for years; environmentalists who’ve spoken about Delhi’s fetid air have been treated like modern-day Cassandras. Multiple reports over the years have been warning us about this inevitable slide downhill. Why even last year, when the first odd-even scheme was implemented and it was already bad enough, we mostly just bitched and moaned about the inconvenience. Loopholes were found; rules were flouted; even even-cars were exchanged with odd-cars. The second try at the scheme was laughed out of the city, along with the CM’s street cred.

What’s different now, to the point where schools have had to be shut down and the man on the street looks like an extra from a post-apocalyptic end-of-the-world film? Where is all this proactive behaviour coming from? Is it because we can see the #NoFilter mess in front of us, slapping us in the face repeatedly? Or because the invulnerable Dilliwala has finally realised that no amount of money, power, or influence can control the air we breathe?